Traffic Is Fake, Audience Numbers Are Garbage, And Nobody Knows How Many People See Anything

from the stabs-in-the-dark dept

How many living, breathing human beings really read Techdirt? The truth — the most basic, rarely-spoken truth — is that we have no earthly idea. With very few exceptions, no media property big or small, new or old, online or off, can truly tell you how big its audience is. They may have never thought about it that way — after all, we all get as close as we can to what we think is a reasonably accurate estimation, though we have no way of confirming that — but all these numbers are actually good for (maybe) is relative comparisons. What does it really mean when someone says "a million people" saw something? Or ten or a hundred million? I don't know, and neither do you. (Netflix might, but we'll get to that later.)

Where should we start? How about this: internet traffic is half-fake and everyone's known it for years, but there's no incentive to actually acknowledge it. The situation is technically improving: 2015 was hailed (quietly, among people who aren't in charge of selling advertising) as a banner year because humans took back the majority with a stunning 51.5% share of online traffic, so hurray for that I guess. All the analytics suites, the ad networks and the tracking pixels can try as they might to filter the rest out, and there's plenty of advice on the endless Sisyphean task of helping them do so, but considering at least half of all that bot traffic comes from bots that fall into the "malicious" or at least "unauthorized" category, and thus have every incentive to subvert the mostly-voluntary systems that are our first line of defence against bots... Well, good luck. We already know that Alexa rankings are garbage, but what does this say about even the internal numbers that sites use to sell ad space? Could they even be off by a factor of 10? I don't know, and neither do you. Hell, we don't even know how accurate the 51.5% figure is — it could be way off... in either direction.

Okay, so what about TV ratings? Well, there's a reason they've been made fun of on the shows themselves for as long as our culture has been able to handle "meta" jokes without getting a headache. Nielsen ratings in their classic form are built on monitoring such a tiny sample of households that the whole country's viewing profile can probably be swayed because someone forgot to turn off the TV before going on vacation. They sucked before DVRs and digital distribution began transforming the single household television into a quaint anachronism, and now it's just chaos. Nielsen was slow to catch up with DVRs, and now the TV industry juggles scattered measurements including three or seven days of viewing beyond live air, and constantly complains that the ratings are off — specifically, that they're too low. And they might be right, in the sense that they are too low by comparison to the garbage ratings from the pre-digital age that everyone eventually embraced as a standard for relative rankings. How big are these audiences really, in terms of real living breathing human beings? I don't know, and neither do you.

YouTube view counts? Subject to all the same fake internet traffic problems, plus the fact that there's an opaque system for supposedly ignoring too-short incomplete views according to the genre and nature of the video, but good luck finding out how accurate that is. Channel operators know their length-of-view statistics, but you don't see them bandying them about much. Plus, how often have you heard public view counts casually referred to as the number of "people" who watched something, even though (especially when it comes to short-and-cute viral animal hits and their ilk) the bulk of them probably come from obsessive re-watching? Yeah.

So what about Facebook stats? Everything from impressions to simultaneous live video viewers is padded out by the most transient of idly-scrolling-through-the-newsfeed interactions. Twitter followings and tweet stats? Dig into the bowels of any list of followers, or any trending link, and see how much of it is mindless bots. Print readerships? Don't even get me started. Did you know it's common practice for newspapers to calculate their readership by applying a multiplier to their actual circulation, to account for an imaginary surplus of "readers per copy"? Yes, that soggy "local" paper that's been sitting out in the rain on your porch for two days, and that only exists to give them an excuse to deliver flyers to your door, is not only being counted — it's probably being counted five times. So are all the free/cheap copies that big national papers give to hotels. Oh, and when these companies distribute multiple publications in different channels — with newspapers, magazines and paywalled websites all being given away with each other as free cross-subscriptions, in order to pad out all three subscriber numbers — they add them all up and then try to determine the actual number of individual people they are reaching. How? By applying an opaque "deduplication" formula. I once pressed a newspaper's stats person about what this formula could possibly entail, but details were not forthcoming — because I suspect they just knock off 20% and call it a day, despite the fact that the magazine is distributed inside the newspaper whose audience they are supposedly "deduplicating" it from, and half the website subscriptions were free add-ons with print delivery. That's awfully generous when the truth is they don't know, and neither do I, and neither do you.

