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Why Pay for Online Audience Metrics When You Can Get Them For Free?

Everyone loves getting something for nothing, particularly when that something has a pretty decent price tag associated with it. What am I talking about here? It’s online audience metrics, which until now were primarily available to organizations willing to subscribe to comScore or Neilsen Online.

So who’s out there shaking things up? It’s our old chum Google!

Yes, in the very near future, Google is expected to announce its own online audience measurement tool aimed at helping advertisers identify the best places to reach their target audience and purchase online ads by telling them which sites they visit. Not only will the tool be free, but it will also have a different means of collecting user data than either comScore or Neilsen Online, which many believe will make it better and more accurate.

Specifically, Google’s tool will be based mostly on data from Web servers, which will allow for a more in-depth and broad-based view of internet use. Comparatively, both comScore and Neilsen Online gather usage data by tracking panels of people and what they do online or by conducting surveys. This methodology has the ability to make results inconsistent and incomplete as you are in reality measuring a small segment of the online population and then aggregating those results to make more broad-based observations about the marketplace as a whole. In comparison, Google’s tool, which will still rely on some data gleaned from panels, will measure a much broader segment of the population as it will be deployed across their entire very, very expansive ad network.

While Google’s system does not appear infallible (it’s cookie-based and users can delete cookies), the sheer size of Google’s user base and network has the potential to make this a very revolutionary system and shake-up the way online activity is measured. And because it’s being offered for free, it will make this kind of intelligence more of a commodity and level the playing field in terms of online media planning and buying.

What do I mean by “leveling the playing field”? Simply stated, services like comScore and Neilsen Online cost money and are available only to those who can afford them. However, by Google making audience data free of charge, it will enable everyone to leverage it and make more intelligent decisions about how they plan and buy online media. Therefore, while such intelligence has primarily been available to big agencies or companies and touted as a competitive advantage that smaller rivals just don’t have access to, this will no longer be the case. Hence, what is exciting about Google’s forthcoming tool is that it will enable everyone to make more accurate and confident decisions about the buys being executed and the targets being reached, which should in turn lead to an overall increase in the ROI associated with online advertising. And in an era of heightened accountability, this will likely only make advertisers more comfortable with committing more dollars online.

But the true value that I see in a tool such as Google’s coming to market, is not just that it’s going to level the playing field, lead to increased budgets and provide free access to data that was previously only available to those with the means to pay for it, but that it’s going to force us as marketers to become better at what we do. In order to be competitive, we’re now going to be forced to further evolve our thinking.

So in the online media planning and buying space where will the competitive advantage now come from? Simply stated, it will no longer be enough to say you have access to and spout audience statistics, as soon everyone will be able to do this. Rather you will need to demonstrate that you understand and know how to use and apply this data.

The truth is, while everyone likes statistics, people love it when you can demonstrate that you know what they mean and apply this knowledge to solve real business issues. With Google’s forthcoming tool, we’ll all soon be able to know who is going where and doing what. But now, to truly differentiate your plans and buys, you’ll need to demonstrate that you not only have the data, but understand what it means and the business benefits derived from it, and this is what will separate the leaders from the pack.

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