But neither Quantcast nor Google nor improved products from ComScore and Nielsen Online could, by themselves or in combination, fix display advertising and thereby ensure the future health of media.
Whatever audience measurement tools are adopted, they will themselves have to be validated by an independent party. Quantcast, ComScore, and Nielsen Online (but not Google) are all in the process of being audited by the Media Rating Council (MRC), which was established by the U.S. Congress in the 1960s to audit and accredit the ratings of broadcasters. Accreditation will smooth disputes about the different audience measurement methodologies, according to George Ivie, the chief executive of the MRC: “It will help bring the numbers closer together; and it will explain and make transparent the differences between the census and panel systems.”
In addition to the disagreements about the size of Web audiences, though, online advertising suffers from deep structural problems that must be addressed before media planners and their advertising clients will spend really large sums. These are various and dauntingly technical, but according to David Smith, they all involve, in one way or another, the absence of commonly accepted, automated means to create, sell, serve, and track the performance of online ads.
Fixing all that will take years, as will the adoption of undisputed audience measurement methods. “This industry is only 13 years old,” says Smith. “It grew rapidly with few standards for six years. Then it collapsed, with very little research and development for four years, and has just been getting back to the right kind of R&D and standards in the past three.”
Still, by any estimate, the general confusion about Web audiences is the reason why the online medium has matured in so ungainly a fashion. “It’s an amazing topic,” wrote Roger McNamee in a conversation using the messaging service of the social network Facebook. “You could see it coming a mile away. Unfortunately, the remedy is not yet obvious.”
Jason Pontin is the Editor in Chief and Publisher of Technology Review.