So who does know how big of an audience they really have? Well, maybe Netflix, Amazon and other digital subscription services. Their paywalls insulate them from the bulk of random bot traffic, and their proprietary ecosystems give them the ability to closely monitor all activity. Netflix, of course, is famously secretive about viewer numbers and insists on the inaccuracy of those who claim to have worked them out. The most common assumption is that they do this to avoid giving content creators too much leverage, and because the data can be seen as a valuable commodity — but I propose another reason: Netflix's likely-more-accurate statistics, if made public, would have zero context in the topsy-turvy world of nonsense TV ratings. They would probably look exceptionally low, giving the legacy bosses who would like nothing more than to downplay the importance of digital distribution (and there are as many of those as there are record execs who can't spell mp3) a chance to project whatever narrative they wanted onto the numbers.

So why does any of this matter? Because advertising is a multibillion dollar industry, and whenever an industry is worth that much, you have to ask: is that because there are billions of dollars of worthwhile transactions happening, or because every bloodsucker in a ten-industry radius wanted in on the action? So, so much of the advertising industry is pure waste. How much exactly is as impossible to determine as the audience sizes themselves. This is hardly a new idea (in fact it's a century-old quote) but it's probably more true now than ever, despite the fact that in theory technology could have delivered us from uncertainty.

Finally, what can be done about this? There's no simple answer, and maybe no answer at all. Here at Techdirt, we've been working to come up with good advertising solutions by focusing almost entirely on what we know our community likes and might be interested in (as in, our real community of people who talk in our comments and we can say, with confidence, exist) and paying less attention to raw numbers — both a luxury and a necessity for a smaller publication, depending on how you look at it. That's not always easy though, as we face an advertising industry ruled by metrics, where there are often ten spreadsheet-wielding interns between us and someone who might actually care about our creativity. In our experiments with more traditional algorithmic display advertising to monetize the raw traffic numbers we do have, we keep running up against what appears to be a universal truth: the bulk of the global internet ad ecosystem runs on trash. Gigantic prestigious online media brands can sell display campaigns straight to the same people who buy Superbowl ads — everyone else receives a hundred pitches a week from new ad networks that claim to deliver great, relevant content but in fact litter your site with ads for fad diets and ambulance-chasers (at best). And this lowest-common-denominator filler appears to be the only reliably successful form of internet advertising! At least, it never goes away when the good stuff does, and the proud quality networks eventually embrace their roles as crap-peddlers. "Good" internet advertising is a rickety ship navigating an endless roiling ocean of spam, clickbait and outright fraud — but it couldn't float at all without it.

I realize I've painted a grim picture, but these are (more or less) the facts. I'm surely wrong in some of my guesses, but like everything discussed here, nobody knows how wrong or in which direction. We'll never even really know how many people read this — we'll just have a vague estimate that can be compared to other posts on Techdirt. But for now that's the reality, so maybe more people should stop worrying about the supposed size of their audience, and focus on making the content they want to make.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 9:40am

    Let's count, I'll start: 1

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

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 26 Sep 2016 @ 9:46am

    Okay

    Me myself and I equals 3 more. Then my multiple personalities is like an extra 20

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

  • icon
    crade (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 9:56am

    It has long been my humble opinion that internet advertising is basically an extremely over inflated bubble and somewhere around but not exactly 100% of online advertisements produce no results, but it never seems to pop, so what do I know :)

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 10:01am

    5 but I refreshed, then clicked away and came back...so 100 now.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 10:22am

    I don't exist, so plz don't count me

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 10:23am

    How many living, breathing human beings really write Techdirt? The truth — the most basic, rarely-spoken truth — is that we have no earthly idea.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 10:29am

    So is that the excuse for why none of the writers here are paid?

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

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 10:58am

    Believe this, because we say so.

    It seems as though that those that say what their Internet traffic is, in absolute terms, have a lot in common with many large religions. They make claims about how their way is the only way and in absolutist terms tell every one who is not of their way is on the wrong path. Yet, so many manage to get along with some other way, at least religion wise.

