Sifting the data on Web audiences

The Web site attracted nearly 16 million American visitors last month. Some of them got there by typing in the address directly; others used a search engine, linking to company’s site via nearly 25,000 different keywords, including “iTunes,” “iPod” and “iPhone.”

So says Compete, a company based in Boston that tracks Internet traffic. How does it know? It has installed its software in the computers of 100,000 Americans – with their permission – allowing the company to track their every movement on the Internet. It gets additional, anonymous data on about two million American Web users from Internet service providers.

That is a lot of people, but a far cry from the total U.S. Internet population – more than 200 million, according to some estimates. Like other monitors of Internet traffic, including Nielsen Online, Hitwise and ComScore, Compete extrapolates total Web audience figures from such samples, in a system similar to the panel-based research that is used to measure television audiences.

Marketers rely on these numbers because they are skeptical about data submitted by individual Web publishers, which often seem to overstate their own audiences, at least by comparison with independent measures.

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