Ad fraud is one of the hottest topics in the digital advertising ecosystem this year and for good reason: it’s a big problem that is costing advertisers huge amounts of money.
In many cases, ad fraud is brazen and visible to anybody with a web browser. And even Google is seemingly helpless to stop it. The digital advertising behemoth recently suffered an embarrassment as it had to refund advertisers for fake traffic [paywall].
Fortunately, despite the fact that ad fraud is a huge challenge, advertisers aren’t helpless. Here are some of the tools and strategies brand advertisers are using to combat ad fraud.
Advertisers very concerned about ad fraud (and brand safety) who want to specifically restrict the display of their ads to certain sites can do so using whitelisting capabilities.
One brand advertiser that has had success with whitelisting is banking giant JPMorgan Chase. Following the high-profile advertiser boycott of YouTube earlier this year, it reduced the number of sites its ads appear on from over 400,000 to 5,000 it reviewed and approved using intern labor.
The result: it didn’t notice any deterioration in the performance of its ad campaigns. While obviously not all of the 395,000 sites that didn’t make its whitelist weren’t operated by fraudsters, policing its campaigns against 5,000 approved sites will obviously be an easier task going forward than policing 400,000 sites, many of which weren’t delivering any discernible value anyway.
While whitelisting enables advertisers to select the publishers they whose inventory they want to buy, blacklisting does the opposite: it allows advertisers to exclude inventory from specified publishers.
In theory, blacklisting can be effective. That’s because according to a recent study published by FraudLogix, which looked at nearly 60,000 publishers across a 30 day period, approximately two-thirds of all fraud detected was caused by just 2,000 publishers and just 514 publishers – less than 1% – were responsible for half the fraud.
Unfortunately, in practice, blacklisting is of limited utility. While it can be a part of an ad fraud strategy, it’s important for advertisers to recognize that fraudsters move fast. As the CopyCat Android malware attack demonstrates, even fraud that is detected relatively quickly can result in millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains at the expense of advertisers.
Private exchanges/programmatic direct
Private exchanges seek to take everything that’s wonderful about programmatic ad buying and make it a safer experience for advertisers. Hence the label programmatic direct.
Essentially private exchanges are programmatic marketplaces where high-profile publishers or groups of publishers sell inventory to advertisers that they have invited to purchase their inventory.
In these exchanges, advertisers know that the inventory they’re buying is legit and publishers often offer up their best inventory along with other concessions. For example, for years, Kraft has focused its video ad purchases in private exchanges, where it can often negotiate guarantees for in-demo targeting and viewability.
Kraft isn’t alone and thanks to the safety and control programmatic direct offers, eMarketer expects it to account for more than half of all programmatic buys this year.
Some advertisers that spend lots of money and have complex digital ad operations are turning to third-party audits to help them uncover waste and ad fraud.
For example, Procter & Gamble (P&G) discovered through an audit conducted by White Ops that it didn’t have nearly as good a grip on ad fraud as it thought it did. As a result of the audit’s findings, P&G decided to take action and among other things, is requiring that “any entity touching digital media” the CPG giant buys become accredited by the Trustworthy Accountability Group.
While not its primary function, analytics can help advertisers identify fraud. For example, looking at key user metrics for traffic driven by ad campaigns, such as time on site and bounce rates, can help advertisers identify non-human traffic (read: bots). Analytics data can also help identify ad campaigns that are significantly underperforming, which is often the first sign of fraud.
In addition to the strategies and tools advertisers are already using to combat ad fraud, there are emerging technologies that also have the potential to play a significant role in denting ad fraud.
One, ads.txt, is a standard that attacks ad fraud by increasing transparency. It was recently rolled out by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and is slowly gaining traction. The “ads” in ads.txt stands for “authorized digital sellers” and the standard is designed to make it possible for media buyers and their vendors to validate that the ad inventory they’re being offered for sale is being sold by the publisher or a party authorized to sell its inventory.
Although simple – ads.txt relies on a text file that publishers place on their sites – the IAB and others believe that it can be effective in thwarting inventory spoofing, a big problem in the programmatic market.
A more nascent technology that some in the industry are betting can help publishers and advertisers deal with bad inventory is the blockchain. While the blockchain is best known for powering cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, a number of companies are working on blockchain-based platforms that can help legitimate players in the digital ad ecosystem transact with greater trust.
So which tactics should advertisers adopt?
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a one-size-fits all solution to the ad fraud problem. Every advertiser’s digital advertising footprint and operations are different and therefore there are different exposures to fraud.
This said, there are some general guidelines that advertisers should follow. These are:
1. Make sure existing tools and capabilities are being used
Most advertisers have analytics capabilities and can use them to monitor campaigns for signs of possible ad fraud. And while whitelists and blacklists aren’t a panacea, because most of the major ad platforms offer whitelist and blacklist features, advertisers can take advantage of these to the extent they deem appropriate.
2. Consider an audit
For brands spending significant sums on digital ads, third party auditing can be a worthwhile exercise.
3. Ask vendors about their adoption of new technologies
For example, while ads.txt is easy for publishers to adopt, realistically, advertisers won’t be able to put it to meaningful use until ad platforms, namely demand side platforms (DSPs), embrace it. Because of this, advertisers should be proactive in engaging with their vendors to learn about the new technologies they’re evaluating and adopting to ensure that they have access to them as soon as they’re available.
Obviously, no combination of strategies, tactics and tools will enable advertisers to completely eliminate ad fraud, but with knowledge and modest effort, advertisers will find that they can deal with a lot of the low-hanging ad fraud fruit.