    Those religions, even after centuries of insisting on their being right, but having little actual proof, have not yet learned that there might be a way that no one has even thought of yet. How long will it take the Internet traffic absolutists to achieve some provable methodology whereby something more than belief is supporting their assertions. Centuries? Maybe not, as the rate of change is ever increasing, but it won't be soon. The other big question is, how can it be proved? Will there ever be enough evidence to support acceptance without just belief, and in what form will that come? Those religions are still searching.

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

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 5:48pm

      Re: Believe this, because we say so.

      But the difference is that websites (non-religious) ones do this as a means to increase their revenue/profits, whereas religions do it to...nevermind.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Oct 2016 @ 4:39pm

      Re: Believe this, because we say so.

      this also applies to nearly everything the government says

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

  • icon
    soyracha (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:05am

    Great Story Brother Leigh

    With 600,000 FB Fans The Stories I Could Tell About "suspicious account removal" And I ONLY Advertise For Likes With FB - Hey - If You Have 7 Minutes Watch My Film "parasite" About Tech Dirtbag Danny Zappin http://Zappin.LIVE

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

  • identicon
    Jake, 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:17am

    The Soggy Effing Newspaper

    About that soggy newspaper out there, the one that is 95% ads and a little actual copy so you can't say they are just throwing out bundles of ads? The Austin American Statesman used to be the worst about this. Previously I traveled for work each week. Every Thursday night I would get home from the airport and there would be one of those "free" bundles of ads, wrapped in a plastic bag, in my driveway. Letting everyone know I was not at home all week. I gave them my address numerous times and it would stop for a month or so and then they would do it again. After a while I started to think about the huge pile of trash that was being distributed around town a few times a week. I considered subscribing to the POS publication just so I could request they never deliver anything to my property. Then I remembered how I embarrassed AT&T uverse into not sending me trash in the mail several times a week trying to sell me DSL. I got on LinkedIn and trashed everything the Statesman had posted. "Hey, why don't you come pick up this trash you left in my lawn....." Even that didn't make a difference, they would always fall back to trashing the whole city with their "free" bundle of trash in your driveway. I have a circular driveway and you know those assholes would drop one at each end of the driveway. It feels like illegal dumping, why don't they stop??!!?? Wait... that's it!!! Illegal dumping, call 311. They send me to the code enforcement division. I apologize right off the bat and explain I have tried everything. Given them my address a dozen times over several years, talked to numerous people at the paper, all with no results. The man came out to inspect the "dumping" but a neighbor had already picked it up (they clearly didn't like me leaving this trash in the driveway for months on end, but I didn't put it there!). Never heard back from the code enforcement division, but my complaint seems to have had the desired effect. I have not seen a single blanket trashing of the entire city since. I'm hoping code enforcement gave them a call and asked them to stop. If your local legacy media company likes to trash your lawn whether you like it or not, try reporting them for illegal dumping, because that's exactly what it is.

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

  • identicon
    Indy, 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:18am

    All A Waste

    " So, so much of the advertising industry is pure waste."

    All of it is waste. The entire advertising industry could blow up today and no part of humanity would ultimately suffer, but would actually gain back mind-share, critical analysis/research, and spare time and space. Advertising is a complete lie, otherwise why not just let your product's merits speak for them-self? Why push a message when it's own merits speak for themselves? Because advertising is for the weak minded, who accept words, images, ideas externally, without critical thought, pause, reflection, or mindfulness.

    An entire wasteful industry.

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

    • icon
      Leigh Beadon (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:27am

      Re: All A Waste

      Good advertising is about communicating your product's merits to the public so they can speak for themselves.

      And advertising does not just affect the weak-minded - it affects everyone, deeply, including you. If you believe it doesn't, and that only idiots are influenced by it, then you're the most deeply influenced of all!

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

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 1:01pm

        Re: Re: All A Waste

        That. Even if subconsciously we are still influenced by them. And we certainly are influenced by the excess of them because it's tiring and annoying at some point.

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

      • icon
        crade (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 2:06pm

        Re: Re: All A Waste

        This might be someone's definition of good advertising, but it certainly isn't the one from the point of view of those who create and/or fund any advertising.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 12:36pm

      Re: All A Waste

      Probably the bulk of the ads you are referring to you ignore. But it does still affect you, little by little you start to hate the site/product/company more each time you see the as.

