Facebook stats glitch highlights need for independent stat reporting

Cafe World had been sitting comfortably at around 20 million monthly users for the entire month of July. So it was a bit of a surprise when Facebook's public statistics (as reported by AppData) showed the game's user base shooting up 75% over a period of three days, to a high of over 35 million monthly players at the end of the month. The change wasn't limited to Cafe World either -- dozens of games saw stratospheric increases in the same period.

Facebook eventually confirmed to Inside Social Games that the sudden increases were due to a bug in their reporting. But this temporary problem highlights the risk of trusting Facebook to report on the success of its own games without independent verification.

Facebook gaming stats aren't just a fun way to monitor the popularity of your favorite social games. For the companies that make the games, these stats provide an important public barometer of their success. As Gamezebo's Joel Brodie points out, "Game companies are trying to go public, sell out, and raise money based on these numbers. Many of the great financial minds on Wall Street and Sand Hill Road who are paid big bucks to analyze these numbers take them for face value."

But it's hard to rely on those numbers if they're going to be constantly buffeted by bugs and changes in methodology. Furthermore, it's a bit strange that we trust Facebook to self-report these important statistics when it's clearly in their self-interest to inflate the numbers. It's like letting NBC report how many people watched The Office last week, instead of trusting ratings agencies like Nielsen with that information."
Brodie suggests any "attempt by Facebook to change how game traffic is measured on their network without fixing the actual problem ... could grow into their very own private Antennagate." But that presumes we'd be able to notice and report on any such change. With Facebook in total control of the statistics, we're forced to take their statistics at face value. Absent some patently ridiculous trends (like those shown by this latest bug) Facebook could gently nudge their gaming numbers up and no one would be the wiser.

The solution, as I see it, is some sort of independent verification for these Facebook-reported numbers. I don't mean Facebook should open up their private database to some auditor. I simply mean some sort of third party company should estimate the popularity of individual Facebook games independently, either through surveys or through user tracking software. These estimates would theoretically be less precise than Facebook's own numbers (if Facebook is being truthful, that is) but they'd at least provide a point of comparison to establish trust in Facebook's publicly reported numbers.

There are plenty of companies well-positioned to take this important market role. Nielsen already conducts surveys on internet usage, and companies like Alexa already track usage of thousands of web users through their toolbar. It's time one of these companies stepped up and gave us the third-party statistics we need.
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