Web Metrics Are Not A Crapshoot!

I have the utmost respect for BusinessWeek and its editorial staff, but I'm disappointed we had to endure another round of sensational cynicism around Web metrics confusion, this time with a Web 2.0 spin.

The story, "Web Numbers: What's Real?," begins by implying that "competing methods of measuring traffic online leave advertisers, investors, and even Net companies almost flying blind." It then says the "dirty little secret of Silicon Valley is that no one knows exactly who is going where on the Web." And it concludes that "Web metrics, like company valuations, will remain a crapshoot."

I'm sorry, but I believe BusinessWeek got it wrong.

I will credit BusinessWeek for doing a great job of pointing out many of the nuances and roots of confusion among various metrics and services. For example, readers learn why discrepancies in definitions of Web behaviors, audiences and browser activity between server log-file numbers and panel measurement methodologies, like comScore Media Metrix and Nielsen//Netratings, yield different results.

I'll also credit BusinessWeek for educating readers why page-view impression measurement models are sometimes incompatible with Web sites built on Ajax, as well as some other media and information services, like social bookmark services.

The story also touches on a recent and important phenomenon: the bold entrance of free data sources which may be lacking in quality, reliability or robustness, but nonetheless are "addictive," often directionally useful and better than nothing. Yes, they're getting thrown into the mix in a big way and garnering attention.

But does this add up to a crapshoot? No way!

Magid Abraham, CEO of comScore, dissected the issue of metrics confusion in a recent Mediaweek article that applies to this broader discussion: One might liken this to using a single watch to measure time. With only one watch, you really don't know if the time is off--or by how much--so you have a false sense of accuracy even though the time could be significantly off. On the other hand, if you have two watches, you are almost always going to see a difference between the two time estimates, which leads you to question what time it really is...and which watch is right.

So perhaps the problem is not entirely metrics, but very much our frustration with human nature. Humans twist, cite, omit and interpret numbers for their own gain, and this is tied directly to the art and science of persuasion and argument. Yes, persuasion is used in the competitive worlds of advertising, media sales and the VC world, where every side seeks to align numerous facts and evidence in its favor. And this, to me, seems like the main culprit in the confusion BusinessWeek emphasizes.

I also argue that having more metrics with unique strengths to serve different purposes, to better understand our fragmenting digital media world, is not necessarily a bad thing. Embracing more nuanced, specialized metrics might be complicated and require more work and sophistication, but it's an optimal situation versus an overly simplistic model.

At the end of the day, the discrepancies and discussions over different Web metrics can actually be a good thing. They encourage exploration and scrutiny, and serve as a form of checks-and-balances for quality and fairness. They help ensure that the Web measurements industry is in a state of perpetual evolution, innovation and improvement.

And that's definitely not a crapshoot!

What do you think?

(Disclosures: Netratings and Mediaweek are affiliates of VNU, which is a shareholder in Nielsen BuzzMetrics, my employer. I also previously worked for comScore Media Metrix.)

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