Commentary

Taking Mobile's Measure, Again... And Again

Can't anyone in the mobile industry count?

 

The frustration over getting reliable metrics from mobile media continues, although digital veterans shouldn't be surprised. We are a decade and a half into the life of the "most accountable medium," the Web, and just this week we see some of the major online measurement firms still tweaking their models and arguing over methodology. I have major media companies reporting their monthly numbers to me, and I see staggering differences between the stats they claim from their internal logs via Google Analytics or Omniture and the third-party numbers. It's not just mobile, either. It's still a mess all over.

Years ago, I recall an early Mobile Marketing Association event where Jim Ryan, then head of consumer data products at Cingular, tried to debunk the myth of the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-measuring network operators. I paraphrase from distant memory, of course, but Jim made light of marketers' presumption that the carriers were sitting on all of this plum usage and behavioral data that would unlock tremendous mobile targeting. Sure, we carriers have terabytes of logs and user-level data, he said, but it is not in any form that marketers or even we could use in the way marketers envision.

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I have no idea whether the carriers are any closer today to having their data in actionable form. As a critic covering this world, it's still tough for me to get even basic numbers on where online traffic is going, from where and how much of it there is. This week Ground Truth unveiled its new "census-based" approach, which leverages the actual data and logs from select carriers. Our own Laurie Sullivan covered the details of the offering today, so I won't rehash the details.

Basically, Ground Truth is trying to counter the current approaches involving extrapolated panels of metered usage and self-reporting surveys with a large 2.5 million-person sample of actual traffic. The company will offer weekly reports rather than monthly. It's promising valuable page view, ad network, and clickstream data.

When I spoke to founder and CTO Mike "Luni" Libes and CEO Sterling Wilson last week, they said that the reports would aggregate the many domains under single content brands to about 1,200 in their report, which they say covers 97% of mobile page views. "For each Web site we will report hits, page views, unique users, session time, total bytes," says Libes. The click stream data will reveal previously visited sites and where a user headed afterwards. They also says their metrics will be able to give a truer picture of which ad networks are in fact serving the most inventory and getting the most clicks. "We can confirm Google made the right choice," Libes said, referring to the search engine's acquisition of AdMob.

At least one of the striking things about Ground Truth's data is how it belies the notion that major Web and offline media are strolling in to own the mobile platform. In fact, among the top ten sites ranked by page views, mobile-centric brands like MocoSpace and Cellufun are ever-present.

For the week of Jan. 4-10, Ground Truth reports these as the top ten page view grabbers. These numbers exclude pages served on operator portals. Ground Truth is not able to measure deck activity. No doubt a rank of unique users would look different. Notable absentees from this cut are ESPN and Weather.com, for instance.

1. MySpace

2. Facebook

3. Google

4. Mocospace

5. FunForMobile

6. AirG

7. Yahoo

8. Cellufun

9. Mbuzzy

10. Myxer

They tell me that in most cuts of the data, whether it is top 20 or 50, about half of the top mobile sites are mobile-centric brands. "I was expecting more like 20%," says Libes. "On a page view basis, Facebook and Mocospace often swap" the leadership position on any given day, he says. The amount of activity on social media, especially in page views, is not too surprising. Social nets like MocoSpace have told me in the past that they have seen average sessions of 100 page views as users rifle through member profiles. The same phenomenon occurs on the dating sites. One executive at Match.com told me that the company sees more per-session page view activity on their mobile app than they see on the Web site. In some ways, this is dubious for the content providers. That is an awful lot of raw inventory to fill.

Also revealing is the shallowness of Google's position in Ground Truth charts. While it is among the top page generators, with the most subscribers on mobile, "they don't have a lot of anything else," Libes tells me. Google is not nearly as strong on metrics like session time or bytes served.

Social media is the killer app when it comes to sheer tonnage on mobile. 62.5% of all mobile page views Ground Truth is measuring are going to social sites. Also surprising is the relative position of news reading, which Libes tells me has a fraction of the audience of social media. And the old myth that adult content drives interest in a new medium gets debunked by Ground Truth's metrics. On a page view basis, adult sites attract only 1% of mobile activity, although they do produce more bytes per page than other categories.

Let the usual pissing match over methods begin. I am sure we will hear both comScore and Nielsen weigh in shortly on the superiority of their respective metrics. At this stage I can't make much of a judgment. But it is good to have a different sort of measuring stick here that gets us to ask more questions about how users really access mobile content -- and where marketers should be placing their bets.

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