Google to partner with researchware firm comScore

October 28th, 2006

The Washington Post has an article on how Google is expanding its Web reach to Madison Avenue.

“The firm is developing new Web video ad formats that could give TV commercials a run for their money and has been staffing up new projects to sell ads offline in newspapers and magazines and on radio. Earlier this month, Google’s ambitions were on display when it opened its new office in the old Port Authority building, covering 1 1/2 floors on an entire Manhattan block in the funky Chelsea neighborhood. The company has recruited executives from some of the biggest media firms and is rapidly expanding its 500-member team here in an attempt to cultivate relationships with Madison Avenue and large advertisers.”

The most interesting part of the article, at least to me, talks about Google’s plans to team with the “researchware” fim comScore, a company whose practices some consider controvertial.

“Teaming with online research firm ComScore Networks Inc., Google is trying to correlate the effectiveness of each ad by tracking the number of people exposed to it who later perform searches about the product. For example, people who visited the site this summer were shown an image of a Volvo sport-utility vehicle advertising the car for lease at $389 a month. ComScore placed “cookies,” or tracing files, on the computers of visitors and tracked how many typed the word “Volvo” or “Volvo SUV” into a search box weeks or months later. During the Web campaign for the Volvo’s XC90, Google said 39 percent of Internet users who were exposed to the ads later conducted online searches for Volvo cars.”

Correlating viewing an advertisement with actually changing the behavior of the viewer, as evidenced by their subsequent searches, sounds like an advertiser’s dream. And one that will be hard to resist.

comScore describes itself as maintaining a “massive proprietary databases that provide a continuous, real-time measurement of the myriad ways in which the Internet is used and the wide variety of activities that are occurring online.” Here’s how they describe their approach

“At the core of comScore Networks is our proprietary data collection technology. Massively scalable, this system allows us to capture a comprehensive view of surfing and buying behavior of more than 2 million participants in an extremely cost-effective manner. These members, representing a cross section of the Internet population, give comScore explicit permission to confidentially monitor their online activities in return for valuable benefits such as server-based virus protection, sweepstakes prizes, and the opportunity to help shape the future of the Internet.” [source]

If this sounds a bit like spyware, read on.

“comScore technology is downloaded to any browser in a matter of seconds and unobtrusively captures and sends information regarding a participant’s Internet browsing and purchasing behavior to comScore’s server network, without requiring any further action on the part of the individual. The technology allows comScore to capture the complete details of communication to and from each individual’s computer — on a site-specific, individual-specific basis. This includes every site visited, page viewed, ad seen, promotion used, product or service bought, and price paid, while excluding sensitive personal information regarding an individual (such as account numbers, user ids, passwords, etc.).” [source]

Ok, you are probably wondering how you can sign up to get chances to win “attractive sweepstakes prizes” while doing your part to “to impact and improve the Internet”. Don’t call them, they’ll call you, at least with probability p.

At the heart of the comScore Global Network is a sample of consumers enlisted via Random Digit Dial (RDD) recruitment – the methodology long endorsed by many market and media researchers. comScore also employs a variety of online recruitment programs, which have been time-tested through the years in which the comScore Global Network has been in operation. …

But, while many are called, fewer are chosen.

… our network includes hundreds of thousands of high-income Internet users – one of the most desirable and influential groups to measure, yet also one of the most difficult to recruit. comScore determines the size and characteristics of the total online population via a continuous survey spanning tens of thousands of persons over the course of a year. The sample of participants in this enumeration survey is selected via RDD methodology. Respondents are asked a variety of questions about their Internet use, as well as descriptive information about themselves and their households. The result is an accurate and up-to-date picture of the universe to which the comScore sample is projected.

comScore’s approach has been criticized before, as outlined in this 2004 CNet article. But comScore calls what they do “researchware”, a term they’ve invented to cover products that gather information for market research purposes and fully disclose what they are doing and why. Not everyone is comfortable with the distinction and some universities, including Cornell and Princeton, have warned their students away from agreeing to use comScore. See this 2005 MSNBC article, Researchware watches where you click, for a discussion of the spyware vs. researchware issue.

And here’s one final disquieting fact. As I understand it, comScore works not with cookies but by routing its opt-in customers’ Web browsing activities through a proxy server. As a man in the middle, this lets them decrypt secure transactions going over HTTPS connections to collect information. And they do. The use another secure HTTPS connection, of course, to complete the transaction and they go to great lengths to assure their users that they don’t collect obviously sensitive information. But still — this is a quite a concession for any of us to make in return for the opportunity to win “attractive sweepstakes prizes”.