IAB’s Definition of “Illegitimate Activity” in “Anti-Fraud Principles” Needs Clarification

In an effort to combat malware and stamp out fraudulent ad traffic in the digital ecosystem, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has released a collection of “Anti-Fraud Principles.” But while the guidelines will help treat the symptoms of the ad fraud issue, many say they’re not comprehensive enough to solve the problem, especially because companies view “illegitimate activity” differently.

The IAB’s principles require publishers, ad networks, and exchanges to “implement technological and business practices to identify ad bots and illegitimate human activity, and prevent such traffic from being sold.” They should also provide “assurances to buyers” that inventory is from a “legitimate” source.

“It’s a good start in trying to wrangle in a very complex issue in the digital ecosystem to ensure that advertisers actually reach ‘real humans,'” says Bill Drolet, senior vice president (SVP) of video platform sales at NTENT, a semantic search technology company.

But according to Drolet, the problem is that currently each industry participant defines and views instances of “illegitimate activity” in different ways.

“One company will say you have 60 percent ‘good’ traffic, while another can say you have only 40 percent. And it’s difficult to know who to believe,” he explains, adding that making the situation worse, companies usually don’t share data details that show where the “bad” traffic comes from.

It seems that in order to get everyone on the same page, one unified definition of illegitimate traffic is necessary. “The principles are the start of a framework from which advertisers and sellers can build on,” Drolet notes.

Craig Simmons, manager of product strategies and operations at Exponential, a global provider of advertising intelligence and digital media solutions, agrees that the IAB anti-fraud initiative can help build an industry standard of “illegitimate activity,” but “needs to progress a little further.”

For example, he notes the definition of “illegitimate human activity,” especially “incentivized browsing,” requires further explanation.

According to the IAB, “illegitimate human activity” includes “incentivized browsing,” or “a human user that is offered payment or benefits to view or interact with ads,” as well as “AdWare traffic,” a device “where a user is present and additional HTML or ad calls are made by the AdWare independently of the content being requested by the users.”

Both are pay-for-play tactics that can hurt ad buyers and sellers, because the ads may not actually be seen by the audience that marketers are trying to reach.

“Imagine that you are paying to market a new car, and your engagement rates are through the roof. Upon looking at the click data a little more closely, you’d be horrified if you found out that most of the data was coming from a kid’s game with repeated clicks,” explains Drolet.

But although incentivized browsing and AdWare traffic are deceptive, there’s little legal action taken toward “bad actors,” according to industry participants.

“It’s just hard to drop a line on what is or is not fraud,” Simmons notes. “Incentivized browsing totally disregards what the brand message is. But my problem with the incentivized browsing principle here in the guideline is: What is advertising? Advertising, and therefore ‘incentivized browsing,’ keeps the Internet free. The wording may be a little tricky because it’s tough to draw a line in the sand.”

Most free content providers are supported by their users viewing ads when they are streaming online videos or listening to music, continues Simmons. “Should we call this ‘incentivized browsing?’ So the question becomes how will ‘incentivized’ be defined? That said, this is still a great first step for the IAB.”

Drolet thinks the bottom line is if a publisher decides to give a user an “incentive,” it needs to be transparent. “If you are offering coins for a video game or a discount on a purchase to incentivize consumers to watch or read content, that needs to be transparent,” he says. “It’s not illegal, but it just needs to be clear that that’s the audience you are placing your ads in front of.”

Mike Zaneis, executive vice president of public policy and general counsel at the IAB, tells ClickZ that although not all incentivized browsing and AdWare traffic are fraudulent, they can be a red flag for publishers or ad network.

“Those definitions are unlikely to change,” he says. “But we will probably refine these categories to be more explicit types of adware or incentivized browsing that is fraudulent or illegitimate or deceptive.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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