The Case Against Online Audits

Flying in the face of all logic, the online audit reports we’ve developed in the interactive industry today appear very similar to those in the print media. They look like circulation reports, totaling up the gross number of folks who see a site, sometimes divvying up that number into unique users and a few other categories.

In traditional media, your ad placement goes out to everyone who received the publication or saw the TV show in which the ad was placed. So knowing about everyone who saw that publication or TV show is pretty important, if only to show how much wastage resulted.

This is no longer true.

On the Net, people buy individualized batches of media. A buyer might purchase 50,000 impressions from EfficientSite.com, targeted at folks who visit the job-search section. The buyer doesn’t care that the site experienced 500,000 impressions that week, or that they happened to come from Shriners in San Francisco.

Buyers Need More Specific Data

A buyer is concerned with a very particular set of impressions and the characteristics of those particular viewers. Audits do not provide this information. In fact, the only real, useful source of information on these folks tends to be the behavior they exhibit after seeing the ad — something traceable only on the client’s site (more on that in weeks to come).

In most cases, audits of site popularity and viewer characteristics do not, therefore, give buyers useful information. There are a very few instances when the audit numbers might come in handy — like calculating the average frequency of exposure a given user might experience with a certain media weight level — but, for the most part, this is esoteric stuff.

Two major problems exist with online audits:

  • They track the whole site but not individual media buys.

  • The methodologies they employ can differ quite drastically from site to site.

There does, indeed, exist a screaming need for audits in the online world. In particular, people buying impressions from Web sites need to know that they are, in fact, getting the right amount of media for their ads, and at the correct times and locations. Currently, they have to trust the site’s numbers, sometimes with the rough verification of their own agency-side banner servers. Today’s online audits, far from giving relevant buy information, give buyers the gross numbers of all buys, plus all the media the site didn’t even sell.

It gets worse.

Some auditing companies have come up with the solution of “certifying” sites. This means they look to make sure that a site’s measurement policies are followed, allowing the ad-reporting information they give agencies to be endorsed by the auditing company.

Auditing Companies Need Certification Standards

But the auditing companies allow standards to change from site to site, at the arbitrary behest of their individual site customers. This worked OK back in the world of financial audits because the IRS forced companies to obey a common set of principles: GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles. But there’s no equivalent to GAAP in the online advertising world. (A warning: People who send me emails suggesting that the Internet Advertising Bureau standards constitute such a standard will receive in return a lengthy rant as to why that is not so.)

Essentially, a site-certifying auditor merely ensures that a site obeys its own stated policies, no matter how flawed they may be.

If a site decides to have an ad-reporting process of lying, cheating, stealing, and inventing numbers arbitrarily to cover it up, then the auditing company comes in to ensure that this process gets obeyed. This site will fail the audit only if it mistakenly perpetrates honest behavior.

I was an early witness to the devolution in the online audit business. As an agency person, I watched in the mid-90s as the competitors in the audit industry strove to gain market share. The pressure forced the companies to adopt the policies most appealing to their customers, the sites. The agency people just weren’t sophisticated enough at the time to see the wool being pulled over their eyes.

Frankly, agency people generally remain pretty clueless about online audits. They frequently just look to see that one has been done — period. It’s a little check-off item that they falsely assume implies an additional degree of accuracy.

When an agency media buyer asked me recently if media buyers should require their sites to be audited, I likened audits to defective seat-cushion flotation devices in jetliners. Not only does everyone know that they’re superfluous, but even if you did survive the impact of a crash and the ensuing fire and/or cold water, the cushion wouldn’t even float.

Sites should not be given extra credence for providing generalized audit reports. They should get extra credit only if they are able to give you information relevant to your particular buy. Hopefully, by exerting this sort of tough love on the sites, we will force auditors to set more relevant standards.

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