Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis has prompted a statistical battle between the national newspapers after controversially claiming his paper has now overtaken The Guardian on UK web traffic.
His claim — which has been disputed by both The Guardian and The Times — would overturn years of dominance for The Guardian, which gained a huge head-start in the online race by launching Guardian Unlimited in 1999 and devoting more resources to it than its competitors. Lewis, who was appointed Telegraph editor last month, said in an Observer interview that according to consultancy Hitwise, Telegraph.co.uk had more unique British users than any other UK newspaper website in the second and third quarters of this year.
Telegraph online editorial director Edward Roussel said that the Telegraph has more "visitors" than other newspaper websites, although this could include the same people coming back.
He said: "These figures are based on the number of visits to the website — it means we've got a pretty loyal base of readers in the UK. You could say that the strength of The Guardian website is its global audience and the strength of our website is the UK audience."
He added: "It's far easier to commercialise a tightly focused audience than a disparate global audience."
According to Hitwise, The Telegraph was the top newspaper website in September, based on market share of website visitors.
It ranked Telegraph.co.uk first with 4.99 per cent, followed by Times Online on 4.45 per cent, Guardian Unlimited (4.35 per cent), The Sun Online (4.22 per cent) and the Dailymail.co.uk (2.69 per cent).
But the editor-in-chief of Times Online, Anne Spackman, has hit back at Lewis's claim for pole position and said that The Times had themselves previously rejected the Hitwise methodology.
She told Press Gazette: "No two methods of website measurement will give you the same figures — but they do put us in order. That is one, the BBC, two The Guardian, an ever-closer number three, The Times, and on number four, The Telegraph.
"We use Hitbox as our main measurement because it most closely tracks our own figures and it is based on computer tracking measurements."
In a reference to the number of free copies of The Telegraph which are given away to increase its print edition ABC sales figure, she said: "I'm wondering if The Telegraph has discovered the online equivalent of bulks?"
She said that The Times is investing heavily in content and expressed surprise that in the recent round of redundancies at The Telegraph it had let go of one of its multimedia experts. Guardian director of digital content Emily Bell said: "Web statistics are propbably not as robust as they could be, there are many different measures. "By the most widely accepted measures The Telegraph are still some way behind us as is The Times."
The Guardian pointed out that according to figures provided by research company comScore, in September 2006 Guardian Unlimited had 2,929,000 unique UK users compared with 1,220,000 for Telegraph.co.uk.
ABC Electronic does audit website figures, but websites don't all report their audited figures with the same frequency.
ABCe shows Guardian Unlimited as the clear leader overall, with 12.7 million unique users globally over the course of October — or 679,173 per day. But it does not break down the figures on a country-by-country basis.