A Step Up From Verification: Q&A With Andrew Lerner, CEO, Trust Metrics

How do you quantitate quality?

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This year kicked off with a lot of noise regarding ranking quality of online content, as Google faced a barrage of media criticism over its search results becoming overpopulated with SEO-gamed links from so-called “content farms.” The bigger question behind the brouhaha was simply: “Can you quantitate quality?” Judging by its ongoing Panda algorithm update, it seems Google thinks the answer is yes (and arguably it’s backed up that answer).


But Big G isn’t the only one of that opinion. Technology companies such as Trust Metrics, which was recently tapped to apply its digital measurement standards to targeting platform [x+1]’s online ad inventory, have developed intense formulas for ranking of website content in terms of inventory transparency and, yes, quality. In effect, Trust Metrics aims to broach the next level of verification – serving as a content matchmaker between online advertisers and publishers.


CEO Andrew Lerner was kind enough to take some time to explain how Trust Metrics calculates its quality rating, including ad-related mesurements, and how publishers can take advantage of it.

Clue us in to what’s so unique about Trust Metrics quality score — can you detail how Trust Metrics calculates quality, or is it so complex that it will blow our little minds?


It’s all mind-blowing to me, so read with caution…


Trust Metric’s Quality Rating captures the overall media value of a web site or web page in a single score (or rating as we like to call it). It’s a quick overview that’s accurate, actionable, and drives performance – we’ve seen CPA drop by three times and click-through rates double across many campaigns.


We don’t look at users. We don’t use cookies. We don’t look at the advertising creative (yet). We simply look at the content and how it’s presented. One mind-blowing thing is how important the media itself is for both brands and direct marketers, when most of what the industry talks about is “buying audience.”


To calculate a rating, Trust Metrics collects data that no one else has (as far as we know) – about 16,000 unique data features from a single site with our crawlers. That’s up from the 75 or so we started out with. And it’s not just a big group of obvious features relating to context or safety concerns alone (we tried that and it didn’t work very well). There are just as many quality concerns online as there are unsafe environments – ad clutter, page level user generated content, and ad farms are good examples of the kinds of issues we look at and report out in.


Then we do the math – applying the statistics – that lets us use all of that data to generate our ratings. That is kind of mind-blowing, actually.


So while the process is very complex, all we’re really doing is the same thing media buyers have been doing from the first days of mass media. And we believe that the ad industry is in sore need in many ways of getting “back to basics.” In the end, the output is a simple, interpretable and actionable 0-100 score.


Why do you consider this score better than other quality rankings? It’s OK to gloat if you back it up…


We collect more data on more important features than the competition – 16,000 to be exact – but we don’t stop there. What other companies call quality rankings are still just safety ratings by another name or raw feature counts like the number of ads on a page (not a consistently relevant number). Trust Metrics is the only ad innovator to truly incorporate the quality of website construction and content in our ratings. When we say “quality” ratings we mean it. And that’s including, but absolutely not limited to, safety and content.


What are some of the ad-related measurements included in your overall quality ratings? Why do you consider these essential? Which ones should publishers be paying more attention to?


There is a recent obsession with above/below the fold when it comes to ad placement, and we think it hamstrings the industry, not to mention the premium brands that invest hard-fought for dollars in it. There are certainly differences in performance that make those numbers important, but both locations have their benefits. The Trust Metrics standard rating considers not just location related to the fold and number of ads, but location of ads in relation to consumable content and ad size. Sites that have no ad space also receive a drastic reduction in rating due to their evaluation as poor (or non-existent) advertising environments.


We also recently released a specific Ad Clutter rating – separate from our Quality Rating. That’s basically an old-fashioned analysis of ad to edit ratio along with positioning on a page or across a site.


Do you consider yourself an ad verification company? If not, how do you differ?


Trust Metrics is about delivering any relevant intelligence about the media itself. That information does two things: it drives performance and it gives a planner what they need – whether that’s a look into the quality of the media or a specific issue like “is this site an ad farm.”  That’s not verification companies do.


Where we are like those companies is that we also look at safety. But unlike them, we include that information at no additional charge as part of our standard product.  


We think of Trust Metrics as the next evolutionary step up from verification as advertisers attempt to better understand the value of digital media. Verification is certainly necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. While they address safety issues (necessary), the verification products don’t proactively find the right place for advertisers message because they simply don’t track the data we track and don’t report on the issues we report on.


How do you help publishers get “fair value” for producing high-quality content?


Our ratings are useful for both sides of the digital ad landscape. We ensure that advertisers don’t over-spend on low-quality content, and in turn, Trust Metrics ensures that publishers – particularly in scale environments – are properly rewarded for their efforts to provide worthwhile content. This usually means that available impressions are sold through at much higher rates because our clients on the buy side chose to buy on high-quality environments and our partners on the sell side want those sites sold first because they know performance will improve. And finally, networks that take the time to compile high-quality inventory can demand a premium.


Can you explain how pubs can use quality classifications? How do you ensure transparency?


Trust Metrics has done some work with publishers, but to date most of our focus has involved networks. We’re excited about our plans to launch a publisher report product next year that will offer publishers the ability to both see their ratings receive information on the areas in which they can improve their sites.    


How do networks use your ratings to vet incoming applicants to networks or exchanges? Is this customizable?


How they do it is really pretty simple. Scale sellers like exchanges or networks use our ratings as a benchmark to compare the media value of sites and vet for other issues like safety and non-English sites. If, say, a site applies to be in a network that works with us, then that network will ask us for a rating: via API, our web interface or managed services. We’ll send back anywhere from 5 to 15 distinct ratings for that site and a network will decide if they want to let that site into the network at all or how to value a site. Networks also use our ratings to manage and track existing inventory.


And yes, definitely customizable – pretty much everything we do is. Some sites might be great for a certain segment, say fashion, but not so much overall. For example, there are plenty of luxury-oriented blogs that we might give a more moderate or limited Standard Quality Rating. (That means they are probably only “ok” at best for many kinds of advertisers.)  But those sites would be perfect for a fashion advertiser.  So Trust Metrics created unique custom ratings to figure that out.


Trust Metrics identifies media that helps build brand identities — how can publishers use this to their advantage?

There are several ways this information can be useful to publishers. First, sales teams have a better understanding of what is important to their potential clients. Knowing the type of environment a brand finds desirable and has found success in can help drive future sales that are beneficial to everyone. Also, knowing the type of brands to seek out can save time wasted on brands that may not find that publishing environment beneficial to them. Finally, inventory can become more valuable as brands recognize a particular publisher as a great source of impressions for their brand.