Web traffic

Upstart Challenges ComScore, Nielsen Web-Traffic Counts

Quantcast will this week begin offering people-based traffic counts for its sites, a hybrid of panel-based data and cookie-based metrics, using a statistical formula to account for often-cited inconsistencies when cookies are used to measure web traffic.

ComScore and Nielsen Online use panel data to determine not only how many people visit websites, but also who those people are. They argue that the panels are necessary because they provide a clear picture of demographics, which is essential for media planners. But critics say that as online media continues to fragment, the panels simply cannot be considered reliable for measuring small and medium-sized sites.

Publishers, on the other hand, tout audience figures gleaned from their own servers, using analytics products from companies such as Google, Omniture or Coremetrics. These cookie-based tracking systems tend to report higher numbers than ComScore and Nielsen because if people delete their cookies they are counted as new users again. If users access a site from multiple computers, they are counted multiple times. Alternatively, if several people use the same computer, they are only counted once.

But publishers hoping the new service will prove their numbers right probably won’t get their wish.

“There is no single answer as to whether our data will be higher or lower,” said Adam Gerber, chief marketing officer at Quantcast. “Panel services base the audience on their sample. And there are many sites where the sample is accurate, but there are other sites where the panel may not be enough. … It all depends on the biases that affect panel service estimates, and whether they underestimate or overestimate traffic.”

Quantcast uses statistical analysis to account for cookie deletion and other issues typically associated with census measurement, extrapolating demographics from its 1.5 million-person panel. He claims that deleting cookies varies greatly depending on the type of site. A messaging site that a person visits daily or multiple times per day will have a high variance between server data and panel data. A referral site such as About, on the other hand, has fewer frequent visitors and is less likely to be affected by the deletion of cookies.

“At first glance, the claim sounds good…but show me that you can actually enter the market with many established players,” said Vipin Mayar, global executive vice president of data and analytics at
MRM Worldwide. He said the two parties that could be 800-pound gorillas in space are Google and ISPs, though neither has indicated he’ll go to market with a measurement tool (and both could face conflicts of interest or confidentiality issues).

Be that as it may, audience measurement is progressing. A year ago, the Interactive Advertising Bureau called for more clarity, going so far as to advocate census-based traffic counts. Since then, ComScore and Nielsen have been subject to audits by the Media Ratings Council, and Quantcast recently announced that it will allow the MRC to audit its panel.

Chris Parkin, senior manager at Omniture, said a few smart publishers are already merging panel-based or CRM data with data from their own analytics tools. Quantcast’s multi-pronged approach to audience measurement is the way to go, he said, but “there are some pretty significant barriers to entry”.

The new data is available to publishers who participate in Quantcast’s quantified program, which means they’ve placed a small piece of code that tracks visits to their sites. “We recognized early on that the panels weren’t the end of the story,” CEO Konrad Feldman said. “They’re useful, but you also really need a direct measurement solution.”