Will Online Traffic Scandal Make Newspaper Circulation Scandal Look Like Child's Play?

from the math-is-hard dept

Two years ago, the corporate scandal of the summer was all of the big newspapers who were caught lying about their subscriber numbers to advertisers, and it got them in all sorts of hot water. The numbers of “ghost subscribers” tended to be in the tens of thousands of subscribers — representing a few percent of actual subscribers. What’s amazing, as so much advertising moves online, however, is that there’s been almost no skepticism over whether or not something similar is happening online. In the last few months, we’ve seen a number of sites claiming traffic numbers that are unlikely to be realistic, but which the press is often passing on as if they were fact. A few reporters have picked up on this, and now the NY Times is pointing out that Forbes.com appears to have been pumping up its traffic numbers to help its standing with advertisers (and to help it secure venture capital investment) — perhaps by millions of visitors. The numbers are a lot bigger than the newspaper circulation scandal from a few years ago, and it seems like only a matter of time until the same questions are raised online. The various newspapers involved in the ghost subscriber scandals a few years ago got punished and had to pay up — but will web publications face the same punishment as well? Part of the problem is a lack of agreement about how to count online visitors — and stats packages that return wildly different numbers. A second issue is that many ad deals are based on specific impressions, so it doesn’t matter how much overall traffic a site is getting as long as the specific impressions are accurate (though, as in the Forbes.com case, the company clearly was using its traffic numbers to get advertisers in the door by claiming they had the largest audience). However, with the recent rise in ad or sponsorship deals based on time (such as “be our sponsor for a month”), it could raise some problems. With all the fuss about how online media is back thanks to advertising, it’s worth remembering that the ad market is cyclical, and a big scandal over highly inflated traffic numbers could torpedo the ad sales of some sites pretty quickly.


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Comments on “Will Online Traffic Scandal Make Newspaper Circulation Scandal Look Like Child's Play?”

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16 Comments
Yo ho ho... says:

Surprise

Audience measurements for advertising dollars has always been one big guessing game — with lots of BS to boot. The advertisers are quite aware of this and still pay up because it is all relative… as long as everyone is BS’ing by the same amounts.

Think of it this way — Nielsen measures national TV ratings with a 9000 household sample. Does anybody in the media world really think this is a good sample size for 112 million households???

Drama2Sell says:

Doesn't really matter

Unlike print media that is extrememly difficult to track–short of asking a customer at the time of purchase “where do you hear about us” or taking a coupon.

Online advertising, by its very nature, IS 100% trackable.

With an online ad I can track where you came from, and whether or not you purchased.

If enough purchases come from an ad on a site–I am advertising on that site, I could care less what numbers you have–or claim to have.

Anonymous Coward says:

Statistic Sample Sizes don’t have to be a large percentage of the population, they just have to be statistically significant in size. 9000 is a reasonably good size for measuring any sample, provided you are actually taking a RANDOM sample. It all tends towards Normal anyways, so you get an idea of what the trends are.

People who think that measuring 10% of the population will get you a better answer than 1% of the population are dreaming, firstly it costs more to collate that data, secondly it doesn’t give you any MORE information than you had at 1% (provided that 1% was say 100 or more people), just perhaps a greater degree of confidence.

Anon says:

comScore/Nielson/MediaMetrix/HitWise/Alexa are bog

Anyone who works for a web company, especially one with significant non-US traffic, knows that the numbers coming out from the web traffic companies are pretty bogus. I’m not sure what their claimed error rate is, but seeing their numbers and seeing our own counts having a 30x or more difference makes me highly suspicious of their methods. It largely depends on how they get their data, which often results in a heavy skew. Alexa is for toolbar stats, who the hell installs the Alexa toolbar? Hitwise works off of US isp data.

Anonymous Coward says:

The site can easily place tags on their sites

allowing a third party to measure the number of

visitors. the tag code could only vistit the 3rd part site say 1 on 100 visits – but you can still get a approx measure of the millions of hits claimed.

the prospective – add buyer then can hire a company

to hit the site a certain numner of times and look for the

addrsses in the 3rd party log. – the ratios of the

expect hits can be checked.

It is hard to cheat it you use the right stats.

or they can place a tag on of a subpage to

set a prospective ad cliet see the traffiic.

This is like sitting ina store and counting the customers.

– if the count is badly off then one will know –

I do’n’t mean that few % due to a ‘bad’ day.

i.e. if you calin 400 customers/ hour

ans you sit ans see onlt only 100 in one hour

one may want to know why the observer number are so far off.

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