Sticky eyeballs, I always thought, were those rubbery, bloodshot spheres that young boys throw at one another for the “eewww” effect. Thrown right, the blobs sometimes even stick to a window, prolonging any pre-adolescent smirks.

But now, for reasons unbeknownst to me, someone in the Web marketing world has purloined the adjective “sticky” and attached it to “eyeballs” and decided the resulting phrase means people who spend a bunch of time on a Web site.

Before completely excoriating “sticky” because of its attachment to “eyeballs” I should also note that the word stands alone a lot of the time, in various forms. Some people claim their company has the “stickiest Web site in its category.” Some people rate their site’s “stickiness factor” by the average number of minutes customers spend there. Some marketers simply ask, “Is your site sticky?” meaning do people “stick around” once they land on your home page and spend time drilling down to other parts of the site? Sites prefer these viewers because the sites can tell advertisers that these folks get a lot of exposure to their ads. Vendors like them because, if you don’t have enough viewers, they can sell you services to improve your site and thus raise your stickiness quotient.

So if sticky eyeballs conjures up images of monsters on Halloween, a sticky Web site, at least, is more apropos. It implies a captive audience — bugs stuck on flypaper or ensnared in a spider’s web. And we know there’s no shortage of Web terms that borrow from our arachnid friends.

But using “sticky” to refer to a Web concept is still something of a sticky matter. I’m not convinced there’s a consensus on what it means.

Some research supports that it refers to how long viewers spend on a site. But others have used it to mean a site that draws traffic, a site viewers come back to or where customers buy and don’t just browse. All may be related issues, but they’re not the same.

Now if that argument doesn’t send up the proverbial red flag, consider the following:

Civilian usages such as a sticky situation, a sticky issue and sticky business imply conflict and disagreeability; that’s not the Web message you want to send.

On the technology side, sticky has some discrete uses — in Unix, for instance. If the sticky bit is set on a directory, only the owner of the file or root can delete or rename a file in that directory. Unix-executable files also have a sticky bit, which tells the kernel to keep the code loaded in memory even after the code has finished executing, on the assumption that it will be used again soon.

I also need to make my usual argument that most of the world isn’t as Web-savvy as you are and may come up with even more possibilities from the above as to what sticky means.

Might it mean a site accessed by a touch screen? A site that gathers data about visitors and even sends code out to their machines so it will automatically recognize them the next time (cookies)?

Customers, users and business colleagues want to understand what you’re talking about. So unless one day “sticky” becomes standard Web speech with a common definition (and in this Web age, even I must accept that could happen), if you must use it, define what you mean. (Your audience will stick with you as a result.)

McCrory is the assistant business editor of ComputerWorld in Framingham, Mass. She can be reached at