Online advertising performance claims: are they a scandal?

Sorry to sound like a stuck record, but I need to return to the subject of the clickthrough claims being made to companies like yours by news and directory websites. The thing is, I’m beginning to think there’s something scandalous going on. I’ve mentioned the differences between what websites claim to send you, and what you record in Google Analytics, several times in the past – as recently as this time last week. Since then, I’ve been contacted by one client after another saying: “Chris, I checked some of these reports I get, and can you confirm that I’m interpreting my Google Analytics data correctly? I see just half a dozen visits from Blue Widget World Online this year, yet the site claims to have sent two hundred visitors. If it was a small discrepancy, I could understand it. But this is huge.”

Although I have access to many companies’ Google Analytics data, I don’t see the reports which most of you get from news and directory websites concerning their clickthrough traffic. Now I’m seeing more of these reports, I’m amazed. Fifteen years ago, as an independent website publisher, it was quite acceptable to count the “clicks” on every advert or link without trying to determine whether the “click” had been made by a real human visitor or a web-crawling robot. For one thing, it was difficult to tell. And there wasn’t so much robot traffic anyway.

This is 2014, however. Every website is being hit by robot traffic all day long. If those robots follow a link (such as an advert) from another site to yours, the other site shouldn’t be telling you that they’ve just sent you a “clickthrough”. But I think many of them are doing just that.

If a publisher says your advert was clicked on 100 times last month, you have every right to assume that means 100 real humans clicked on the ad. When your Google Analytics report shows that only 3 did so, you shouldn’t be writing this off as you not understanding Google Analytics, as many companies seem to be doing. You should be asking the publisher to prove their claims.

Many sites seem to use a system of sending any advert clicks through an invisible intermediate page before forwarding them to your website, and counting the “hits” on that page as the number of clickthroughs they send you. If that’s the case, it should be easy for them to look at their own website access log for you, and pull out the lines containing the “hits” on these intermediate pages. If the clicks were made by real people, the lines will show the browser details quite clearly.

If you try this, I’d love to see the results. I think many advertisers have a right to be very angry at the moment, and some might even want to demand their money back.

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