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How much traffic does your website get? On the surface, it seems like it should be an easy question to answer. But unfortunately, it isn't so cut-and-dry. Companies like comScore are in the business of helping publishers and advertisers find the answer, but according to Jason Calacanis, comScore is running an "extortion ring".

In a fiery post this weekend, he rails against comScore, calling it the "technology industry’s biggest bully" and even suggesting that traders short the company's stock.

Why? In Calacanis' eyes, comScore has always been guilty of underreporting traffic. But its new service, which enables publishers to set up tracking beacons is a "pure shake down" he argues.

The new service offers publishers the ability to give comScore some server-side data through these tracking beacons. The data they generate is then combined with comScore's panel data to paint a more accurate picture of actual audience size. There's a catch though, and this is where the controversy begins: to take advantage of this "hybrid" model, publishers who aren't already comScore clients have to pay. comScore charges a $5,000 setup fee, which comScore's CMO Linda Abraham says is necessary to audit the beacon implementations. Access to comScore data adds an additional cost, but this isn't required.

Publishers love server logs, and the most unsophisticated often complain that their comScore numbers vastly underestimate the amount of traffic they receive. The problem, of course, is that server logs count machines, not people. Advertisers aren't interested in machines, so comScore has built a business around trying to accurately tracking real people. The primary tool for doing this: the comScore panel. Panels, however, aren't perfect and comScore knows this, hence comScore's new service.

The extortion logic goes like this: publishers who pay comScore $5,000 to set up comScore's tracking beacons are more than likely to see their comScore numbers go up, so those who opt not to pay comScore $5,000 are being hurt because their figures are more likely to be underestimated.

There are some valid points to be made on both sides of this issue, but the reality is that, for better or worse, big advertisers and agencies rely heavily on the comScores of the world. They may not be perfect, but the market has spoken. Larger publishers can either deal with the fact that major advertisers and agencies rely on comScore or they can spend their time trying to create a tempest in a teapot.

From my perspective, if you're a publisher and comScore is saying you have 5m uniques per month, but you think that number is closer to 10m, paying a one-off $5,000 setup fee for comScore's tracking beacon is a no-brainer. $5,000 is a small amount for large publishers who are competing for media buys at the agency level and if the comScore beacon results in a decent increase in your reported traffic, the $5,000 investment will probably pay for itself many times over rather quickly. This isn't blackmail; comScore is taking the time to set up a system through which it will have access to additional data that it currently doesn't have, which it can in turn use to refine its panel-based estimates of your website's actual audience size.

If you're a smaller publisher or startup that can't afford the $5,000, it may be frustrating to learn that panel-based services like comScore underestimate your traffic, but you probably don't need comScore because chances are you're still too small to be on the radar of major advertisers and agencies in the first place. In my opinion, smaller publishers who aren't satisfied with ad networks will probably have more success selling the quality of their audience and ad offering to endemic advertisers than they will selling their traffic numbers to agencies.

In conclusion, I think calls to boycott comScore are silly. comScore isn't the only game in town. Upstarts like Quantcast and Compete have their own take on measurement, and there's always Google Analytics. comScore doesn't have a monopoly and depending on your needs and goals as a publisher, competing products, some of them free, might be a better way to go. Who you go with should be based on these needs and goals, not some emotional response to comScore running a business.

Photo credit: Joi via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 January, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (6)

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Jonathon

comscore trying to move the game on and developing a hybrid system to give greater accuracy is good in principle, and they should of course charge for it if they wish.

having said that, having more server-side data from publishers actually improves their data and their offering, so why doesn't comscore consider offering the beacon tracking for free rather than $5,000? it works for them 'cause they get the data, and it works for publishers 'cause their traffic is reflected more accurately for the agencies and advertisers that use comscore.

but what I don't understand is that their system will evidently be a mix of publishers who are tracked using a server-side beacon and publishers who are panel only. I actually think a system of panel-only is preferable to a mixed methodology that will by its nature favour the bigger publishers

over 6 years ago

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Ryan Petersen

I would agree except Calacanis and others seem to be arguing that the measurements without the 'beacons' consistently under-report the data. If they were merely wrong that would be fine, as long as it were distributed in some way around the correct number. However, if the panel data is always under-reports, and you have to pay to get your number raised to the "correct" amount, then that is a scam.

over 6 years ago

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Jozef Nagy

For my company's site we use Quantcast. They're cheaper and offer useful reporting tools. As a big Jason Calacanis fan, I think he's right on the mark most of the time. His opinion on Apple's closed nature leading to their eventual demise is spot on. But you're right about this one, he's making a little too much of a deal about comScore. Nevertheless, based on other things I've heard of them, we won't be a customer of theirs.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Jonathon,

Yes, server-side data does improve the accuracy of comScore's numbers, but that's to be expected given that the numbers are panel-based. comScore still has labor involved with the setup of the beacons, and it's using its technology/methodology to figure out the number of humans who visit a site, not machines. You can't easily do that with server-side data alone so comScore is providing value to the publisher.

As for the mixed methodology favoring bigger publishers, this is true but the reality is that the people who rely on comScore numbers for ad buys (major advertisers and agencies) are primarily only dealing with bigger publishers anyway.

Ryan,

In theory, panel-based measurement could also overreport traffic. Obviously, you're not going to hear from complaints from publishers who are credited with more traffic than they think they actually have.

In any case, if comScore really wanted to run a scam, it'd be charging a lot more than a $5,000 one-time setup fee. It could have easily reserved this hybrid system for clients paying an annual fee, or it could have easily created a new service that requires an annual fee. The fact that it's only charging $5,000 one time for the setup and auditing of the beacons is a pretty clear indicator that comScore isn't trying to turn this into a recurring profit center.

over 6 years ago

John Barton

John Barton, Head of Planning & Social media at Steak

Slightly off topic but still relevant...

How do we all feel about where comscores future lies given the rise of UKOM this year?

Is this the time to risk upsetting agencies in the face of massive competition from Nielsen?

Would be interested in your thoughts.

John Barton,

Steak

over 6 years ago

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Rob Leathern

Well the proof is here - how the numbers stack up for the hybrid (and note a lot of this is actually "partial hybrid" so the discrepancies are likely to increase even further) versus non-hybrid... about a 30 percent inflation factor: http://www.cpmadvisors.com/2010/02/06/comscore-hybrid-methodology-leads-to-large-traffic-increases/

over 6 years ago

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