Editor’s Note: ComScore takes aim at Web bots with acquisition

August 17, 2014

One of my pastimes is reading earnings reports and the transcripts of the conference calls with investors that follow. A wise colleague once told me that all life’s secrets can be found in such documents, especially the footnotes.

I haven’t discovered all life’s mysteries, but I’ve learned a lot.

For instance, ComScore’s new chief executive, Serge Matta, offered food for thought the other week when he outlined the rationale for his Reston company’s recent purchase of another company with a fondness for odd capitalization, a Madison, Wis., outfit called MdotLabs.

ComScore’s business is measuring Internet traffic, where you and I go when we travel online. That’s become increasingly more difficult over the years. Not only has the number of on ramps multiplied with the advent of smartphones and tablets and whatnot, but the variety of information we consume is changing. It’s not just Web pages but video, tweets, streaming music and such.

Business decisions depend on that data, so it should not be a surprise that a cottage industry has grown up to fool the people who do the counting. This is particularly true for online advertising, where prices are based on the number of ad impressions a site serves up and how many clicks it gets. Matta said one group estimated that more than 30 percent of Web traffic is fake, generated by automated programs.

“ComScore data shows that in some digital ad campaigns, more than 50 percent of ads are served to non-humans,” he told analysts. “To ensure accurate reporting, a key goal of ComScore has been to detect and remove nonhuman traffic from our digital measurement.”

Which is why ComScore bought MdotLabs, with plans to absorb its team of 12 engineers and data scientists, including co-founders Timur Yarnall, and Paul Barford.

“MdotLabs uses signal processing, statistics, machine learning, and applied math to identify a variety of malicious activities including bots, click farms, pay-per-view networks, and a growing list of traffic generation techniques,” Matta explained.

So goes the cat-and-mouse game that continues to bedevil online commerce. Buyer beware.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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