Commentary

Metrics Standards: Who's In Charge -- And Watching The Store?

I got a call from a company that I am advising that was looking for advice on certification. They were the first to put onto my radar that the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) had announced its Digital Technology Accreditation program, with the first accreditation going to Clearspring, the "world's leading widget syndication and tracking service." A similar accreditation has recently been granted by IMServices for Massive.

This interested and bothered me at the same time. In the first place, accreditation has historically been the purview of the MRC (Media Rating Council). My perception is that they have only performed accreditation after there has been a standard set and audits performed against that standard. ABC has been in the magazine circulation audit category for a long time. Not sure how this body has declared itself as an accreditation body, too. I understand that this is happening with other organizations like the BPA as well. I have been told that there is also accreditation of unique visitor counts of site log files by independent auditors.

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I hope I am wrong here, but if this is happening, those doing so are unclear about the basis for accurate unique visitor counts. It is generally accepted that log file analyses produce unique visitor counts that are inflated, as they cannot allow for double counting due to cookie deletion as well as cookie blocking. Both of these situations create single application cookies -- these appear as a single visit or first-use cookie for the calculation of uniques, which leads to the same browser being counted multiple times as a unique.

In my mind, to give these counts the mark of accreditation is just plain wrong. Another problem is that of labeling unique browser counts as "users" when in fact we don't know how many people the browsers represent. Draft guidelines are being worked on by the IAB and the MRC on this topic.

Generally, accreditation of any counting methodology or actual count has only been performed after an industry standard has been agreed to. Now, in the defense of the ABC, the BPA, IMServices and others, industry standard-setting has taken a back seat in recent years. Most of the industry standards proposals have been generated by the IAB, the body representing Internet sellers.

The IAB has done a fine job under Randall Rothenberg and Greg Stuart before him, but there needs to be representation from all interested parties at the table when standards are set. The AAAAs, representing the agencies, generally respond to standards as proposed by the IAB, as does the ANA, the body representing advertisers. But neither do much in this arena itself.

Over 50 years ago, the ANA and the AAAAs founded the ARF for this purpose, among others. In fact, in its piece on how it serves the advertising industry on the ARF Web site, one of the precepts is "Developing, publishing and promulgating industry standards and guidelines." Unfortunately, this link is dead. This pretty much speaks for itself.

The MRC has stepped into this vacuum at the request of the AAAAs to work with the IAB in writing guidelines which the AAAAs, the ANA and the public get to vet. But we believe that there still needs to be greater involvement from all parties and clarity in the industry relative to responsibility for standards setting.

The result is that individual companies are going around setting standards on their own. Maybe the interactive industry (buyers, sellers, advertisers and technology companies) needs to start a group to take responsibility (a new organization we could call the DARF or Digital Advertising Research Foundation?) for interactive/digital advertising standards, rather than leave them up to the sell side or independent vendors to decide.

In the meantime, the vacuum will continue -- and certification from the MRC, which should be a gold standard, becomes diluted if any individual body can start performing accreditation on its own -- especially when it is performed by auditors certifying their own work and not against an established industry standard.

By the way, in its release, the ABC calls Clearspring the "world's leading widget syndication and tracking service." I wonder how they know? Given that Appssavvy, Gigya and Slide all make similar claims, one would think that the ABC would make sure of the claims that they permit to go into their press releases if they are going to go out on a limb and claim to be an accreditation body.

I can always count on the readers of this column to set me straight when I am off-base. Let me know what you think, as always.

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