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

  • identicon
    Max, 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:51am

    I saw an interesting take on this recently - a lesser-known webcomic revived their long-dormant mailing list, and the first thing on it was, as a sort of "token of gratitude" for not having unsubscribed all that time, a link to a pdf file with the entire collected comic so far (they were at a volume break). Say what you will, but I'm pretty damn sure what it actually was is a survey of how many people download the file (=still read the newsletter) - and the guy probably has a pretty decent idea of that by now...

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

  • icon
    SirWired (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 11:57am

    Netflix doesn't publish ratings because they don't need to

    Netflix of course knows exactly who is watching what, when, and for how long. To a degree that a traditional TV outlet could only dream of.

    But of all the things Netflix can measure, the things measured by traditional ratings are probably the least valuable.

    It DOES. NOT. MATTER. :
    - How many total people watch such-and-such show
    - How soon after release they watch it
    - What age they are
    - How much money they make
    - Where they live

    What does matter? :
    - Does the person paying for the subscription (or somebody with sway over said person) have a reason to keep renewing?

    That's it. Nothing else matters when you have zero advertisers and a monthly fee.

    If only 50,000 people watch a show, that can totally be worth it if those viewers are SO loyal, they'll eat ramen noodles before giving up the monthly fee for that show.

    A show watched by 10M indifferent subscribers is nearly worthless, even if such an audience would be a smash mega-hit for an ad-supported network.

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

    • icon
      nerdrage (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 2:54pm

      Re: Netflix doesn't publish ratings because they don't need to

      Netflix can judge how well a show supports this subscriber loyalty in various ways, like seeing what a new subscriber watches right after they sign up, or which show they are in the midst of watching when they decide not to cancel after their free trial month runs out. If the same shows seem correlated with positive subscription activity, those shows are the golden geese that are paying their way on the site.

      I suspect this data, which we'll never see and which it will be hard for snoopy research companies to ever discover, is behind Netflix's recalibration towards TV series and away from movies. TV series are just "stickier" when it comes to keeping people subscribing, because at any given time, there's going to be another episode you need to watch to see what happens and another and another...and this is also why the old episodic style of TV will be a small minority of streaming series. There may be a few anthologies but mostly we'll get heavily serialization.

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

    • identicon
      Michael, 27 Sep 2016 @ 10:58am

      Re: Netflix doesn't publish ratings because they don't need to

      It DOES. NOT. MATTER. :
      - How many total people watch such-and-such show
      - How soon after release they watch it
      - What age they are
      - How much money they make
      - Where they live


      Those things do not matter if their only goal is to increase and maintain their subscribers. I can guarantee that is not their only goal. This is a company that called itself "Netflix" when it was sending movies in the mail - they are thinking several games ahead, not just moves. Every bit of data they can mine and understand matters to them and I am sure the ones you have noted are included.

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

    • icon
      R.Effluent (profile), 29 Sep 2016 @ 3:34pm

      Re: Netflix doesn't publish ratings because they don't need to

      If you do not think that they sell that data they gather to other publishers you are deluded, yes they care and yes they collect it, package it and make money off of it.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 12:13pm

    "...runs on trash."

    Anything else running on trash would be our next green energy initiative.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 12:19pm

    4!/3!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 12:40pm

    You should just tell the ad folks you've definitively determined your viewership total is equal to i, or the square root of infinity, or the largest possible prime number or something else equally absurd.

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

  • identicon
    bob, 26 Sep 2016 @ 12:43pm

    only relevant ads on TechDirt!

    Yep girls shoes from zulily are just what I need :/

    I suppose my dog might like them.

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

  • identicon
    NotBot, 26 Sep 2016 @ 1:41pm

    Real person, here to say that TechDirt's always interesting and very often illuminating. Thanks!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 1:48pm

    Shhhhh!!!

    For Christ's sake Leigh, keep your voice down. They might hear you.

    So much "free" content on the interwebs is supported by gullible, I mean, overly optimistic folks buying advertising.

    ...advertising that I never even have to look at because I have all manner of means to block it - and - would never interact with anyway because 1) it's ripe with mal/spyware attack vectors and 2) the vast majority of it is highly annoying garbage that I would never click in a million years to begin with (and if the ads intent is simply to put their product in my mind by my seeing it, then they severely underestimate the degree to which the annoyance serves to put me off their product).

