|Despite the introduction of Nielsen Online Ratings last year, Media Federation of Australia (MFA) digital chair David Gaines and Audit Bureaux of Australia (ABA) chief executive Paul Dovas have come out swinging against issues with the current system which can allow "fabricated" numbers while favouring big publishers at the expense of the long tail.
In the recent issue of AdNews it was reported that whilst industry leaders have acknowledged the importance of Nielsen's hybrid approach - which combines a real-world panel with a ‘market intelligence' system involving the placement of tags within websites - they have argued big publishers such as Ninemsn, News Limited and Fairfax are not adopting a market-leading or transparent stance when it comes to supplying online numbers to Nielsen.
Although Nielsen monitors the placement of tags, Dovas told AdNews there are several ways tags can generate inaccurate numbers, such as if a tag is placed incorrectly on a page or if a page uses auto-refresh.
"The placement of tags is up to the publisher. There may be some basic checking done by Nielsen, but it has a commercial relationship with the publisher. There needs to be an independent auditor like the ABA. The auditing system is already in place but it's not compulsory. Publishers like Yahoo!7 and Telstra Ad Network have embraced auditing, but News Limited, Fairfax and Ninemsn have not adopted it in a very big way," he said.
"It's their call if they don't want to be accountable. In other markets, the big guys get behind these kinds of initiatives, but it's not happening here. I'm not saying there is anything dodgy going on or that they are purposely falsifying numbers, but if they are not audited there are so many ways numbers can be inaccurate, often from simple oversights with tag placement. It looks like some of the publishers don't want to address the issue in case it affects their numbers."
Meanwhile, Gaines has placed much of the blame with media buyers. "We need to know we are buying standard figures across all publishers. A lot of it is our fault because we keep buying from these publishers. The fix is easy. We need to be putting pressure on them. We need to say we won't buy from you unless you're audited," he said.
Nielsen media practice group head Matt Bruce acknowledged issues such as auto-refresh and incorrect placement of tags can inflate traffic numbers, but he countered by arguing the Nielsen panel makes sure these inaccuracies are filtered out in the hybrid figures.
Gaines, however, said the market intelligence figures should still be as accurate as possible to allow for the most robust numbers, regardless of the panel.
Paul Fisher, chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) of Australia, expressed a different view. "It's easy to say the big guys aren't auditing, but it's a bit more complex than that. First, the industry as a whole - and I'm talking about publishers, buyers and auditors - needs to decide what auditing should look like. We need to figure out a framework and then decide if it should be compulsory," he said.
"We are in the process of developing a compliance framework from scratch, which will look at the ABA's voluntary auditing of Nielsen's market intelligence, as well as the IAB's audit of the panel. I don't know of any compulsory auditing anywhere in the world. Keep in mind buyers don't have to buy from sellers. It would be nice if everyone were audited but it doesn't hinder buying and selling."
A spokesperson for Fairfax said the company would support the IAB's compliance framework when it is introduced, while a Ninemsn spokesperson said: "If there was cross-industry support for independent auditing - agency, advertiser and other publishers - it is something we would consider." News Limited referred AdNews to the IAB.
Both Dovas and Gaines also expressed concerns about the 7,700-strong panel itself, and argued it favours the big publishers. "Because the panel is only a certain size, it often doesn't pick up a big chunk of the small to mid-sized publishers," Dovas said. "Many that do get included in the panel are saying their numbers are unreliable and all over the place. It's causing anxiety. This is made worse when the panel is run alongside tag data that could have potential errors."
Drew Parkes, managing partner of mid-sized publisher Urban Geek, said: "The hybrid system seems to disadvantage the long tail. You could have good market intelligence numbers, but if there aren't enough people on the panel looking at your site you won't show up in the hybrid numbers."
Nielsen's Bruce admitted the panel could serve as a "frustration" for some, and said Nielsen is constantly trying to improve the panel to be more inclusive. However, he also said increasing the sample size would be too expensive.