by Mike Masnick

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 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 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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Gavin, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 2:45am

    Follow the money

    Where there is potential for corruption you will find.....wait for it...CORRUPTION.

    File this under I for inevitable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Scott, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 3:33am

    my solution

    When selling ads to my site, I give the potential advertiser access to my google analytics data.

    They can log in and see what kind of visitors we get themselves, see real traffic treds, etc.. and decide if the site is good for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Yo ho ho..., Aug 29th, 2006 @ 3:49am


    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???

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    chris (profile), Aug 29th, 2006 @ 5:59am

    the problem is...

    the trouble with advertising is that advertising is run by advertisers.

    if the site statistics and the rate plans were handled by people with a history of honesty, there probably wouldn't be so many scandals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 6:50am

    Sure, loose your level of trust with your clients/customers and don't expect them to come back. I surely wouldn't spend advertising dollars on a resource that was questionable when there's so many others available..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Haywood, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 7:09am

    No mention of Adblock software and plug-ins, traffic doesn't necessarily add up to views even legitimate traffic. I may see an ad once, but if it is annoying, RIP plug-in for Fire Fox kills it dead, Active Stop plug-in quiets all the flash. did I mention how much more I love the web with Fire Fox?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Joe, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 7:29am

    Re: Surprise

    9,000 households is no where near enough, especially when you have cable operators that have access to set top box data that could really track a much larger trend, granted that is more pro cable then pro network ratings. Also don't forget to look at how we measure magazines. it's all guess work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Lay Person, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 7:50am

    Who Cares?

    Who cares?

    Advertisers are the biggest fricken liars on the face of the earth!

    Nobody likes their own medicine...goes down real bitter!

    Talk about exagerated drinking Miller light really going to get me all those hot girls?!?!?!?!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Johann, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 8:36am

    Re: Surprise

    Depends. If you had a flock of 12 million sheep, how many would you need to watch to get a good impression of what the vast majority of the flock is doing?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 8:47am

    Seems like some here need a refresher course on statistics and sample size.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Nick, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 8:52am


    Thank God for the plug-in's. Advertising? What Advertising? I don't see any Advertising.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Drama2Sell, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 9:58am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 2:16pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anon, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 2:22pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Lay Person, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 2:37pm


    It is very reasonable that a 9000 unit sample size is more than adequate.

    The ratios arent as important as selecting a random set reflective of what is being measured.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2006 @ 6:51pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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