Google tabletMarketers and publishers are excited about the tablet boom. But there are signs that tracking audiences (and ads) across all these mobile devices will be more difficult than initially thought.

There’s already concern about the accuracy of online traffic stats from companies like Nielsen and comScore. How can advertisers and publishers trust that their audiences will be measured appropriately on an iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab or other mobile device?

Tech industry analyst Frédéric Filloux outlines a number of challenges that the industry is facing with the influx of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

Too many devices, no chance for standardization  

Desktop or laptop-based audience measurement – be it in terms of unique visits, page views or time spent – is simple enough. Figure out whether a user is on Mac or PC, the kind of browser they’re on, track whether they’re connecting via wifi or a hard connection and go from there.

Mobile audience measurement (which includes devices like tablets) is far more complex: 

Android, the ultra fast growing mobile OS made by Google, is found on 95 different devices. Each comes with its (almost) unique combination of screen size and hardware/software features; “small” differences translate into a nightmare for applications developers.

There is more: the mobile ecosystem also comprises platforms such as Windows Phone devices, the well-controlled Blackberry, Palm’s WebOS (now in HP’s hands), Samsung’s Bada and the multiple flavors of Symbian, to be followed by Meego. Each platform sprouts many devices and browsing variants.

Bottom line is, it’s extremely difficult to build a unified audience measurement platform that can track users across devices and operating systems. For now, mobile content publishers (and the advertisers that want to reach their audiences) are stuck using self-reported stats, or stats from mobile ad networks.

There’s no standard for app audience measurement, either

Tracking the number of downloads seems to be the default metric for now, but mobile execs have acknowledged that counting the number of people that are actively using an app 30, 60 or even 90 days after download may be a better option. Just try figuring out how to come up with that kind of metric (and getting app developers to volunteer it during an ad audit).

There’s also the issue of devices that come with preloaded apps (my Samsung Moment came saddled with four memory-sucking, horrible apps from “leading” publishers, which I never use). Is a publisher supposed to count those apps as part of its total during an advertising sales pitch?

app ecosystem

Filloux also touches on the issue of apps that run in the background without user permission:

Even a well-implemented tracker module isn’t the perfect solution, though. For example, it doesn’t solve the issue of apps running in the background and downloading streams of data, unbeknownst to the user. Such requests are recorded as page views by the server, but the content is not necessarily seen by the user.

Challenges lead to real opportunities for new startups

This lack of standardized, scalable, device-based audience measurement could actually inhibit some of the rapid growth we’ve seen in terms of tablet content and advertising, in particular. Most media buyers will be reluctant to spend millions of their clients’ dollars on unproven new ad units tied to specific devices, iPad hype aside. They’ll even be wary of spending a few hundred thousand dollars on app-based campaigns if the publishers can’t supply real metrics.

Meanwhile, without accurate insights into how many readers they’re attracting across different devices, publishers won’t be able to attract those ad dollars (which means less money to be spent on developing cool new apps that take advantage of the devices’ capabilities). 

But these problems could lead to a whole new crop of startups that spring up to solve them. Accurate, device-based measurement, app metrics, and even cross-platform audience tracking will definitely be services that publishers and marketers are willing to pay for. 

For example, Filloux explains how a group of companies – including Nielsen, three mobile carriers, and French-based Mediametrie – are working on a solution that combines logging data directly from a user’s device, anonymizing it and then compiling it with panel-based data, to come up with more complete mobile audience measurement stats.