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FEATURE28 January 2010

Adding a measure of quality to web audience ratings

Features News

At the heart of the recent row over ComScore’s hybrid web audience measurement system was a dispute over the best way to measure the size of a website’s audience. But what about audience quality? It’s a question Crowd Science CEO John Martin hopes online advertisers will increasingly ask.

The online row that broke out last weekend over ComScore’s decision to charge publishers for participating in its new hybrid web audience measurement system attracted many onlookers, some defending the company, others siding with John Calacanis, the CEO of search engine Mahalo and author of the blog post that triggered the dispute.

Among the onlookers was John Martin (pictured), the CEO of Crowd Science. A former ComScore software architect, Martin understands the financial rationale for ComScore charging a $5,000 set-up fee, though he says “it doesn’t seem right” that paying customers should be measured differently than those who can’t or won’t pay what ComScore is asking.

The hybrid system is definitely better, though, says Martin. The flaws in panel-based web audience measurement are readily apparent when it comes to measuring sites that have a smaller penetration than the major web properties, yet perhaps have an audience no less significant to major advertisers.

Slow though the company was to move to hybrid, Martin believes the service ComScore has produced – combining panel-based measurement with server-side metrics – is “very good”. But there’s a third ingredient, he says, that is missing from the hybrid model. That is direct surveys.

His company, Crowd Science, has spent the best part of nearly two years developing a direct survey platform. While web analytics packages deal in site activity metrics, and ComScore and its competitors such as Nielsen, Quantcast and Compete use panel data to overlay demographics on behavioural data, Martin says the profiling questionnaires these panels use in recruiting their respondents can only drill down so much. He calls them “kitchen sink-style surveys”.

“What we wanted to do was to break up those surveys so we are collecting data in a piecemeal way,” says Martin. Crowd Science’s platform allows for a sample of a website’s visitors to take part in short surveys, of six-to-12 questions and around two minutes in length, which aim to build up a much deeper profile of a site’s audience characteristics, their interests, likes and dislikes and other measures in between.

Beyond basic demographics, Martin gives the example of a publisher of a niche financial site who can ask visitors about their investment plans for the year and the types of financial instruments they are interested in – questions that are unlikely to be asked during the panel recruitment process.

Martin is banking on the need for more granular web audience data to drive uptake of his company’s services. Online media buys today, he says, usually involve some showcase websites – the big web brands to be seen on – while the rest is just “tonnage”, sheer volume. Of course, not all eyeballs are equal online and the more information website owners can get about their visitors, the easier it should be for them to find their way into media plans based on the quality of the audience rather than quantity.

He’s happy to let ComScore, Nielsen et al fight it out over the numbers game, believing there is the potential for partnership deals with any or all of the firms working in the audience measurement and web analytics space. In fact, Martin teases the possibility of a “major” announcement in this area before the quarter is out.

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