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Google adds measure for online ads to mix

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

If the Internet is so measurable, as one hears over and over from advertisers flocking to the Web, how come we keep getting new metrics to help us count?

Ask the question to some people in the business - "How measurable is the Internet, really?" - and you hear a laugh. Then you get wildly different answers.

"Compared to publishing on paper, it's way more measurable," said Avery Cohen of Metrist Partners, a Chicago-based Web analytics consulting firm.

"It's not as easy as what we used to do in print publishing: count the actual copies that come off the press," said publishing veteran Ray Costa of Flatiron Media, a firm that buys ads for mid-size Web sites.

"Actually, there is a lot of confusion," said Gian Fulgoni, chairman of ComScore Inc.

A new measurement tool launched Tuesday is different from others because it comes from Google, the Internet advertising king. Called the Google Ad Planner, it remains to be seen whether it will clear up the confusion or add complexity.

In one respect, having Google measure the effectiveness of a Web-based ad campaign is akin to allowing a Major League Baseball manager call balls and strikes when his hitters are at bat.

Google's stock, after all, trades at $542.30 (down 0.53 percent on the day) for a reason: It sells ads. Now it wants to tell you how effective they can be.

Google Ad Planner is designed to help media buyers measure the scope of the Web, diced by demographics, and deliver Web sites that a targeted audience would like to visit. This comes on the heels of another new product launched last week, Google Trends for Web sites, which measures the popularity of specific sites and where the traffic comes from, among other bits of data.

With those new products, "they are really stepping into the measurement and planning business," said Cohen.

And Google leaves a big footprint. The stock for ComScore Inc., one of the companies that charges for the type of analysis Google will offer for free through Ad Planner, lost 23 percent of its value, or $6.24, closing Tuesday at $21.45.

"I don't think this eliminates the need for our data and the functionality we bring," Fulgoni said when asked about Wall Street's sudden distaste for ComScore. "If the Google effort brings more advertisers online, that will be good for ComScore."

ComScore provides many services based on a panel of 2 million Web users that tell the company what they do and where they go online. Through the panel, it captures millions of page and ad views each day, enabling it to tell clients detailed information about the number of people that viewed a certain ad or those from a client.

Others companies in the business include Hitwise and Nielsen Online.

But how measurable is the Web, really?

"It may not be as measurable as advertisers really want," Fulgoni said of the Internet, not of ComScore's services. "It's not so easy to measure how many people see an ad because not everything that can be measured is relevant."

He responded to the point that a great thing about blogging, for example, is that you can see, exactly, where the reader is coming from.

"There are things that can be measured, there is no question," Fulgoni said. "But do you have all the measurements you need to measure the effectiveness of an ad? Absolutely not."

As examples, he cites consumers' habit of deleting cookies, the fact that sometimes, in a family or an office, multiple people use the same computer, and that a very significant percentage of Web searches aren't even done by humans.

Is a stop at your site by the "Googlebot" - what Google likes to call the automated trawlers it uses to seek new Web content to catalog - counted as a unique visitor?

These are some of the subtleties to measuring the Web.

Google didn't make anyone available Tuesday to talk about the details behind its new offering, but a spokesman said the tool's main purpose is to help media planners better understand their audience and then create a plan. It is a beta, or test, product that anyone can sign up and try, he said.

"The ad agencies are a bit nervous about how Google can enter into their business," Costa said. "Google has a real knack of taking a complicated thing and making it a simple tool."

He notes, though, that just being able to count Web visits isn't enough. Analyzing Internet traffic is both an "art and science," he said.

For example, Nielsen Online, in a statement about its own "comprehensive" research, noted that it tracks "buzz" - that loosely defined notion of what is hot.

Cohen cautions that measurability is good but it's not just counting clicks. "The bigger you are the more variability there is."

He likes to test how people react to different content. Some are simple and take a day, while others take as long as 90 days.

So will Google help with these measurements, with these subtleties of figuring out how measurable the Web really is? Will it be more accurate?

Cohen wasn't sure but he will start finding out: "We'll do a small test."

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