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YouTube's traffic data for music questioned

The number of visitors to Warner Music Group's YouTube videos doubled in January and outpaced the much larger Vevo. But those numbers are now being questioned.

Visits to Warner Music's YouTube clips more than doubled in a single month.

Update: 8:30 a.m. 2-10-10: To include chart of ComScore numbers.

On the same day that Warner Music Group reported lackluster earnings, the third largest music recording company appears to have at least one thing to celebrate: dramatic new interest in the label's YouTube videos.

From December to January, the number of unique visitors to Warner's YouTube's clips appears to have more than doubled from 23.3 million to 47.5 million, according to ComScore. What that means is Warner's music videos are now the most popular on the Web. In one month, Warner has leapfrogged the combined YouTube traffic for all three of its main competitors as well as the music units of MySpace and AOL.

The problem with all that is YouTube's traffic figures are a little hinky.

According to numerous music insiders, the January data YouTube reported for Warner included visits to user-generated clips. Vevo's ComScore figures don't include visits to user-generated clips. YouTube only reports traffic to that site's professionally made music videos.

All four of the labels have licensing agreements with YouTube that allows users of the video-sharing site to incorporate their songs into their homemade videos. But all have apparently decided to count only visits to the "premium" video.

Still unclear is how or why YouTube started tracking hits to amateur-made clips that included Warner music. Andrew Lipsman, a spokesman for ComScore, said he would have to see more data to determine whether any of ComScore's rules were broken.

YouTube appeared to confirm that Warner and Vevo are not reporting traffic the same way.

A YouTube spokesman said: "The latest ComScore report reflects a combination of evolving methodologies and different partners having deals around different kinds of content, including user-generated content and publishing."

A Warner spokeswoman declined to comment.

The stakes in this squabble could be far more valuable than just bragging rights. According to several music industry sources, Warner's rivals fear that by not comparing apples to apples, Warner may grab an unfair advantage in attracting advertisers, who could be misled into believing that Warner's traffic is coming from professionally created clips.

Vevo's main backers--Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and EMI Music--have long said they wanted to attract top advertising rates, and to do that they needed to separate professionally made videos from user-generated content.

Many advertisers are supposed to be afraid to put their brands next to wildly unpredictable amateur-made fare.

What is still unclear about the discrepancies in YouTube's reporting is who or what is responsible.

Nobody seems to know whether it was a software glitch or human error, or something else.

Earlier on Tuesday, Warner reported a first-quarter net loss of $17 million, or 11 cents a share, compared with a $23 million profit for the same quarter a year earlier. For the recent quarter, analysts had expected a loss of 15 cents a share.