By Eric Picard (Originally published by AdExchanger.com on May 30th, 2013)
For the last few years, Mike Shields over at Adweek has done a great job of calling out bad actors in our space. He’s shined a great big spotlight on the shadowy underbelly of our industry – especially where ad networks and RTB intersect with ad spend.
Many kinds of fraud take place in digital advertising, but two major kinds are significantly affecting the online display space today. (To be clear, these same types of fraud also affect video, mobile and social. I’m just focusing on display because it attracts more spending and it’s considered more mainstream.) I’ll call these “page fraud” and “bot fraud.”
This type of fraud is perpetrated by publishers who load many different ads onto one page. Some of the ads are visible, others hidden. Sometimes they’re even hidden in “layers,” so that many ads are buried on top of each other and only one is visible. Sometimes the ads are hidden within iframes that are set to 1×1 pixel size (so they’re not visible at all). Sometimes they’re simply rendered off the page in hidden frames or layers.
It’s possible that a publisher using an ad unit provided by an ad network could be unaware that the network is doing something unscrupulous – at least at first. But they are like pizza shops that sell more pizzas than it’s possible to make with the flour they’ve purchased. They may be unaware of the exact nature of the bad behavior but must eventually realize that something funny is going on. In the same way, bad behavior is very clear to publishers who can compare the number of page views they’re getting with the number of ad impressions they’re selling. So I don’t cut them any slack.
This page fraud, by the way, is not the same thing as “viewability,” which involves below-the-fold ads that never render visibly on the user’s page. That fraudulent activity is perpetrated by the company that owns the web page on which the ads are supposed to be displayed. They knowingly do so by either programming their web pages with these fraudulent techniques or using networks that sell fake ad impressions on their web pages.
There are many fraud-detection techniques you can employ to make sure that your campaign isn’t the victim of page fraud. And there are many companies – such as TrustMetrics, Double Verify and Integral Ad Science – that offer technologies and services to detect, stop and avoid this type of fraud. Foiling it requires page crawling as well as advanced statistical analysis.
This second type of fraud, which can be perpetrated by a publisher or a network, is a much nastier kind of fraud than page fraud. It requires real-time protection that should ultimately be built into every ad server in the market.
Bot fraud happens when a fraudster builds a software robot (or bot) – or uses an off-the-shelf bot – that mimics the behavior of a real user. Simple bots pretend to be a person but behave in a repetitive way that can be quickly identified as nonhuman; perhaps the bot doesn’t rotate its IP address often and creates either impressions or clicks faster than humanly possible. But the more sophisticated bots are very difficult to differentiate from humans.
Many of these bots are able to mimic human behavior because they’re backed by “botnets” that sit on thousands of computers across the world and take over legitimate users’ machines. These “zombie” computers then bring up the fraudsters’ bot software behind the scenes on the user’s machine, creating fake ad impressions on a real human’s computer. (For more information on botnets, read “A Botnet Primer for Advertisers.”) Another approach that some fraudsters take is to “farm out” the bot work to real humans, who typically sit in public cyber cafes in foreign countries and just visit web pages, refreshing and clicking on ads over and over again. These low-tech “botnets” are generally easy to detect because the traffic, while human and “real,” comes from a single IP address and usually from physical locations where the heavy traffic seems improbable – often China, Vietnam, other Asian countries or Eastern Europe.
Many companies have invested a lot of money to stay ahead of bot fraud. Google’s DoubleClick ad servers already do a good job of avoiding these types of bot fraud, as do Atlas and others.
Anecdotally, though, newer ad servers such as the various DSPs seem to be having trouble with this; I’ve heard examples through the grapevine on pretty much all of them, which has been a bit of a black eye for the RTB space. This kind of fraud has been around for a very long time and only gets more sophisticated; new bots are rolled out as quickly as new detection techniques are developed.
The industry should demand that their ad servers take on this problem of bot fraud detection, as it really can only be handled at scale by significant investment – and it should be built right into the core campaign infrastructure across the board. Much like the issues of “visible impressions” and verification that have gotten a lot of play in the industry press, bot fraud is core to the ad-serving infrastructure and requires a solution that uses ad-serving-based technology. The investment is marginal on top of the existing ad-serving investments that already have been made, and all of these features should be offered for free as part of the existing ad-server fees.
Complain to – or request bot-fraud-detection features from – your ad server, DSP, SSP and exchange to make sure they’re prioritizing feature development properly. If you don’t complain, they won’t prioritize this; instead, you’ll get less-critical new features first.
Why Is This Happening?
I’ve actually been asked this a lot, and the question seems to indicate a misunderstanding – as if it were some sort of weird “hacking” being done to punish the ad industry. The answer is much simpler: money. Publishers and ad networks make money by selling ads. If they don’t have much traffic, they don’t make much money. With all the demand flowing across networks and exchanges today, much of the traffic is delivered across far more and smaller sites than in the past. This opens up significant opportunities for unscrupulous fraudsters.
Page fraud is clearly aimed at benefiting the publisher but also benefitting the networks. Bot fraud is a little less clear – and I do believe that some publishers who aren’t aware of fraud are getting paid for bot-created ad impressions. In these cases, the network that owns the impressions has configured the bots to drive up its revenues. But like I said above, publishers have to be almost incompetent not to notice the difference in the number of impressions delivered by a bot-fraud-committing ad network and the numbers provided by third parties like Alexa, Comscore, Nielsen, Compete, Hitwise, Quantcast, Google Analytics, Omniture and others.
Media buyers should be very skeptical when they see reports from ad networks or DSPs showing millions of impressions coming from sites that clearly aren’t likely to have millions of impressions to sell. And if you’re buying campaigns with any amount of targeting – especially something that should significantly limit available inventory such as Geo or Income– or with frequency caps, you need to be extra skeptical when reviewing your reports, or use a service that does that analysis for you.