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ABCi's Scrutiny of Web Site Stats Could Help Heal Ailing Online Ad Industry
By Andrew Goodman, August 10, 2001

"Trust, but verify": this may soon become the motto of the online advertising business. We clearly have the technology to accurately track online traffic patterns. But there is a social and behavioral aspect to this as well. As with any playing field populated by a multitude of self-interested players, we not only need officials to watch over the game, we need to know if anyone is watching the watchers.

ABC Interactive Audits doesn't pull any punches when it comes to identifying a key source of the malaise that has overtaken online publishing. On its web site, it prominently displays the slogan "bringing credibility to the web."

Credibility has been a missing ingredient in the business of measuring exactly how much traffic web publishers are generating. To this point, a variety of methods have been used to track user activity on web sites: third-party software provided by web hosts and advertising middlemen; panel-based measurement services such as Media Metrix and Nielsen/Netratings; and so forth. While these methodologies may be more or less impartial, they aren't necessarily impartial or accurate in all cases.

Since these methods can be called "third party"measurement, the tendency has been to accept them as fair and accurate. But some advertisers have become sceptical of online publishers' traffic claims of late, making a tough sell -- pricey impression-based online advertising -- even tougher.

Just as advertisers have grown weary of deceptive measurement practices, quality publishers have grown tired of the scepticism. A fourth party audit seems like it would provide just the shot in the arm of credibility needed by the beleaguered online advertising industry.

This is where ABC Interactive comes in. Auditors such as this employ statistical tests and risk assessment methods to check and double check the reliability of information being collected. According to Dick Bennett, ABCi's Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, third parties "don't always address the risks" when measuring clickthrough and site traffic patterns. In a realm which has seen all the tricks, including software programs which can create bogus traffic which fools third-party tracking systems, something close to a forensic audit can help to ascertain the likelihood that the statistics being collected are valid, and that visits to a site are genuine visits conforming to reasonable real-world patterns. Bennett was instrumental in the design of ABCi's "independent authentication of Web site activity" which "creates a tamper-proof log file and forms the basis for an objective, unobtrusive online audit that helps advertisers ensure they're getting what they paid for."

This can benefit publishers because they can confidently report their real traffic numbers. In some cases these can be higher than they're given credit for by third party software or panel-based measurement services.

ABC Interactive has a solid foundation in the business of auditing circulation numbers for the advertising industry. Its parent company, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has been monitoring newspaper and magazine circulation since 1914.

According to ABCi management, panel-based online metrics services such as Media Metrix are particularly suspect from a methodological standpoint in that their results depend too heavily on the representativeness of the selected panel. Web sites are often much more specific than, say, network television shows. Geographic specificities, for example, may not be caught by an insufficiently granular method, since almost no one outside a particular city would visit that city's major newspaper web sites. The "at work"panels may be particularly unrepresentative, since they depend on the willingness of employers to allow their staff's surfing habits to be monitored.

ABC Interactive is endorsed by a major advertising standards body, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), and is working to push its parent company's reputation for building trust in the print advertising industry into the online field. So far, they've largely provided their services to small and medium-sized publishers who believe their stats are being underreported. In addition, ABCi has alliances with web measurement services such as WebSideStory and Webtrends. Working towards making the package affordable for small and medium-sized clients, says Bennett, is a key challenge for ABCi at the moment.

There is much yet to be done to restore confidence in online traffic reporting. Click-based advertising models, for example, have begun to come under scrutiny. Small flareups of fraudulent activity and a general sense of unease have dogged pay-per-click search provider GoTo.com. Recently, Commission Junction, a leading market maker for online affiliate programs, suspended all pay-per-click programs. By its own admission, CJ was forced into this move by "rampant fraud" -- phony clicks being used to line affiliates' pockets at advertisers'expense. If pay-per-click models can be strengthened to the point where they stand up to the scrutiny of a "fourth party"auditor such as ABC Interactive, then they'll deserve to flourish. Until then, however, there is nothing stopping the advertiser and publishing communities from abandoning questionable middlemen in favor of those who can back up their measurements with an audit from an unimpeachable source.

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