    So I'd appreciate it if you could make this our little secret. Because this is one of the few areas of commerce where a lowly consumer gets to take advantage of corporate suckers. And it's a really, really good feeling.

    Btw - great article.

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

    • icon
      nerdrage (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 2:49pm

      Re: Shhhhh!!!

      Well except the corporate suckers have the sense to just do pay-per-click ad deals and then track "conversions" (does the click result in somebody doing what you want, usually typing in a credit card number?) Corporations that have nobody managing the online ad buys are definitely suckers, but how many of them are not paying attention vs. the ones who pay close attention? The real losers when advertising is ineffective, which it usually is, are the websites and other businesses that depend on ad revenue for survival. I'm constantly amazed more haven't gone under. I guess they pay their writers peanuts.

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

      • icon
        crade (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 3:13pm

        Re: Re: Shhhhh!!!

        Since the methods that they have for tying revenue to advertising are basically garbage science anyway, the ones that are "paying close attention" are just throwing their money away twice :)

        Maybe they should do another "analysis" to track how much return on investment you get from investing in "tracking how well your advertising is doing" then they can invest in an analysis to see if that was worthwhile :)

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 3:54pm

        Re: Re: Shhhhh!!!

        "The real losers when advertising is ineffective, which it usually is, are the websites and other businesses..."

        I believe this speaks to the point TechDirt attempts to make on a regular basis. That is, the current advertising/"free" service profit model (i.e., in the state it exists today) is an ineffective (or at least, highly inefficient) means to monetize online businesses (except for the advertising agencies themselves who seem to be doing quite nicely). And I think it's worth mentioning here the proactive approach TD has taken to address this issue in their own advertising efforts (not always perfect, but way better than most).

        Also, as much as I take your point that not all the "losers" are large corporations, enough are for me to revel in their loss being my gain. However, I very much sympathize with all the smaller businesses out there struggling to stay afloat. To them I say, if you're finding that monetizing your business via advertising is not providing you sufficient returns, then it's time to change profit model. And if you find you absolutely cannot come up with an alternate profit model, it's time to change your business.

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

  • identicon
    Nerddowell, 26 Sep 2016 @ 3:13pm

    I was a Nielson household once (about 30 years ago). Of course I'd look at the TV listings, and turn the set onto shows that I thought should get good ratings (mostly PBS). And turn the sound down and go on about my business (I've never watched much TV). And I'd bet the other households did the same.

    These days, mostly I get my TV series from TPB. And my Internet via VPN.

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

    • identicon
      Aidian, 26 Sep 2016 @ 3:43pm

      Nielsons and what we're supposed to watch

      "Of course I'd look at the TV listings, and turn the set onto shows that I thought should get good ratings (mostly PBS)."

      It was amazing when the Nielson's went to meters vs the old diaries, Masterpiece Theatre's ratings tanked.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 4:22pm

    "Fake"

    Just because traffic comes from a program doesn't mean it's fake, unless the program is specifically imitating a human. But bots that grab pages and follow links have been a normal part of the internet for 20 years.

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

  • icon
    David (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 5:10pm

    Happily included at Techdirt.com

    And another one.

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

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 26 Sep 2016 @ 5:13pm

    How to measure advertising

    This was an interesting article. I have an idea for a follow-up article:
    If the number of viewers or readers can't be accurately measured, how do companies accurately measure the effectiveness and results of an advertising campaign?
    If a site says it gets 6 million unique monthly views and it charges $200 for a banner ad and it gets 5,000 clicks, how many people actually buy the advertised product and how much money does the advertiser make? Or is this another "dirty secret": companies pay $200 for banner ads to get in front of 6 million "unique views", fully knowing that they might make 1 or 2 sales?

    Or has the advertising industry basically brainwashed companies into thinking that they need to get their products "out there" or that any advertising is "good exposure", whether it leads to a sale or not? After all, how did companies measure the effectiveness of highway billboards in the 1920's?

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

  • identicon
    Tim, 26 Sep 2016 @ 5:51pm

    Exactly!! This is why I cringe when someone says they're in marketing, and I have a hard time believing anything they say after that. It's all just blah, blah, blah.

