Let's fix Internet rating flaws

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As with other media, the Internet relies on the confidence and financial support of advertisers. In turn, advertisers rely on industry ratings to make educated decisions on the best use of their marketing dollars to reach target audiences.

Internet ratings, however, are still struggling to find a consistent set of publisher categories and, therefore, reliable and comparable ratings numbers. ComScore Media Metrix, which measures Web site audiences, recently restated several months of ratings after it used inaccurate technology and measurement tools not comparable to past measurements.

With Internet marketing budgets increasing, it's time to get serious about improving the Internet ratings system. At present, Nielsen/Net Ratings is the de facto standard for advertiser-oriented rankings. Thus far even Nielsen has not been able to create an impartial and consistently accurate basis for its Internet ratings. Its clients, those whose sites it ranks, can influence the standards for various ranking criteria, including which Web sites are incorporated into a given category.

This means site categories change. A site in category X one month could be in category Y the next, or find its single site compared to a number of sites tied together by a brand or corporate parent. So companies can manipulate the way their sites are compared to other sites to make their position more favorable.

In March, Nielsen made a confusing change to its categories, moving the CNN "roll-up," which includes CNN.com and partner sites SI.com (Sports Illustrated) and Money.com (Money), into the "current events and global news" category. Advertisers then saw two CNNs in the same category: the single site, CNN.com, and its "roll-up."

CNN then requested that only its roll-up (CNN.com, SI.com, and Money.com) be reported. Because the listings can be changed at the discretion of Nielsen's clients, CNN's "roll-up" was subsequently the only "CNN" competing with single sites MSNBC.com, NYTimes.com, USAToday.com and others.

Faulty comparisons

Advertisers get incomplete information with this apples-to-oranges comparison. In April, May and June, Nielsen had MSNBC.com at No. 1 in current events and global news, ahead of the CNN roll up and other news sites. If MSNBC's sports and finance counterparts on MSN (ESPN.com and CNBC.com) were considered in the same category, the gap between such an MSNBC-MSN roll-up and the CNN roll-up would be monumental. In July, Nielsen showed a substantial traffic jump in the CNN roll up but it's unclear if it came through news coverage or from a traffic increase to SI.com due to interest in the Kobe Bryant case.

This situation is repeated throughout our industry. As a result, advertisers that need accurate rankings of comparable publishers must interpret a maze of competing claims.

The solution? The Internet community must demand change. It's time to take the categorization and standards that govern site rankings and traffic metrics out of the hands of Nielsen/Net Ratings and other ratings companies.

If an independent third party of neutral stakeholders reviewed content categories and set transparent criteria, if it eliminated existing disparities and continuously monitored the system to avoid conflict of interest, then Nielsen/Net Ratings could focus on reporting traffic-instead of continuing in its compromised position as judge and jury. Several groups could serve in the third-party role. Working with ad associations, the Online Publishers Association and Interactive Advertising Bureau could review and set categories.

role for blue ribbon panel

Alternatively, a blue ribbon panel of professors in journalism, communications or technology could provide external viewpoints and create category assignments from their perspective. Members of journalism and ad associations could balance the assessment provided by collegiate board members.

Inclusion of technology experts on either board would let us develop a system that looks to the future. Nielsen's current system does not track existing technology, such as streaming video, even as that technology becomes more pervasive. A future-focused solution will allow for advancements in Internet technology, ensuring the time invested in developing a strong system now pays off with reliable ratings for years to come.

The existence of Nielsen/Net Ratings and other ratings companies is proof Internet advertising is a legitimate form of marketing now and will be in the future. Our charge is to fine-tune the system so advertisers, and ultimately consumers, benefit from this dynamic, targeted marketing opportunity. Working together, we can create a reliable ratings system that will ultimately improve the status of Internet advertising as a valued component of any marketing strategy.

Scott Moore is general manager-news and information of the MSN Network and president of MSNBC.com. He is a member of the board of the Online Publishers Association.

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