Web Audience Measurement Clouds Build, Few Signs of Clearing in ’08

Talk of online audience measurement reached a crescendo in 2007. Publishers, advertisers and measurement firms grappled with significant shifts in how Web content is published and how users interact with it. Publishers pumped up the complaint volume about reporting discrepancies. And the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) demanded the two biggest online measurement firms shed light on their methods.

While baby steps were taken in ’07 to adjust audience measurement for a maturing Web, publishers remain disgruntled, Internet users continue to explore new means of consuming digital media, and, for better or worse, agencies have more and more data to decipher.

Perhaps the most significant event in the space occurred in April. In an impassioned missive addressed to the CEOs of online measurement firms ComScore and Nielsen/NetRatings (now Nielsen Online), IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg expressed dismay and frustration with discrepancies in site audience and ad impression reports. Calling for impartial audits of the firms’ methodologies, the new IAB chief voiced his surprise that the main Web audience measurement systems employ panels, “a media-measurement technique invented for the radio industry exactly seven decades ago.”

Web publishers, which comprise the bulk of the IAB’s membership, have long dealt with audience measurement reporting discrepancies between their own site-side numbers and those from Nielsen Online and ComScore, contending those firms’ panel-based measures underreport the number of users visiting their sites or mistake audience demographics. Advertisers and agencies insist publishers use third party reports to validate claims about the size and makeup of their audiences.

Spanish media outfit Prisa has filed a lawsuit against Nielsen in a New York court, claiming Nielsen’s underreporting of its site audiences resulted in “serious damages” from ad revenue loss. Major League Baseball’s MLB.com President and CEO Bob Bowman also recently took aim at Nielsen, stating in a press release,”we remain disappointed with the grossly inaccurate traffic reporting by Nielsen Online.”

Both ComScore’s and Nielsen Online’s systems are undergoing full audits by outside auditors, monitored by the Media Ratings Council, a media industry-funded auditing service created in the 1960s by the U.S. Congress to create broadcast ratings standards.

While publishers gripe about mismatched panel-based numbers, the need for new gauges for online audience interaction is evident. Increased use of streaming video, music and online games on publisher sites or within other points of distribution across the Web is diminishing accuracy of metrics like unique visitors and pageviews. Media diffusion in widgets and small sites not easily picked up by panel-based systems, along with proliferation of technologies such as AJAX and Flash that dynamically alter content without the need to refresh Web pages, spurred ComScore and Nielsen to introduce new metrics this year.

ComScore unveiled new “visits” metrics for tracking the number of times a unique site visitor accesses content within a Web property, in addition to new reports showing the number of display ads viewed by particular audience segments. The firm also launched an initiative with blog publisher Federated Media to provide metrics appropriate for measuring blogs and other conversational media.

Nielsen launched its own “total minutes” and “total sessions” metrics this year, aiming to measure site audience volume more accurately. The company also announced an online video measurement service based on panel and census data this year.

“We need a much greater sample” to measure online user interaction, said Bill Tancer, GM global research at Hitwise, arguing panel-based measurements are becoming obsolete as people flock to smaller sites. Hitwise aggregates anonymous user data gathered through ISPs.

“The existing measurement solutions don’t facilitate the level of granularity and tracking that this very complex media marketplace is going to require as it evolves,” said Adam Gerber, CMO of Quantcast, a firm that combines panel and directly measured site data. Gerber believes the ultimate online audience measurement system will provide real-time audience interaction data that can work in conjunction with ad targeting.

The question remains whether advertisers and their media planning agencies will have the wherewithal to put all these emerging data sets to use. “There is a danger of data overload,” said Gerber.

Though he’d prefer more rather than less data, David Smith, CEO of integrated media agency Mediasmith said, “We need better tools all the time to parse the data.” Those tools, suggested Smith, will come in the form of Web analytics dashboards that allow for data to flow from the ad planning to buying to execution to post campaign analysis stages. “In the next year or two, dashboards to handle this data will be a big story,” he continued.

In the meantime, the IAB hopes to refine the processes already in place. According to David Dody, SVP thought leadership and public communications at the IAB, its Audience Measurement Working Group will release guidelines in 2008 defining terms like unique visitors, pageviews and time spent, and reviewing factors that can tarnish panel-based measurements such as cookie deletion and Web spiders.

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