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.