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

  • identicon
    Christenson, 26 Sep 2016 @ 6:37pm

    Advertising

    I suspect that *direct* conversions to sales from click-able ads *are* measurable, in a reasonable fashion, if that is your goal. Google Adwords possibly gives meaningful results.

    And, for anyone interested, I have a better mousetrap...but since noone knows about it, because I haven't advertised it, there is no path to my door. [I have a bridge for sale, too, on special this week!]. Techdirt knows how many *nerd harder* T-shirts we have purchased, and noone purchases one without reading about it on Techdirt.

    Of course, that process is fraught with uncertainty....how many of my friends did I send Techdirt's way?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2016 @ 6:47pm

    Selling VPN's & mistargetted adverts

    Using a VPN will get you a whole lot of adverts pertaining to your current location which are mostly irrelevant to the viewer. Not that it bothers an ad blocker user such as myself.

    So how does Techdirt convince advertisers to come on board when you actively promote the VPN technology which interferes with the advert connecting to the desired customer? Isn't that shooting yourself in your wallet?

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 12:54am

      Re: Selling VPN's & mistargetted adverts

      Interestingly, when I used to use a VPN to enable me to access Hulu from Spain, I found that I got numerous adverts in Spanish. Lots of them were for products I could never use or buy locally, so they weren't simply picking up my actual location for some reason. I always found that quite interesting, since there shouldn't be anything indicating a Spanish speaking location unless the VPN happened to be located in a Hispanic only market for some reason.

      As for the effect of VPNs on this site, I believe it's been said numerous times that they don't mind people using ad blockers as ads are only a small part of revenue and they'd rather keep the readers/community rather than annoy people into leaving in return for some ad revenue. I suspect the same stands for VPN usage.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2016 @ 3:06am

        Re: Re: Selling VPN's & mistargetted adverts

        My mistake, I meant your virtual location, not your actual location. I thought that my further ramblings made that a bit clearer, however it seems not so.

        Still the question remains unanswered, how do you convince advertisers to advertise on a website that actively encourages the hiding of the reader's real location thereby diluting the power of said advertising.

        If I was spending my advertising dollar on promoting my product(which I personally don't have) I would prefer to target non tech savvy readers that are dumb enough not to be using either VPN's or ad-blockers.

        Maybe Techdirt has too many tech savvy readers using technology to evade advertising (I'm now one, thanks Techdirt) so it possibly discourages potential advertisers from wasting their money here. It must be a dilemma if you have a technological product to sell to tech savvy consumers in just one regional market such as the USA due to legal or other reasons. The double edged sword of the World Wide Web & the dissemination of knowledge.

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

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 26 Sep 2016 @ 7:57pm

    Said the fox watching the henhouse

    "after all, we all get as close as we can to what we think is a reasonably accurate estimation"

    Yeah, right...

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

  • icon
    R2_v2.0 (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 12:26am

    Nothing special

    Advertising measures don't have a monopoly on this type of thing though.

    Every company I've worked for, all of which had lovely, expensive relational databases of all of there customers has struggled to answer the very simple question of, "How many customers do we have?"

    And often there is nothing you can do about it. Corporate acquisition? Have fun reconciling the common customer databases (assuming any serious effort is even put into it). Reliant on some sort of industry data (think: poles and wires)? God help you when someone asks you how many people have internet AND phone service or gas AND electricity.

    And I've seen these numbers go to regulatory reporting or investor briefings knowing that they are all over the place. We had a situation where in a particular territory the main competitors were claiming about 20% more households than there were houses (at least according to the census data).

    I think when you work with this sort of situation you just get used to giving a 'good' number for whatever people are looking for.

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

    • identicon
      Harald K, 28 Sep 2016 @ 11:56pm

      Re: Nothing special

      "Corporate acquisition? Have fun reconciling the common customer databases"

      Very apropos that, Jay Z and co are rattling the sabers and planning to sue the companies they bought the streaming service Tidal from. So even in streaming companies which should have a clear-cut userbase (especially when they have no free tier like Tidal), this is a problem. Or at least, enough to make noise over.

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

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 1:50am

    Well Duh

    You have to be pretty new to running a website or ignorant as f-ck not to realize that a huge percentage of the traffic to any given site is bots, scrapers, caching systems, and a huge collection of script kiddies banging away at every site online hoping to find one they can deface with their logo, their name, and "N3rd Hrd4r" in the middle of the page.

