November 1, 2007
Looking at the Google/Nielsen Partnership in Light of This Year's Developments

One of the biggest pieces of news making the rounds of late is Google's further movement into the television industry with the announced partnership with Nielsen to help provide second-by-second ratings information, starting with a test market. I wanted to link this back to the trends we've been discussing here at the C3 blog for the past several months, to think about all that this means, and doesn't mean, for the industry.

First, Google having its eye on television advertising is hardly new news, although its application to audience measurement through Nielsen is. I wrote about the Echostar partnership Google started earlier this year in a post back in April, which also touted bringing online precision of "measurability and accountability" online.

At the time, I wrote:

Even if Google provides one with precise ways to understand what users do, the problem is in the assumption that user behavior is the metric that matters. For advertisers, Joe is quite right that sales, in the end, are the only metric that truly matters. But I would further argue that, disconnect to sales behind, knowing what customers do doesn't tell me much about their engagement but rather what is happening on their television screen. It is still not measuring depth of engagement with the content or the advertising, which I think tells very little of the story. Sometimes I like to have noise on in my house and leave a TV on. Other times, I'm riveted while watching TV and can't take my eyes off the screen. Behaviorist reporting of what is on the screen tells us what but now why or how, and I think those qualitative questions, the ones that are not quite as easy to come up with some cure-all metric for, are the ones that get to the heart of user engagement.

Of course, these conversations about precision of accuracy in online measurement are fraught with controversy in and of themselves, as I wrote about earlier this month in relation to the controversies surrounding page view counts. I wrote:

The single most important question to address moving forward is how much we prioritize an accurate ratings system compared to a consensus ratings system. After all, one is much easier to reach than the other. 100 percent accuracy is impossible, since we can argue endlessly about the weight given to page views, versus time spent on a page, versus more active engagement with content and ads, and so on. But how close can we get to the myth of complete transparency in pageviews online?

The model with Nielsen moves toward some of these same goals, and definitely the same rhetoric, as the Brian Stelter New York Times article points out, with Google talking about "more accountability," "better sense of the audience," and "better tools."

Of course, this is a model where all commercials are created equal, and all viewing is created equal, something C3 (our organization at MIT, not the metric from Nielsen) has rallied against. But also keep in mind that Nielsen/Google is not the first to do second-by-second ratings, as TNS Media Intelligence moved that direction a little while back, as I wrote about back in August. I wrote:

How does that anecdote relate? I feel much the same about second-by-second measuring. I still think it's important to realize that these measurement numbers, taken on their own, are somewhat arbitrary and only provide a limited amount of insight, but it is generalized and quantifiable insight that makes shows and commercials comparable, which has definite value. In a perfect world, there would be a way to avoid the generalizations that come along with quantification, but we don't live in a perfect world, and there has to be some way to make comparisons.

For more, see Kevin Downey's article over at Media Life.