Campaign India Team
May 13, 2013

Online display advertising fraud: Proof that relationships matter

The author says that with programmatic online display trading, every impression has a different value for every buyer - and that value is fleeting.

Doug Conely
Doug Conely

One of the great benefits of programmatic online display trading is that the buyer and seller don’t need to have a personal or even commercial relationship. However, the recent flurry of news and opinion around fraudulent ad impressions has showed that this is also a great flaw in a non-standardized industry.

Though Wenda Harris Millard called it in 2008, it’s very clear now that online display is far from a standardized, pork belly commodity. Every impression has a different value for every buyer and that value is fleeting. You would know if you had a bad load of pork belly, you could smell it for a start, but much harder to know if your online display supply is poor as the impression lasts but a moment.

The “managed supply private exchange” (previously known as the ad network), is a much-maligned model. But ad networks have an advantage over open, self-serve exchange models because they take the time (and cost) of a direct relationship with their suppliers. The nature of that relationship allows ad networks to manage two high-level fraud risks: fraudulent sites and fraudulent traffic.

Fraudulent sites

There are three elements to minimize the risk of fraudulent sites appearing on a client buy. Firstly, subscribe (and use) the IAB/ ABCe International Spiders & Bots list.

Secondly, have the team and guidelines in place to manually review each domain that enters the network (this also helps curate a brand-safe environment). Publishers with no trading history and suspicious traffic patterns are easy to spot with simple checks and balances before they come on board. In that review, each publisher should submit a list of domains from which they will call ads.

The final protection is that any ad called from outside the approved list of domains should be rejected (tag hijacking is still surprisingly common). There will be situations where the referring domain cannot be seen, either because of nested iFrames or masked ad calls. However, these are often the biggest areas where trouble can occur, so it is important to make no exceptions here. The domain must be seen and approved.

Fraudulent traffic

As with fraudulent sites, the first step is to screen out robotic traffic, using a combination of the same IAB/ ABCe Spiders & Bots list as well as algorithms to detect robotic behavior (even well disguised).

The benefit of a long-term relationship is that there is a history between two businesses. Long-term traffic volume and performance metrics can be compared to recent history. Any new trends or statistically significant variances can be identified and investigated quickly, and robotic detection algorithms tuned accordingly.

But how could this happen in an exchange environment? I won’t cover old ground on whether it’s a supply-side or a buy-side problem, but our observation is that without a long-term relationship between buyer and seller it’s easy to see how and why a demand platform could chase pockets of high-performing, low-cost inventory without the checks and balances in place.

Fraud goes both ways, of course. If you’re in a long-term relationship, it lets you vet your supply more thoroughly. But it also becomes your obligation to ensure no fraudulent ads run across that valuable supply.

While it is possible to game some types of 'conversion', gaming clicks is far easier. Don’t buy them. Unless your customer has the profile of a 'clicker', you’re almost certainly optimizing to the wrong audience anyway, never mind buying against a metric more susceptible to fraud.

For publishers, it’s important to know exactly how folks are getting to your door. If you are working with any outside parties to help man your SEM efforts, fuel social-marketing traffic, or exchange links in any way, then monitoring the quality of your traffic is paramount. Talk to your partners and find out exactly what they’re doing. If they’re outsourcing to other partners themselves, beware.  And remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A third party that triples your website’s traffic in a short period of time is almost certainly up to no good.

Hindsight as a perfect science

It would be hubris for a managed supply private exchange to say “I told you so”, but fraud is now a clear issue for programmatic buys. The industry has continuously shown an ability to raise its game to meet such challenges. If not hubris, there is at least a little bit of irony that the result of a heightened awareness on fraud will mean many platforms looking a lot more like the ad networks they have tried so hard to replace.

Doug Conely is vice-president, product strategy and operations with Exponential.

The article first appeared on Campaign Asia