February 20, 2008 12:58 PM PST
Doing a number on Web site traffic
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Publishers complain that the ComScore and Nielsen Online panels have inadequate representation from international and Macintosh users and that panel data shortchanges Web sites that have AJAX and Flash content, such as those with videos and widgets, which changes dynamically without the page being refreshed. They also argue that panel data doesn't accurately measure peoples' surfing activity at work and ignores cell phone-only households.
The last point hits home for sites like MLB.com, which gets a lot of traffic from people sneaking peeks on sports scores and news during breaks at the office when they are supposed to be working.
Representatives at Nielsen Online and ComScore say that server log data will always be inflated because one person surfing on different computers from home and work can be recorded as two people, just like someone using two different browsers visiting the same site can. In addition, they point out that some people delete cookies (user data stored on their Web browser), which allows for one person to be counted as multiple users.
Server log data shows information for only one site, while panel data shows traffic trends across the Web, said Josh Chasin, ComScore chief research officer. Advertisers and agencies want to see how traffic is at comparable sites before they choose where to buy ad space, he said.
But then there are also wild variations between ComScore and Nielsen Online's panel data, which further muddies the waters.
Better information for advertisers
The IAB doesn't expect the audits and guidelines to neatly resolve the problem, but it is expected to provide more transparency as to exactly how the figures are reached so marketers can make more informed decisions about where they want to advertise, said the IAB's Doty.
Doty suggested that both types of data could be used to come up with the most accurate and comprehensive measurement. "I could see server-side data being about (traffic) numbers and the panel side being about measuring behavior, demographics, and ethnographics," he said. "There can be a convergence."
He wasn't alone in making that prediction. Bill Cook, senior vice president of research and standards at the Advertising Research Foundation, said invisible tags embedded in Web pages that track user activity could be used in conjunction with user panels.
Google Analytics, which uses Web tags, tracks closely to internal Web publisher server data and could fill in the gap between the publisher and third-party statistics. "The IAB is saying these guys need to be up to date with what's happening on the Web if they are going to be reporting on it," said Brett Crosby, group product marketing manager for Google Analytics.
Nielsen Online has developed a new product, called VideoCensus, that incorporates both server log data and panel measurements, which also use embedded tags for measuring video streams.
A company called Quantcast also could offer an answer. The company offers rankings and figures using a hybrid approach that combines traffic data directly from 22,000 publishers with panel-based data from more than one million people, including survey-based information.
"People are looking for an alternative and a better data set," said Adam Gerber, Quantcast chief marketing officer.
Another company, Compete, is trying to take on ComScore and Nielsen Online by using data from a panel of consumers who are paid to take surveys, and from traffic data from ISPs. However, no data is directly gathered from publishers, as it is with Quantcast.
In the meantime, everyone is looking to the IAB to call the play.
"The solution is to come up with some sort of plan, like they did with magazines, to audit the true circulation or true traffic," said MLB's Bowman. "We're beseeching them to do it right."
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