    You also have to be a little bit ignorant if you don't realize that advertising has always faced this problem the difference between potential eyeballs and actual views - and this all the way back to the beginning of each of commercial newspapers, magazines, radio, and televsion.

    Think about it. A newspaper distributes 100,000 copies per day, but how many of them are actually opened? How many people actually read ALL of the pages? Those numbers are hard to figure out, because there are so many variables. It's one of the reasons why ads closer to the front of a newspaper are considered most valuable, as they are most likely to be seen.

    Television has the same issue, in a different format: We know the general rating for shows and have a pretty good idea how many people see them, but except for those people meter things that actually measure who is in the room at a given time, there is no way to know how many people have been exposed to a given ad, or if they actually paid attention at all if they were in the room.

    Radio also suffers from this: People listen to the music, but zone out on the ads. Many people have the radio on all day but don't actively listen. Are they really hitting the ads?

    The ad world has always dealt with this in a pretty straight forward manner, a sort of quiet acceptance that some significant part of the audience may never see your print ad, may step out to pee when you tv commercial comes on, and may have the radio on but be ignoring it. It's always been an accepted part of the model.

    The internet is support to be more certain, which is why CPM was the original ad model. The ad model that has made Google rich (and everyone else poor) is charging by the click thru, using various information to filter out useless, automated, or repetitive clicks. But even that is a bit of a crap shoot, and many advertisers have lost their ass paying for clicks that don't convert into income.

    There was a story quite a long time ago about how retail website operators were getting all worked up about people who would come to their site, put something into a shopping cart, and then never finish the transaction. Mentally, they had a view of their physical stores with millions of shopping carts with single items strewn all over the place, and they were unable to shake the image. The reality was that it was more like someone window shopping, sometimes putting stuff in a shopping cart to check for a possible discounted price, shipping charges, or what not. The retailers thought they were losing valuable sales, when they were instead just confusing browsers (and bots) with actual potential buyers.

    For Techdirt, the solution has been a combination of begging (fund raising for "special" coverage that didn't seem any different from anything else done, selling t-shirts, and basically writing shill posts that ad blockers can't particularly filter out very well. Oh, that and the OPM (other people's money) projects where "sponsors" paid for posts (notice that disappeared pretty quick), for Insight (that is one dead website), or as sponsors of a think tank which is mostly just more of the same (with two whole blog updates in a year, woohoo!). It proves that there are ways to collect money, but doesn't really show any of them as valid long term business models. Rather, there seems to be a fair bit of sheep shearing going on.

    So advertising may not be an exact science, but it is self selecting... ;)

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

  • icon
    AC720 (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 2:26am

    Old joke

    An old joke in advertising is the ad exec who says "I KNOW half of my advertising dollars are wasted. But I don't know WHICH half!"

    And so it goes.

    The fact is, TV and radio have been sponsored by advertisers since the very beginning, and they always will be. The very reason we HAVE TV seasons at all is because those were the times of the year car makers had new models in stores, so they wanted hot, new TV shows to run at the same time and provide a place to run ads for the new cars.

    TV is not nearly as tied to new cars but we still have TV seasons married to the car seasons and car ads are still the biggest advertisers on TV.

    TV itself is married to this broken and obsolete model of having affiliates. Middlemen in cities and towns hired to distribute their shows and ads. These days, you COULD get your shows directly from the production companies. The idea of local stations isn't needed at all, in that case. Yet it persists.

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

    • icon
      Whatever (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 4:19am

      Re: Old joke

      "These days, you COULD get your shows directly from the production companies. The idea of local stations isn't needed at all, in that case. Yet it persists."

      Outside of the rise of Netflix, there are very few new content aggregation companies that have both enough eyeballs to qualify and a business model that makes it pay off. Making the best ever TV show that is only seen by a very few people is not going to have enough income to justify making it. Netflix moved in original productions when they reached a point of having enough income to afford to do it, and a business model that could support it, potentially cheaper than their other sources. It also gives them a market differentiation point.

