As it revs up for updates to its Web service, Microsoft fires anothercontroversial shot at rival portals Yahoo! and AOL.
Gearing up to unleash MSN 8 this fall, Microsoft is touting the draw of its portal with new figures that could put it ahead of Yahoo as the world's most trafficked Internet destination.
Microsoft Thursday released the results of a PricewaterhouseCoopers audit that found MSN drew more than 300 million monthly unique users worldwide between Feb. 1, 2002 and May 31, 2002.
The numbers stack up favorably against Yahoo, which in July reported 238 million unique users for the month of June. And in May, Nielsen//NetRatings said Yahoo had topped the list of most-trafficked Internet destinations for the 24th consecutive month (based on unique audience, total time spent and total page views).
"It's significant for MSN to be able to report numbers that have been validated by a highly respected firm such as PricewaterhouseCoopers," said Bob Visse, director of MSN at Microsoft. "Our growth in reach illustrates how new and existing customers are becoming increasingly engaged with the useful services and content MSN offers. This kind of momentum only adds to the excitement leading up to the launch of MSN 8."
PricewaterhouseCoopers' audit consisted of a series of inspections verifying compliance with the Interactive Advertising Bureau's measurement guidelines relating to the definition and method of measuring unique users.
But the latest shot in the long-running war between MSN and Yahoo over Web traffic also continues to highlight the fact that there's little consensus among online publishing players on how, exactly, to measure that traffic.
Despite the involvement of analysts at one of the world's largest accounting firms – whose methodology has received votes of confidence from trade associations like the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), which employs PwC to study Internet-wide ad spending – MSN's newest numbers differ wildly from those of other traffic-trackers held in high regard by the industry.
For instance, comScore Media Metrix, while still placing the network of MSN/Microsoft sites above Yahoo, has reported completely different numbers. In July, it scored the MSN/Microsoft sites with 89.8 million unique monthly visitors, while counting 83.4 million unique monthly visitors for Yahoo. comScore also ranked the AOL Time Warner network (both proprietary and properties on the Web) higher than either, with 97.9 million unique monthly visitors.
In large part, such differences come down to methodology: while PwC audited Microsoft's server-side process for counting traffic, NetRatings and comScore each use a sampling panel, similarly to the way that television audiences are calculated.
Problems also arise because the industry also has not yet standardized on a single standard of auditing Web traffic, as numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Business of Performing Audits, and third-party Web site traffic analyzers like WebSideStory all are in wide use by major sites and media buyers. Compared to these firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers has earned a reputation as more of a process auditor than an actual compiler of site traffic figures.
Additionally, the Interactive Advertising Bureau's definitions for measuring unique visitors – on which the PWC audit is based – have come under fire for being too loose. The IAB is working with the Audit Bureau of Circulations and other groups to address the charge.
Microsoft's new figures come as it girds for war against AOL once again with the upcoming release of MSN 8, which for the first time will be available, for a fee, to consumers who use ISPs other than MSN Internet Access. The service, which has been in beta since mid-July, will feature a "dashboard" which users can customize to their tastes, and also bundles a number of pay-services like bill-paying services, digital photo tools, and access to the Encarta encyclopedia. The MSN ISP boasts about 8 million subscribers, as opposed to the 34 million AOL holds.
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