Chasing the Cheaters Who Undermine Online Research

Microsoft, Warner Bros. Sign Up for Peanut Labs' Digital Fingerprint System

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- People who cheat on online surveys could soon find themselves -- or at least their computers -- on an industrywide digital blacklist of respondents who are undermining the $4 billion online-research industry.

Peanut Labs has begun beta testing Optimus, a system that creates a digital fingerprint of each computer in a survey to pinpoint respondents who fake responses or professionals who game the industry by doing as many surveys as possible.

Marketers and researchers using the system include Microsoft and Time Warner's Warner Bros., along with about 20 of the 50 largest research firms. Machine IDs flagged as suspicious are being pooled on a sort of virtual blacklist available to all clients to check against existing panels or new applicants.

The identification scheme goes well beyond cookies, which several studies in recent years indicate are routinely deleted by 30% to 60% of web users monthly. Instead, it tracks 150 machine and software settings to identify the computers used by respondents.

Security
Privacy shouldn't be an issue, because Peanut Labs, which will store the data, won't match it against any other personally identifiable information, which, if stored, will remain with the marketers and research firms, said Ali Moiz, chief operating officer of Peanut Labs.

The machine-fingerprinting system is similar to that used by online banking and other financial institutions to help prevent fraud, Mr. Moiz said.

He said Optimus also could help prevent advertising click fraud or yield more-reliable traffic data by eliminating the over-counting created by cookie deletion. But he said Peanut Labs isn't yet looking to move into those markets, which could raise bigger privacy concerns.

Optimus isn't foolproof, Mr. Moiz said. "But to bypass this, you have to be good enough to break into a bank website," he said, and hackers with such skills have more-lucrative options -- not that gaming the market research industry is profitless. A 2006 study by ComScore found that 0.25% of respondents account for 30% of online surveys and 20% account for 80% of surveys. In the worst cases, Mr. Moiz said, more-sophisticated survey cheaters may have developed software bots to automate the process.

A study last year by research firm Burke found that about 14% of respondents across 20 online panels were either fraudulent or mentally cheating, resulting in, among other things, people claiming to be consumers of blood-glucose monitors or pet health insurance at rates far above that of the general population.

Panel quality
Even so, online research has grown to account for about 20% of research-industry revenue, or a projected $4 billion this year, according to a 2006 study by research firm Cambiar. But the same study found growing concerns about panel quality among industry players.

Peanut Labs grew out of the social-networking site XuQa, which found it could make more money recruiting survey respondents for research firms or marketers than through advertising. It pays respondents in the virtual currencies of their networks rather than cash, a system it says has provided better response rates and less fraud than cash payments.

What Peanut Labs is trying to do with Optimus could become an industry standard for vetting survey respondents, at least as a lowest common denominator, said Greg Durkin, VP-market research and planning for Warner Bros.' domestic business, which is testing the system. He called the approach "quite interesting" but said he's still evaluating whether to sign on.

While Optimus has identified up to 20% of some panels as potentially fraudulent, only 3% of respondents for market-research company MarketTools have been labeled suspicious so far, said John Ouren, exec VP-general manager of panels and communities for that firm.

Anonymity
The system could do a good job of eliminating some fraud, he said, "but it still won't tell you if someone representing himself as a 45-year-old mother is really an 18-year-old male."

Knowledge Networks, which recruits its panelists through random-digit phone dialing, has had Optimus identify only two of 14,000 panelists on panels of any of the other research firms so far.

Still, Patricia Graham, chief marketing officer of the research firm, said: "It can do in an automated, third-party fashion something that the industry needs."
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