      As for the TV seasons, they are actually married to the school cycle. TV shows run as new episodes from pretty much September to April or so, which is the time when it's coldest, when people are more likely to be at home, and more likely to watch TV.

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

  • icon
    Anthony Bardaro (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 7:26am

    The counterfactual

    I completely agree that traffic & viewership data are inflated. Nielsen & Alexa are like Moody's & Fitch: they were all designed as independent ratings agencies, but they all succumb to some form of Stockholm Syndrome or Regulatory Capture, since their revenue is directly or indirectly linked to the industries they're supposed to be checking.

    That said, yours isn't a critique that's unique to digital ads as much as it is of advertising in general -- a low yielding, hard-to-measure discipline. Analog ads on billboards and newspapers have a much lower ROI than digital (because of targeting & data), but all genres of display ads (digital & analog) are means of reaching consumers en masse, which is incredibly valuable to brands in perfect competition, where differentiation is low, substitution high, and therefore top-of-mind & tip-of-tongue are preeminent.

    That's not to say that an advertising cartel or conspiracy to inflate data/CPMs is acceptable. However, that does mean that CPMs are far less elastic than you'd think: CPMs are less correlated to shifts in the underlying data than top-down fundamentals (e.g. macroeconomics or industry supply/demand).

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

  • icon
    jcar2 (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 7:33am

    I am a human ...

    I may not say much when I'm here, but I am definitely here several times a week. I truly enjoy this site, and I even like many of the TD Podcasts.

    I love my uBlock Origin for blocking ads, I used a friend's computer last week. She had no ad blocker installed. If I had to experience the Internet everyday as she does, I'd run away screaming.

    Anyway, I believe that, if there are errors in calculating the number of human eyes that regularly peer at the articles on this website, the error would be in TechDirt's favor. There are likely more of us quiet ones than you realize.

    OK, enough noise from me, I really just stopped in to be counted and to prove that I am a human ... short and slightly elderly, but still human.

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

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 27 Sep 2016 @ 8:41am

    Re: that soggy "local" paper that's been sitting out in the rain on your porch for two days

    How did you find my house?

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

  • identicon
    JP, 27 Sep 2016 @ 9:34am

    That's right...

    That's why I consider Manka Bros. to be the world's largest media company - because if it says it on the internet how is anyone supposed to know it's not true?
    http://www.mankabros.com

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Sep 2016 @ 6:12pm

    It's a nasty catch-22.

    Many people with bots of various sorts would quite happily announce that they are bots - if websites weren't so ban-happy about bots.

    But because bots are often not easily picked out, websites view them with suspicion and are often ban-happy (sometimes to the point of whitelisting!), which means that people that actually want to do something with said bot end up having to obscure that it's a bot.

    (You can argue with this by saying "just talk to the site admin". The problem with that is that requires O(websites) human time, which defeats the point of using a bot in the first place!)

    And so it goes.

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

  • identicon
    An actual real person, (tm), 29 Sep 2016 @ 11:29am

    I read this

    All the way to the end. I may read more because I enjoyed it. Thank you.

    Yours in actual reality,
    A Human Being.

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

  • icon
    Rachel (profile), 29 Sep 2016 @ 1:19pm

    *eye twitch*

    In a recent job where I worked in Communications, my boss had me and my colleagues collect our Facebook post content, likes, shares and comments into a spreadsheet every week.

    He would then comb through this data, berating us continually about what he perceived we had fucked up in order for the stats to be what he thought was low. Unfortunately, we never improved, as every week he would change his opinion of what worked. I always knew this was terrible asshattery, but I never realised quite the extent to which it was also based on total and complete bollocks. I have since left this job.

    Anyway, thanks to the author of this article. It is bloody refreshing to read, and fascinating, too.

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

  • icon
    Zachary Hodson (profile), 17 Dec 2016 @ 10:22am

    I'm real.

    I'm here. I read it. I have been here a long time reading everything. I never comment. Every once in a while I do something I never do so now I am commenting. I am here.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2016 @ 11:13pm

    i read

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

  • identicon
    Noelle, 20 Dec 2016 @ 3:39pm

    I also read.

    Mainly through an RSS reader, although I do give you page views by using it in list view and opening links to articles I think I'll be interested in. I do use an adblocker though, so I don't click.

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Techdirt Logo Gear
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.