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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6 comments

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MLB info
Every pc at work I have seen that had malware on it only had cookies from MLB or websites from India or internal website.

Since our server was clean that leaves india webservers or MLB and I blame both and put a ban on both. Since then my network is nice and clean and trojan free.
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A View From the Other Side
Hi. I'm Josh Chasin, Chief Research Officer for comScore. A couple of things.

1. We always hear that site centric data actually reports a census of visits. The thing is, not all so-called "visits" are associated with visitors. Some quick examples: non-human traffic; RSS calls; tabbed browsing (if a user opens a browser and 5 tabs open simultaneously, each site logs a server call and thus a visit; us panel companies only log a visit when that darned human using the computer visits the site, by making the tab active.)

2. The biggest disparities between site and panel data are in the area of Uniques. There are many reasons why the two data sources differ, but it is instructive to understand the impact of cookie deletion, which we documented in a White Paper (go to our home page; you can't miss it.) Essentially, the disparity between site centric Unique counts and panel-derived Unique estimates can be pretty much entirely explained by the inflation of site centic numbers caused by multi-counting the same visitor if he/she shows up again having deleted the site's cookie.

To be clear: the differences in Uniques are a function of publisher data classifying a return visitor as a new one.

(Indeed, average daily Unique data from panels and site logs is far closer, because the impact of cookie deletion grows over the course of a month and is almost negligible for a day.)

3. On exclusion of cell-only households-- I agree. This is an egregious problem. But it only affects Nielsen, not comScore; in fact 19% of our panel comes from cell only households. I hope MLB finds our data to be more to their liking than that of our competitor. (And may I just say, Let's Go Mets!)

Cheers.

--josh--
Posted by jchasin (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Quantcast delivers!
I've become a big fan of QuantCast in recent months because it's
a free service, it uses a panel and has its own tracking codes for
a more accurate analysis. The stats are pretty close to my own
server logs and almost exactly the same as Google Analytics -
give or take a percent or two.

From my understanding a visit is counted in minutes and
pageviews. When somebody opens several browser tabs from
the same site, then the number of pageviews per visit might be
inflated but the visit length remains unaffected, and therefore
the overall visit number is accurate.

Before the dot-com bubble, I was able to afford getting traffic
stats through large companies (PCData) but it cost $30000+ a
year. QuantCast gives me the same information and more for
free. Back then, it seemed that you would only be included in
"official" traffic rankings when you were also a paying member -
- otherwise small networks were excluded from those ratings as
the audit companies had no way to link various sites to the same
publisher.

QuantCast allows you to group all your sites together to form a
network account and get aggregated traffic stats. This is very
important for small publishing houses with many sites. Using
this approach, my network of sites has a traffic rank of around
7600 of all web sites (1.1 million uniques/month:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.quantcast.com/p-6btf0Pyh9xonk" target="_newWindow">http://www.quantcast.com/p-6btf0Pyh9xonk</a>).

There is still room for improvement on QuantCast, though:

- calculating the ranking on a worldwide basis instead of
ranking according to U.S. traffic.

- a filter to exclude the sites in the adult business (to get a
ranking of advertiser friendly G/PG-rated sites)

- creation of sub-categories and filters, e.g. ranking by
male/female visitors (my audience is 75% female) which would
allow advertisers to easily drill down in the rankings to find
suitable sites.

I guess those features will be delivered over time... advertisers
should complement the data they get from comScore, Nielsen
etc. with other sources like QuantCast, Hitwise, Compete, Alexa
to get an overall picture of a site's traffic. Another possibility is
to check the Google Adwords traffic prediction tools for sites
that accept Adwords ads...

The more options there are, the better the understanding of
traffic patterns becomes...

Joe.
Posted by joebuff75 (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
But the problem persists for many other Web sites competing for advertising dollars in an environment where the difference between being ranked fourth or fifth in a category can directly impact the bottom line.

Being undercounted by the audience measurement firms costs publishers advertising deals and threatens their ad-based businesses. <b><a href="http://pspgames247.com">free psp games</a></b>
Posted by modthocn (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
modthocn has a very valid point, the fundemental difference in 1 ranking place can mean alot to some companies. I for one have experienced it through my site &lt;a href=http://something4free.net&gt;Free DSi&lt;/a&gt;
and find it irrating, but there isnt much you can do but try SEO etc to eventually gain one over your rivals. The internet is a very competative marketplace now, and the search engines are the places to be in terms of marketing. You top a few kewords and you should be sorted.
Posted by Free_DSi (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Great article measurement accuracy is vital.

Just today I found several different measures of my site traffic none of which gel with my own stats.
Will
&lt;a href="http://www.themarketingmentor.com"&gt;Internet Marketing Consultant&lt;/a&gt;
Posted by willo181 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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