Publisher condemns 'deeply flawed' web traffic ruling

A niche IT news website censured by the advertising watchdog over its traffic claims has described the ruling as ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘potentially lethal’ for small online publishers.

Contractor UK, which provides news, features and job listings for IT workers, was rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority because the user numbers it quoted in an email newsletter were based on Google Analytics data and could not be independently verified.

The ASA told the publisher not to repeat its claim to be “the UK’s most visited IT contractor site” – but accepted that telling readers it had 249,146 unique visitors in March 2008 was “unlikely to mislead”.

The regulator was asked to intervene following a complaint by a rival site, Contractor Calculator, which questioned whether the traffic claims could be backed up.

Contractor UK told the regulator that it had “always used trusted and reliable methods” to measure the site’s traffic – and sent a Google Analytics report backing up the figures.

But the ASA ruled that this evidence was “insufficiently robust”, as it was possible that the figures “could include double counting and could report invalid traffic”.

“We understood that the software used by CUK could deliver unique user figures to industry agreed standards if it was correctly implemented,” the watchdog said.

“However, we understood that, because the figures had not been audited, it was not possible to know if the software had been correctly implemented.”

Contractor UK said the ruling was “deeply flawed” and said it was unrealistic to expect small publishers to pay four-figure sums to have their traffic officially audited by ABCe.

“Contractor UK chose Google, as a trusted authority on the internet, for measuring traffic via cookies which is perceived as offering the most accurate means of measuring unique visitors from the measurement options available,” it said.

“Based on the evidence we provided, the [ASA] noted that the data showed we did indeed receive the visitor numbers we advertised so the ruling on substantiation is incredibly frustrating and frankly doesn’t make any sense.”

The publisher added: “This ruling will strike fear into the many other businesses who also depend on being able to advertise their traffic.

“Few online businesses currently audit and with the cost of just one month’s auditing (including a registration fee) being a minimum of just over £4,000, this is extremely prohibitive for the world outside of national newspaper sites, especially in today’s tough climate.”

The ruling was welcomed by the rival Contractor Calculator site, which had posted an ABCe-audited web traffic figure of 104,584 in March 2008.

The site’s chief executive, Dave Chaplin, said he was eager for online publishers to use the ASA ruling to agree on best practice and “impose a level playing field for all”.

“Self-regulation of our industry through industry agreed standards and independent verification by third party audit will serve to raise confidence in digital media advertising,” he said.

Rafi Azim-Khan, a partner at City law firm Pillsbury Winthrop, which specialises in marketing law, added: “Most online business models rely heavily on advertising. More and more traditional advertisers are increasing their online presence and spend.

“However the sector is crying out for clearer standards to audit traffic claims and prevent those making buying decisions or choosing between sites from being misled.

“This is in many ways a landmark ruling as it makes the key regulator’s position clear.

“Claims must be capable of substantiation and traffic figures must be independently audited, so site owners should be getting specialist advice before making any traffic or visitor or other website claims, as well as an ABCe certification.”

Internet Advertising Bureau chief executive Guy Phillipson said it was crucial that clear and impartial justification was given whenever a publisher made traffic claims.

“The ruling from the ASA clearly demonstrates the importance of having industry- agreed metrics to measure unique users to online media platforms,” he said.

“Organisations will now recognise the need to be extremely careful when making public statements on the popularity of a website, and should consider the importance of providing proof when making such claims.”

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