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ComScore: Defending The Google ‘Miss’; Value Of Third-Party Data Debated

After taking a beating last night, comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) is out defending itself from the charge that its Google (NSDQ: GOOG) paid click numbers were inaccurate. In a post on the company’s blog, analyst Andrew Lipsman makes some fair points: First off, he notes that data that comScore releases to the public each month only refers to Google search ads in the US, and not to international numbers, or to Adsense ads on partner sites. He’s also right in noting that comScore hadn’t attributed its projected decline to the economy (as some interpreted) — in fact back in February, it made a point of downplaying the meaning of its numbers, after a release caused Google stock to sink.

Here’s the problem for comScore, and it goes back to the saying about a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing: Each month, it releases a little scrap of data for the hungry to fight over. And taken in a vacuum, without more information (international, Adsense, CPC movement, etc.) it’s difficult to know what any of it means. So people misinterpret it, and that misinterpretation gets pegged, fairly or unfairly, to the company. So if it wants to get some promotional juice out of these releases — in order to bolster the company’s paid business — it needs to do a better job of explaining what it’s putting out.

— Picking up the discussion, reliance on third party data is the topic of this weekend’s Bernstein Media Blast. Analyst Michael Nathanson writes: “As we write this, Google is up in the pre-market by over 15% as fears of declining paid clicks were more-than assuaged by strong reported results. During the first quarter, Google’s stock swooned on days when the third-party data provider comScore reported weakening Google paid click data. According to comScore’s data, Google’s paid click growth sharply declined from 12% in December to 0% in January and 3% in February. This calamitous situation caused many market participants to surmise that Google’s best days where behind it. Why not? They saw the data.”

“The unintentional game of “bait-and-switch” that just occurred with Google is unfortunately becoming an all-to familiar occurrence to media investors and sell-side analysts. As we see it, the increased need to get an edge on short-term company results has created a booming demand for 3rd party data providers. Companies like comScore, NPD, IRI, Nielsen Media, Smith Travel and Arbitron have generated increased revenues by selling their products to data-point hungry investment analysts.”

Ultimately, the piece is not an indictment of comScore or anyone else, but of analysts who fail to acknowledge the limitations of the info. And it should be noted that after falling hard after hours last night, comScore has made up most of the loss, so at least for now, it doesn’t look like there will be a long-term fallout from this event. After all, it’s only one data point.

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