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No ABC, no online ads: the money men

Why? Because everyone's fudging the figures

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A lack of accountability is top marketers' main concern when taking ads out on Web sites. So says some research just released by the Marketing Forum.

At its bash in September, senior marketing bods filled out forms stating their main worries when dealing with the online world. A quarter of them "strongly agreed" that independent audits of Web sites were crucial and another 62 per cent "agreed". Over a third also put "Internet accountability" as a major concern.

This was music to the Audit Bureau of Circulation's ears, and so they quickly pumped out a press release pointing out that they do audit for Web sites.

The fact is, we completely agree with both the marketing boys and ABC here (a rare occurrence). Figure fudging is a part of every media but the Internet is the bastard son. Ad folk need to be certain about who and how many people they are reaching. And the people that run the media quickly become obsessed with such figures too.

The ABC is the industry standard for newspapers and magazines and it does a sterling job, so with the Internet becoming a more mature medium, if sites wish to work on a financial footing, an audit is important. Since the ABC is well recognised for this, why not give it the job? In fact, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested that very thing back in November.

The Guardian made big play about the fact that it is the only Web site that has a monthly ABC audit last week. This is where we need to come out from the ideal world and talk reality. Aside from the fact that many Web sites lie, or more accurately, fudge through their teeth about their success, ABC audits also cost money.

The Reg is actually having an audit next month. Our last one was in November 1999 (just over six million page impressions). Why the delay? Because first of all you have to pay to become a member of the ABC. And then each audit will cost you about £2,400 (if you pay ABC to do an audit every month, you get a lower price). Unless ad people demand ABCs before they hand over advertising, many sites will (rightly) not bother to cough up.

Plus, some people don't like the "level playing field". Recently, an Internet industry mag had a rundown on various UK Web sites, listing their size.

Imagine our amazement to see competitors quoting figures three to four times what we know they are doing. Not that they were lying. The currency of "hits" hides many an underperforming Web site - all you need to do is stick a few extra pics or buttons on the page. Or if you're feeling really saucy, you stick invisible pics on the site.

Then there's page impressions. A much better approach but it also favours hit-pimps and those sites that made poor navigation an art form. And they can be wangled too. Then you have your unique users. There's various different ways of working this one out and of course you choose the highest figure. We particularly like the habit of some to insist that since a visitor gave their name and some other fake details to win something, they come back and view the site every day of every week thereafter.

On the other side, if you have a lot of people reading your site at work, one place of work will register as just one IP address (or several addresses) and so you will greatly underestimate the readers (for example we know quite a few of the folk at Intel like to know what going's on in their company - but we see it as only four or five constantly logging on). This can account for an extra 10 to 15 per cent.

The fact is that it isn't a perfect science, but having someone like the ABC to give independent figures would make the situation a lot better. And the money men seem to have realised this as well. ®

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