IVillage Ad Triggers Ratings Dispute

SAN FRANCISCO (05/23/2000) - The misuse of Web site traffic data in ads by iVillage has erupted into a debate over the proper reporting of ratings data.

IVillage ran three ads in April in Advertising Age and The Advertiser magazines that compared iVillage traffic with the traffic of its top competitors, Women.com and Oxygen Media, boasting that iVillage was the top women's site.

The iVillage advertisement, which used January traffic data from Media Metrix, stated that 7.3 million people visited iVillage, while traffic to competing sites was lower: It stated that Women.com received 4.3 million visitors, and Oxygen Media saw 1.7 million.

But the figures were not an apples-to-apples comparison. Although all three sites are AOL content partners, iVillage included the AOL network traffic only to its own content and not to the other sites' content. Some 1.3 million visitors went to iVillage within AOL's proprietary network in January. Even without that additional AOL traffic in January, iVillage was the clear traffic leader. Although Women.com would not divulge their audience figures that include AOL traffic, the latest March numbers from Media Metrix indicate that the Web audiences for iVillage and Women.com properties are creeping closer together, with both sites settling near 5.7 million unique visitors. The traffic inside AOL's proprietary network is counted by Media Metrix only as AOL traffic - not as traffic to a content partner's site.

However, sites can make a special request from Media Metrix to tally this additional traffic which is not regularly reported. In order to get complete traffic data on competitors, sites must provide the precise parameters for competing sites - complete with all the Web addresses and AOL's proprietary network areas to be tracked. As part of an ongoing competitive analysis and for use in promotions, iVillage officials said they requested reports from Media Metrix that include all Web property and proprietary AOL traffic for both iVillage and its competitors. However, iVillage officials assert that they were never required to provide exact site definitions for Women.com and Oxygen Media. Media Metrix says iVillage did provide specifications but could not locate this information as of press time. Also in question was whether iVillage failed to get Media Metrix's approval to use the figures.

Normally, when sites use ratings data in a press release or advertisement, Media Metrix must review and approve the usage of their figures prior to publication. IVillage says, however, that Media Metrix provided the custom reports with the full knowledge that these reports were partly intended for marketing purposes and that iVillage therefore didn't need to run them past Media Metrix. IVillage also failed to use the most currently available statistics in the ad. February Media Metrix data became publicly available on March 21, a few weeks prior to the early April ad deadline for Advertising Age.

In that February data, iVillage and Women.com were neck-and-neck as Web properties, attracting 5.8 million and 5.1 million unique visitors, respectively - leaving out proprietary AOL traffic for both. Competitor Women.com responded to the situation by sending a letter in early May to its advertisers alluding to the misstated traffic numbers and touting their own recent rise in unique visitors. Confusing and inconsistent use of audience measurement in dot-com marketing materials will not let up anytime soon. Says Stacie Leone director of marketing communications for Media Metrix, "Many clients issue press releases without running them past us."

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