DoubleClicking Double Talk

About a month ago, in a Cocktail Chatter item, I mocked Internet ad agency DoubleClick (well, they’re not really an agency, but sort of an Internet ad buyer or something like that) for claiming to be the third most-visited service on the Web. This was a mockable claim because DoubleClick doesn’t actually have a Web service in the way that Yahoo! or even Slate does, just a series of ad trails on other Web sites. As I put it then (ah, quoting oneself: how preposterous): “It’s as if Omnicom or Interpublic ad agencies were to say they were the sixth most-watched network on television.”

When DoubleClick made the claim, it was pretty quickly contested by MediaMetrix, the monitoring service that had compiled the numbers from which DoubleClick had supposedly plucked the statistic. But in inimitable Internet-stock mania style, the news propelled the company’s stock price into the stratosphere nonetheless. In the intervening weeks, it’s tumbled at least part of the way back down to earth. And now we find out that DoubleClick knew all along that its claims were disingenuous at best. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the company told that by ranking themselves next to sites like Yahoo, DoubleClick was comparing “apples and oranges,” but that the comparison was justified because it was a way of making a point about the company’s newfound success.

Actually, you can’t make a point if the evidence you use to make that point is irrelevant. The whole purpose of invoking statistics to back you up is that the statistics are supposed to have something to do with your claim. What DoubleClick did is analogous to a movie studio saying that its films were the most popular in the country because the trailers were playing in a lot of different theaters. Or it’s analogous to … well, it’s analogous to any fabrication.

The bigger problem here, though, relates to the continued difficulty of getting an accurate reading on just how many people are using the Web in general and how many are visiting individual sites in particular. The Internet, for all of its commercialization over the last couple of years, remains something of a Wild West in terms of our real understanding of it, which is yet another of a host of reasons why the boom in Internet stocks rests on utterly shaky foundations. It’s not surprising, after all, that DoubleClick figured it could get away with an audaciously false claim about its company’s business. On Internet time, who’s paying attention five minutes later?