The battle to become the standard source of website viewership figures in the region heated up Tuesday, as the global research firm Nielsen launched its internet audience measurement system in Dubai. Last month, Real Opinions, based in Dubai, launched its own system for measuring website traffic. Both companies have been trialling their products with internet publishers in the region since earlier this year.
Advertisers and media buyers typically base their online advertising spending on the volume and demographics of a website's visitors. Currently they have to rely on the publisher's own figures. In more mature forms of media, such as television, print and radio, independent audience measurement firms provide the data. Alongside the launch, Nielsen announced that it had secured influential customers for its system. ITP, based in Dubai, the largest magazine publisher in the UAE, will use the system across its family of websites, as will Maktoob, the most popular online portal in the Middle East.
Tahir Khalil, the head of Nielsen Online in the region, said: "We've got the big players already committing to the system, and the pipeline for new clients is looking healthy as well." Real Opinions has signed up the UAE newspaper 7Days and the online news portal Al Bawaba, and said further customer announcements would be made in coming weeks. The availability of reliable, independent data on website viewership has proved to be an important turning point in online advertising markets around the world. Online ad spending has more than quadrupled in markets such as Australia and New Zealand in the years since Nielsen's service, and others like it, became available.
"Up until now, you've had to rely on one person showing you one set of numbers, and another person showing you something else," Mr Khalil said. "The main game from now is to standardise the numbers." Audience measurement systems rely on users downloading a "cookie", a small file that sits on their computer and alerts websites to a returning visitor. For privacy and security reasons, modern web browsers include an option to delete such cookies, and corporate IT departments often set up their company computers to do this on a regular basis.
But users who delete their cookies will be counted as new unique visitors to websites, inflating traffic figures. The system used by Real Opinions has a cookie that is much harder to delete than the one used by Nielsen, which says the technology Real Opinions uses raises privacy concerns. Its view is supported by a number of online privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the use of hard-to-delete cookies to track users who regularly delete more conventional cookies is "highly deceptive".
"By deleting cookies, consumers are clearly rejecting attempts to track them. Using an obscure technology to subvert these wishes is a practice that should be stopped," the centre said. Maktoob said privacy was one of the reasons the company chose to sign up for Nielsen's system. Real Opinions considers the difficulty in deleting its cookies to be a major strength, leading to more accurate visitor numbers and giving users the opportunity to permanently opt out of being tracked by the system. A number of large internet businesses, including Google and the American audience measurement company Quantcast, use technology similar to the Real Opinions system.