That's according to a media planner who beta-tested Ad Planner, a Google tool that was revealed today at an Advertising Research Foundation conference in New York.
"It's a good opportunity for advertisers to get information on smaller sites that the panel tools don't pick up," said John Grudnowski, VP-modern media at Space150, a Minneapolis-based digital-ad agency. Previously, if he wanted to buy an ad on Google's content network by targeting specific sites, he'd get some information on the smaller properties, but now the information goes much deeper.
"Could this be something to replace other tools?" he asked. "I don't see this right now. It's new, and we want to look at it as an extension and really use it for the small sites."
The search giant has commenced a closed beta-test of the tool, which lets media planners enter gender, age and income details of the audience they're trying to reach, plus sites associated with that target audience. Google returns a list of sites that reach those kinds of people, allowing planners to sort by unique visitors and composition. The tool is related to Google Trends for Websites, a free public tool released last week that shows site popularity, rank across geographies and related sites and searches.
Fuel to the fire
The Google introduction adds fuel to an argument that panel-based measurement may not be enough to determine the audience of smaller, long tail sites. ComScore and Nielsen Online use panel data to figure out who the people visiting websites are. But critics say that as online media continue to fragment, panels simply cannot be considered reliable for measuring small and medium-size sites. Another web measurement startup used for media planning purposes, Quantcast, also uses panel data but, like Google, adds other means of cookie-based measurement.
"It's interesting from a conceptual and theoretical standpoint [because] Google has such a phenomenally massive data set," said Chris Wallace, VP-media at iCrossing, a New York-based digital agency. He notes that Google has been collecting user-behavior data and being very guarded about what they're using that data for.
Google is giving out very few details around how it comes up with the audience information, explaining in a blog post that "data is estimated and aggregated over a variety of sources" and warned it may not match existing web traffic data sources.
What are those sources? Google said they include aggregated search data, opt-in anonymous Google Analytics data, opt-in external panel data and other third-party market research. The panel data and third-party data help provide the demographic picture of the audience, which is only available in the U.S. Google said the aggregated data doesn't contain information that could personally identify any user.
So is it a ComScore killer? No, said Mr. Wallace. "For ad agencies that are really thinking through the media buying and planning process, using multiple data sources to build and evaluate media plans is wise," he said. "This is an additional layer to help build the media plan."
For one thing, ComScore and Nielsen are progressing though an audit of their systems by the Media Ratings Council. Quantcast just entered an agreement to have its panel audited; Google has not yet indicated whether it will go through an MRC audit. Such audits are meant to help advertisers feel comfortable with how the data is collected.
Agencies will still pay
And while the media have positioned the Google tool as an alternative to ComScore or Nielsen, it's also likely most major advertisers and media agencies will still pay to use the big panel-based measurement companies, just as many marketers already opt to use paid tools such as Omniture or Coremetrics for analytics rather than substitute Google's free tool. That's because marketers rely on tools that measure and weight the entire market evenly.
It's easy to see how a consumer who regularly uses Yahoo or Microsoft search could be less likely to register in Google's measurement scheme, perhaps overweighting the actions of heavy Google users. When asked about this, Google said it doesn't expect it to be an issue and said that potential overweighting is one of the reasons it is using multiple data sources.
Quantcast, which a few weeks ago introduced its own free media-planning tool, believes Google's entry into the market does not put publishers and marketers in control of their audiences and data the way its own tool does.
"Of course, Google controls an extensive data platform -- and the market must ask the question if this new product is simply intended to help Google sell inventory and a broader set of controlled services," Konrad Feldman, CEO of Quantcast, said in a statement.