Is having more data ever a bad thing? Advertisers and publishers have asked themselves this question since the June 2008 launch of two new Google tools. The first, Trends for Websites, is an extension of Google Trends. Like similar tools from Compete, Alexa, and QuantCast, it allows you to research Internet traffic volume for one or more URLs. Google Trends provided search volumes by keyword only, but this tool calculates a site’s audience via a combination of sources, “such as aggregated Google search data, aggregated opt-in anonymous Google Analytics data, opt-in consumer panel data, and other third-party market research” (Trends for Websites Help Page).
But the revamped Trends tool is only a small fragment of the real story – the launch of Ad Planner, a free tool to help advertisers identify the most relevant websites (publishers) to buy online ads from to reach their target audiences. Ad Planner provides details on a domain’s traffic volume, audience demographics, and competitors.
Ad Planner has had mixed reviews, ranging from concern that it might replace traditional ad measurement companies like comScore to protests from Microsoft that Google is infringing on privacy. These concerns arise from Google’s undisclosed “secret sauce” for gathering the data in Ad Planner – details of the combination of sources used.
Speculation abounds that Google may be gathering data from Google Toolbar users. Erick Schonfeld (Techcrunch, June 16, 2008) paints a fully integrated picture of the Toolbar reach – “[it] can track every site you visit, [so] that data could theoretically be used to target ads served by Google (including DoubleClick display ads anywhere on the Web, or to further refine search ads).” Some are concerned that Google Analytics data (individual and/or aggregate) is in Ad Planner – benchmarking, anyone?
Regardless of the speculation and protests about perceived privacy infringement, Ad Planner is certainly a significant addition to the host of direct measurement tools freely (or nominally) available. With reams of information available about Internet traffic volumes and audience demographics, advertisers of all sizes have the raw data in their hands to negotiate media rates and better define their target markets. Like car buyers walking into showrooms with invoice figures and reliability reports in hand, advertisers are positioned to negotiate and optimize more effectively than ever. But how accurate is the data?
I did a quick test using Alexa, Compete, QuantCast, and Ad Planner to gather traffic volumes on a site belonging to the company I work for. Ad Planner’s figures were by far the closest to reality; Alexa, followed closely by Compete, reported the most inaccurate figures. (Note that I did not use Compete’s Site Analysis, which does improve forecasting figures.)
If there is a bigger-picture fear around Ad Planner, it involves the potential next steps by a company that already dominates search into the display advertising marketplace. GoogleWatch said: “one source said this is Google’s bid to get a better idea of how to crack the online display advertising business…. Research puts Google’s display ad market share at a paltry 5 percent compared with Yahoo’s 20 percent or so”(eWeek, June 25, 2008). Speculation along these lines has merit when considered with Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, its continued investment in improving their content network, and the expansion into other media properties like YouTube.
So is having more data ever a bad thing? I think the answer is “it depends.” If it helps to provide a more equitable relationship between advertiser and publisher, if it increases the effectiveness of serving relevant ads to interested audiences, and if it expands the associated value to content-rich user experiences served by publishers – then it seems beneficial for the common good. On the other hand, is expansion of a single entity’s power deeper into the Internet advertising space a good thing for the common good? I think we can already answer that question by observing the pay-per-click market.