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Measurement companies respond to audit request

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Responding to a request by the Interactive Advertising Bureau for audits of their Internet audience measurement services, comScore and competitor Nielsen//NetRatings said they are taking steps to open up their methodologies and processes to review by third parties.

In an open letter to comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings dated April 20, IAB President-CEO Randall Rothenberg asked the Internet measurement companies to obtain audits of their technologies and processes by the Media Rating Council.

"For the interactive industry, one that is committed to delivering accountability, integrity in audience measurement is a fundamental necessity. But, despite a multiplicity of reported discrepancies in audience measurements, comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings have resisted numerous requests for audits by the IAB and the Media Rating Council, some dating back to 1999," the letter stated.

Rothenberg said that as marketers continue to ramp up their online marketing budgets, it is essential that third-party audience measurement firms be audited and accredited by the MRC, which audits Nielsen's TV ratings and Arbitron's radio ratings.

"Interactive is now the center of all marketing, and the future for marketers is to think Web first," he said. "There are changes in marketing strategy, execution and ROI, given that it's the big leagues, but you can't use playground rules."

Rothenberg said he is eager for the IAB to meet with representatives of comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings to try to come to a consensus on how to craft measurement standards for a digital age. "This is not a debate about individual methodologies or panel-based systems versus Web logs, but close to a platonic ideal of true accountability," he said.

Both Nielsen//NetRatings and comScore said they have already been taking steps to verify their processes to the industry.

"We were surprised by the letter," said Manish Bhatia, exec VP-global operations at Nielsen//NetRatings. "We have completed a pre-audit, and they are suggesting that we are not doing anything on the MRC side."

Anthony Torrieri, senior VP- associate director of the MRC, confirmed that both Nielsen//NetRatings and comScore have completed pre-audits, a process prior to a full audit in which the MRC works with independent auditor Ernst & Young to review company research panels and come up with a list of issues to address.

"NetRatings has been working to attack this," Torrieri said. "They have an audit proposal in front of them, but they haven't signed off on a formal audit." ComScore, which recently completed a pre-audit, does not yet have an audit proposal, he said.

Executives declined to comment for this story, but in a response letter to the IAB dated April 23, comScore President-CEO Magid Abraham stated, "comScore welcomes the objective outlined in the IAB open letter of achieving transparency in panel methods for measuring the size of online audiences. ComScore has already had positive and productive discussions with the IAB to initiate a thoughtful and cooperative process for achieving greater transparency and understanding the root cause of the difference between Web site server logs and panel-based measurements."

Bhatish said the issue goes beyond achieving transparency in research panel methodologies and processes.

"The real issue is not whether we're audited or not. The real issue is that our numbers do not match the server logs [of online publishers]."

He noted that research panel numbers for audience measurement, which Web publishers use to sell Internet advertising, are typically lower than the numbers on site server logs due to many issues.

For example, server logs usually count auto-refreshes (when the page automatically refreshes after a period of time) as new page views, and panels do not. Other discrepancies are caused by differences in the ways in which panel-based companies and server logs count unique visitors and time spent on a site, Bhatish said.

"The industry needs underlying standards for how you evaluate an Internet research company. We have been working with the MRC and clients to come up with those standards," he said.

BtoB reporter Matthew Schwartz contributed to this report.

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