Your Guide to Who Measures What in the Online Space

Nielsen Quantcast, Hitwise Compete, Google's Doubleclick -- Which Service is Right for You Depends on What You're Tracking

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The online marketing world has never been more awash in quantifiable information on audience sizes, demographic make-ups and the paths they travel through the web. But the flip side is that we are in danger of becoming overwhelmed by data distractions.

That's why we put together this handy little chart for making sense of the online measurement space. ComScore and Nielsen remain in a category on their own as the primary trusted planning sources for advertisers and agencies placing ad dollars, though ComScore has arguably pulled ahead in recent years, largely due to a loss in faith in Nielsen's accuracy after multiple disclosures about glitches in its counting. Yet a host of new players, such as Quantcast, Compete, Hitwise and Google, are starting to emerge as additional rich sources of online data. We spoke to execs in both the publishing and agency worlds to gauge the good and the bad of each service-and which they would turn to for specific data needs.

METHODOLOGY ComScore has a panel of 2 million worldwide internet users, half of whom are in the U.S., who opt in to sharing their clickstream data -- the digital trail of web pages they've visited. It reports on 43 individual countries. In 2009, it introduced direct (site-centric) measurement, where publishers can apply "tags" to their page, allowing ComScore to register traffic directly. Those two data streams are then triangulated to produce an estimate. This is often called "census-based" measurement because it takes into account actual visits, rather than just extrapolating number of visits based on its panelists' behavior.

STRENGTHS "They're No. 1 for a reason," said one client, saying he's been impressed by ComScore's consistent focus on improvement and responsiveness to advertisers, agencies and publishers. They were the first major measurement company to roll out the hybrid model, using an algorithm that adds direct measurement to panel data. And they have a good mobile measurement product, MobiLens. Other areas include an ad effectiveness product -- tracking who's seeing ads, their reach and frequency.

WATCH OUT FOR Not just anybody can look up data on who's visiting what; ComScore represents an investment for clients who want regular access. And publishers have kvetched that third-party services don't accurately measure their sites, thanks to disparities between the services and a site's own server log (a disparity accounted for by cookie deletion, say the measurement companies) -- though the complaints have dropped substantially since it installed its hybrid service.

METHODOLOGY Nielsen now has a hybrid methodology, similar to ComScore's, combining data from a 200,000-strong panel in the U.S. (and another 200,000 for the other 10 countries it covers) and data collected through tags that publishers place on their websites. The hybrid model was put into effect this summer for the U.S. and Spain.

STRENGTHS Due to Nielsen's brand visibility and market penetration, they are often the default, said one client, "even though I think everyone would acknowledge that ComScore's numbers are better." Nielsen's @Plan product for audience measurement and research can be particularly useful for collecting user-behavior data. And Nielsen's AdRelevance tool can shed light on a brand's position in the marketplace by looking at impression levels generated by competitors' ads. Nielsen's other advantage is its heritage in TV measurement, which puts it in an interesting position when it comes to cross-media measurement.

WATCH OUT FOR Nielsen introduced its hybrid measurement two years after ComScore, adding to the perception that its technology is lagging. Like ComScore, Nielsen is a paid service, so it's less widely cited than some of the free audience-measurement services to which everyone has access.

METHODOLOGY Quantcast implements direct measurement and reports that its tag is deployed on 100 million websites globally. It's free to use the tag and view reports, but there are premium services for both advertisers and publishers.

STRENGTHS It's cheap and provides a wealth of data on traffic, usage metrics and demographics. Since most of the data is viewable to anyone, Quantcast has gained exposure on occasions where agencies, planners or journalists don't have access to ComScore or Nielsen numbers. It's unheard of for it to be part of an RFP, though. An agency source said her outfit works with Quantcast as a media partner as opposed to a metrics/analytics provider, going to them for a media buy since they also function as an ad network.

WATCH OUT FOR Accuracy still remains an issue for Quantcast for sites that aren't tagged. "If they don't have a .tag for your site, the data is just woeful. You get the tag and it gets pretty good," said a publisher who still gives Quantcast the best chance of breaking into the next tier.

METHODOLOGY Experian Hitwise partners with ISPs to measure a sample of 10 million U.S. internet users (and 25 million globally in 10 markets), analyzing their clickstream data (which collects the digital trail of web pages they've visited). Within that U.S. group, 2.5 million are part of an opt-in panel through third-party providers who give info about themselves such as age, gender and income.

STRENGTHS Experian Hitwise data is cheap and can be useful on an ad hoc basis. Clickstream data can help tell you the linkage between certain sites and can be useful in analyzing search trends and volume. Hitwise can sometimes answer questions that ComScore or Nielsen wouldn't be a good resource for, such as how many of a website's users play golf or go to the movies.

WATCH OUT FOR Publishers, advertisers and agencies don't really use it for site or audience measurement. That's because it doesn't provide absolute numbers, but rather represents audiences as a percentage of the online population. So instead of telling you how many people visited Groupon in May, it will tell you that Groupon had 10% marketshare of U.S. internet visits.

METHODOLOGY Compete has a sample of 2 million U.S. internet users, split between its proprietary panel and clickstream data from ISPs and Application Service Providers. Direct measurement is currently in beta.

STRENGTHS Compete is cheap. One publisher told us that Compete's data on general U.S. internet behavior is strong, and an agency exec said she worked with Compete on a brand study to gather information on what consumers thought about a particular product. She liked that Compete sent an email survey to a panel of users who were known to have seen an ad instead of just using surveys that popped up on sites where the ad ran. She's mostly seen [Compete] used by marketers and brands for deep competitive measurement of activity on their own sites.

WATCH OUT FOR For data on a particular site or demographic information, ComScore or Quantcast is more reliable. B-to-b publishers also tend to grouse about at-work audiences not factoring into Compete's site measurement. Compete doesn't have a separate "at work" panel like some competitors, but said it does measure 20,000 at-work internet users -- though that 's not a lot in the world of online measurement.

METHODOLOGY Sources include aggregated Google Toolbar data from users who have opted into the toolbar's enhanced features, opt-in anonymous Google Analytics data; opt-in external consumer panel data and other third-party market research. It's aggregated over millions of users.

STRENGTHS It's free and can be integrated with Ad Words and the Doubleclick ad-serving products. An agency source said it's a useful tool to brainstorm initial ideas for a campaign, since you can plug in demographics for the audience you're looking to reach and quickly access information about sites they're likely to visit. It's also possible to see whether ads are accepted on a site, and whether it's in Google's ad network.

WATCH OUT FOR "Tens of thousands" of media plans are managed on Ad Planner, according to a Google spokesman, but it still hasn't really hit the mainstream enough for advertisers and agencies to inquire about it, says a publishing exec. Folks on the big-agency side tend to put more stock into ComScore's paid site- measurement service.

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