"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.
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
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