Yahoo!, MSN Spar Over Traffic Figures

As advertising dollars continue remaining elusive, two of the biggest players in online media — MSN and Yahoo — are trading veiled jabs over the accuracy of each other’s claim to be the dominant portal.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo touched off the latest tiff during its third quarter conference call, during which president and chief operating officer Jeff Mallett touted new figures by Nielsen//NetRatings that showed Yahoo in the lead with more than 210 million unique users worldwide during September.

“Once again, Nielsen//NetRatings ranked Yahoo the number one global property on the Web, with the highest numbers of unique users and the greatest worldwide reach,” he said. “In addition, according to Nielsen, Yahoo users across the global stayed longer, spending an average of 74 minutes per month, up from 61 minutes the previous quarter. And in the U.S., we topped 147 minutes, up from 119.”

Not so, says Microsoft’s MSN. In a press release issued the following day, the Redmond, Wash.-based portal said it was the industry leader, and cited figures from Alley-based Web researcher Jupiter Media Metrix — a competitor to Nielsen — to boot. According to its statement, MSN received 270 million unique visitors during September.

“The growing popularity of our services such as communications, search and shopping is proof that consumers recognize the value of MSN,” said MSN vice president Yusuf Mehdi. “In particular, that consumers are using MSN Search over Yahoo, one of the pioneers in Web directories, is a great affirmation of our strategy and focus.”

This isn’t the first time that there’s been a difference in opinion between the two Web leaders. Last July, MSN claimed that it had surpassed Yahoo’s traffic (“MSN Becomes Top Web Destination Worldwide”). Since then, Microsoft not only has touted the feat (based on Jupiter’s figures) frequently and loudly, but MSN in recent months has begun saying that it brings in more advertising revenue than Yahoo.

“MSN claimed the No. 1 worldwide Web destination ranking over a year ago, and we have continued to build best-of-breed services that are not just easy or widely available, but incredibly useful services that people rely on every day,” Mehdi said.

Yahoo, naturally, sees this differently. During his talk, Mallett took a shot at what he described as non-standard traffic-counting metrics by competitors.

“If we measured our audience the same way some of our competitors do, our number of unique user count in September would be 389 million, compared to the 210 million we’ve reported — that’s 55 percent larger than our nearest competitor,” he said.

The problem, of course, comes down to even longer-running disputes between the methodologies of the research firms. Now, like their media clients, those companies are feeling the pressure of a difficult market prompted by the disappearance of most of their dot-com clientele — and facing greater competition for fewer dollars as a result.

But the issue has serious ramifications for online advertising. Yahoo, as chief executive Terry Semel described, is striving to roll out marketing deals that touch on different sections of the company’s portal. Microsoft, similarly, is heavily promoting its Advantage Marketing initiative, which bundles research, rich media ad formats and Microsoft consulting and technology with online inventory.

Naturally, as the success of both competitors’ efforts rely heavily on scale, proving that each is the biggest player in the industry is seen as key to landing new advertising wins from national brands.

Indeed, its such of such paramount importance that Mallett promises he’s not through presenting his case that competitors’ statistics are inflated.

“You will hear more about this in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

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