Audience Measurement Still in Flux as Quantcast Data Gets Certified

Online audience firm Quantcast received certification from the Media Rating Council for the key component of its measurement service. Meanwhile, as some Quantcast metrics remain unaccredited, rivals comScore and Nielsen Online are undergoing a lengthy process with the MRC begun years ago.

Quantcast’s Quantified Publisher program, which directly measures the site audiences of publishers that place Quantcast’s tracking tag on their sites, was given the MRC seal of approval.

Quantcast began its audit in September 2008. According to Quantcast CEO Konrad Feldman, the firm chose not to undergo certification of its site traffic estimates, because they are not directly measured, and therefore not as valuable to clients trying to make sense of digital audiences. The company’s audience demographics – though directly measured – also did not undergo an audit. Feldman added that the company does not believe panel-based methods – such as those offered by Nielsen and comScore – result in reliable digital audience data.

“We learned along the way that there were things we could improve, and did so to get to the point of accreditation,” said Feldman. For instance, he said the company enhanced algorithms for detecting multiple tags on a page, and sniffing out page impressions generated through auto refresh.

The certification pleased the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which called it a milestone that will help establish more credibility in online advertising metrics. The IAB – whose membership is comprised primarily of digital publishers – has a vested interest in how site audiences are measured, because reliable audience data is key to online ad sales. Publishers have long complained about inaccuracies of data provided by the leading third-party systems, comScore and Nielsen. The trade group cares so much about certification of the systems used to measure online audiences that it publicly demanded that comScore and Nielsen subject their site measurement processes to a rigorous MRC accreditation process.

In April 2007, IAB President Randall Rothenberg sent a letter demanding the measurement firms shed light on their otherwise opaque methods for tracking site traffic, demographics, and audience profiles. The letter claimed growth of the online ad industry could be stunted if marketers become more frustrated with discrepancies in site audience and ad impression reports.

Soon thereafter, comScore and Nielsen agreed to undergo MRC audits. Quantcast was less known in 2007 and since has become a bigger player in the audience measurement space. Since then, the firm has received multiple funding rounds, introduced new offerings for advertisers and agencies, and recently opened an office in the U.K.

ComScore has only just completed the third phase of what it says is a lengthier and more involved five-phase Media Metrix system audit. According to Josh Chasin, comScore’s chief research officer, the company expects to complete the final phase of the Media Metrix audit by late this year or early next year.

A less-involved audit of comScore’s own publisher-centric measurement system – its answer to Quantcast’s Quantified Publisher program – will be completed by early July, Chasin told ClickZ News.

“The ratings service audit process is just a whole different animal from the [direct site centric] audit,” said Chasin.

In October 2008, Nielsen announced that it had completed the first of its multi-phase certification process. It is unclear what stage Nielsen’s audit is in. The company did not respond to ClickZ’s inquiry in time for publication.

The MRC acts as a liaison between the company undergoing the audit and the CPA firm performing it. Once the audits are complete, MRC members evaluate the methodologies to determine whether or not to accredit them.

UPDATE: The story was changed to clarify the fact that Quantcast did not undergo an audit of its non-directly measured traffic estimates, as well as the fact that Quantcast’s audience demographic data is directly measured.

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