Black Mirror, recently bought by Netflix, is a hugely popular TV series that is a dark, twisted but spot-on portrayal of the possible ramifications of technology in the future. Advertisements for the show are ironically targeting ad block users, and some argue, are “intentionally creepy.” For better or worse, ad tech is an industry that somehow finds itself embroiled in controversy. Ad blocking was the controversy du jour, until recently when ad blocking rates have leveled out or even dropped. Ad tech’s explosion in recent years, due to the overwhelming user demand for free digital content, has caused the mighty backlash of ad blocking.
Ad tech executives are finally taking a breath after ad blocking has stabilized, yet another monster (or two) have been slowly eating away at the industry: ad fraud and transparency issues.
The International Advertising Bureau (IAB) estimates the economic cost of ad fraud to be around $8.2 billion annually. Most of this fraud comes from non-human traffic, which if eliminated would save more than $4 billion annually.
A lack of transparency
Today, the ad tech industry is best described as being like the mortgage industry during the subprime days. Advertisers are spending money for short term goals, while not paying attention to whether they’re getting real long term value.
A lack of transparency has enabled fraudsters to build companies based on sales teams, rather than actual technology. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Association of National Advertisers found that in 2015, between 3% to 37% of ad impressions were driven by bots, whereas in the previous study bot traffic ranged from 2% to 22%.
Legitimate ad tech businesses meet a set of proven criteria. They gain their competitive advantages from one of three areas: they own or enable unique supply, have unique data, or own the advertiser relationships.
On the other hand, fraudulent companies rely on arbitrage, and rent the traffic rather than owning it. Other cases involve compromising the user experience.
Common ad fraud threats
Modern ad fraud has evolved significantly from the days of click fraud where advertisers had to deal with fake clicks on their ad campaigns. Today, there’s a variety of technical exploits marketing professionals need to keep an eye on.
Pixel stuffing and ad stacking
Pixel stacking occurs when ads are placed into tiny 1×1 pixels, making them virtually impossible to see. Despite this, when the page is loaded, the session counts as an impression. Ad stacking is fairly similar in that it involves ads being placed over each other so that while only one is seen, impressions still register for both ads.
Ad injection comes in a few different forms. Ads can be placed on top of existing ads (causing ad stacking), or they can completely replace existing ads. The most common form of ad injection is a fake warning telling the user their computer is infected with a virus or that their PC performance isn’t up to par.
This is when fraudsters take a low quality domain and make it look like it’s actually a more reputable publisher. When advertisers recognize the name, they’ll pay a premium. In addition to costing advertisers money, this threat also potentially leads to questionable ad placements which can harm the advertiser’s reputation.
Best practices for prevention
Even though automated systems are rapidly evolving to combat ad fraud, that doesn’t mean you can sit back and let technology solve the problem. Below are a few best practices you can follow to ensure ad fraud doesn’t harm your company.
- Request transparency from your publishers: Simply asking your publishers where their traffic originates from can significantly help to reduce fraud. If they aren’t straightforward with you, then that’s a potential red flag.
- Time your ads: Since bot fraud is more active during specific times of the day, timing your ads properly can help to avoid the bulk of fraudulent traffic.
- Constantly assess your traffic: Always review your campaigns in order to monitor where the best clicks come from, and adjust your campaigns accordingly.
- View your site in incognito mode: This allows you to view how your website is displayed to the general public. You’ll also be able to see any sites which have stolen your domain, or ads which may have been injected.
In addition to the previously mentioned action items, it’s also best to consider going with networks with a brand safety department which keeps media, programmatic and direct publishers clean and safe.
Typically these networks have the technology to detect, monitor, and exclude invalid traffic. Additionally reputable companies have different categories for brand safety (adult and nudity, file sharing and illegal content, etc).
An ongoing battle
In order to make sense of the continuously evolving landscape, it’s crucial to keep an eye out on industry trends so you always have a handle on where things are headed.
While it’s impossible to fully eliminate ad fraud, the damages can be minimized by following industry best practices while also trusting your instincts when it comes to dealing with publishers and other entities.