The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has issued a ruling against IT recruitment firm Contractor UK over claims that it is the "the UK's most visited IT contractor site".
Following a complaint by rival ContractorCalculator, the advertising watchdog investigated a recent Contractor UK newsletter which stated: 'The UK's most visited IT contractor site - online since 1998. Founded in 1999, Contractor UK remains the most visited IT contractor site in the UK. In March 2008 the Contractor UK network received 249,146 unique visitors making us the most visited and viewed contractor site in the UK.'
ContractorCalculator challenged whether Contractor UK could substantiate the figures it had provided, and the claim that it had been online since 1998.
Contractor UK sent the ASA web traffic reports from an independent third party for March 2008, which showed that it had received 249,346 unique visitors. The company also attempted to justify its assertion that it is 'the UK's most visited IT contractor site' by referring to an email from April 2008 in which ContractorCalculator claimed to be the 'leading internet resource for contractors with over 100,000 unique visitors per month'.
Contractor UK said that its data showed that it had received more than double that figure, and that its claim was substantiated.
However, owing to certain uncertainties about the calculation of the number of unique visitors to the site, the ASA ruled that Contractor UK should not use the figures, and that the claim of being the UK's most visited IT contractor site had not been substantiated.
The watchdog also ruled that Contractor UK could not sufficiently verify that it had been online since 1998.
As a result, Contractor UK has been told that the adverts must not appear again in their current form, and that it must ensure that it holds robust evidence to support all claims capable of objective substantiation.
"Contractor UK marketed to its advertisers using figures it has been unable to substantiate, and which appeared to show that it had over 170,000 more visitors than it had been claiming just a few days before," said Dave Chaplin, chief executive at ContractorCalculator.
"In the light of the ASA's ruling, one would have to question the value of what the advertisers have been paying for."
Chaplin considers this a landmark case that could be used as a precedent for future similar cases and to help build confidence in digital media advertising.
Rafi Azim-Khan, a marketing, e-commerce and IT expert and partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, agreed that it could prove a benchmark for other cases. "Most online business models rely heavily on advertising, and more and more traditional advertisers are increasing their online presence and spend.
"However, the sector is crying out for clearer standards to audit traffic claims and prevent those making buying decisions or choosing between sites from being misled.
"This is in many ways a landmark ruling as it makes the key regulator's position clear. Claims must be capable of substantiation, and traffic figures must be independently audited, so site owners should be getting specialist advice before making any traffic or visitor or other web site claims, as well as an ABCe certification."
Azim-Khan said that advertisers should insist on independent auditing to ensure that they are getting the exposure for which they are paying.
"Web site owners would also be wise to consider what might happen if buyers feel claims that cannot be substantiated induced them into buying space. Can they claim their money back? Given this ruling I think it is very much 'watch this space'," he concluded.
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