Peter Kafka

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ComScore’s Gift to Web Publishers: (Almost) Free Traffic [UPDATED]

trafficHey Web publishers! Want to boost your traffic overnight? Talk to comScore, which is handing out millions of unique visitors.

The Web’s dominant traffic counter is in the midst of overhauling its traffic-counting system in response to years of complaints from publishers who insist that their traffic has been undercounted.

Turns out, the publishers were often right.

ComScore’s old data, for instance, say the Huffington Post attracted 9.95 million unique visitors in December. But its new numbers peg HuffPo’s December traffic at 20 million uniques.

The difference is that comScore’s (SCOR) old system tracked small panels of users and extrapolated their traffic patterns across the Web. But its new “hybrid” system uses panel data along with records generated by actual visits to the site, counted via tracking cookies. Publishers that cooperate with comScore (SCOR) agree to let the company “tag” every Web page on their sites.

“This is a much much better, much more methodologically rigorous way of doing this,” says Linda Abraham, comScore’s chief marketing officer.

ComScore has been rolling out the new system for months and says it can now use it to report on 25 percent of the 50 biggest sites on the Web. Another 50 percent of the top sites have agreed to work with the system, Abraham says.

ComScore lets publishers who are already clients participate in the program for free. But it will charge everyone else $10,000 a year, which the company says helps cover the cost of new servers and other equipment it needs to process the new deluge of data.

UPDATE: Some more detail on comScore’s fees, which generated a Web flare-up after this piece ran. Abraham notes that comScore’s set-up fee is $5,000, which she says covers implementation costs and gives publishers access to its data for six months; comScore charges publishers who want to keep receiving reports an additional $5,000 for each subsequent six-month period. However, Abraham notes, “If you choose not to purchase report access, you are free to do that, and we’ll continue to report you as hybrid, free of charge, as long as you continue to beacon correctly.” For more from Abraham, see her response to Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis’s criticism; here’s the company’s blog post on the subject.

The new system doesn’t necessarily generate a traffic boost. AOL’s (AOL) Living channel saw its numbers decline by two percent in the new system, for instance, and its radio site saw traffic drop by 20 percent. AOL’s overall traffic, though, is up nine percent by comScore’s count.

Hybrid measurement is particularly kind to small Web sites and those that generate a lot of traffic from users who visit while at work. Both categories have always been difficult for comScore to measure using panels. (TSCM), for instance, has watched its traffic shoot up 86 percent under the new system, to 3.3 million uniques. That’s still much less than the site itself reports–in its last quarterly filing, the financial network reported an audience of 8.1 million uniques.

The fact that comScore is tracking some Web sites using the new system and the rest of them with the old one will make things a bit sticky for some time. The company has stopped releasing its monthly Top 50 list until May, when it says it will have moved almost all participating sites into the hybrid system.

But some sites won’t end up working with comScore at all, which means that comScore will measure them with its old panel methodology. At some point, the company will be presenting apples-to-oranges numbers when it compares different sites.

Does any of this really matter? Yes and no.

Ad buyers do pay attention to comScore rankings when figuring out where to place their money, even as Web publishers have presented their own, higher numbers from their own server logs. For some sites, the new data will make their pitches more compelling.

On the other hand, this does nothing to solve the real problem facing most publishers: They can’t sell ads against all of their inventory, no matter who’s counting it. And a measurement system won’t ever be able to help with that one.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus