How to Fight Ad Fraud

Marketing Modernization

The Cost of Ad Fraud

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), fraud and abuse cost the industry over $8.2 billion in 2016 alone. This is concerning for an industry that spends $USD 72 billion, or 37 percent of its total ad spend, on digital.  The news worsens as ad advertisers migrate toward programmatic practices, bots and other nonhuman traffic that leave the industry prey to even more fraudulent practices. 

In this piece from Razorfish, we address the problem by answering several key questions:

  1. What is ad fraud?
  2. How do ad fraudsters operate to make money?
  3. What is being done to fight ad fraud?
  4. How can advertisers protect themselves against fraud?

What is Ad Fraud?

Purchased ads that have little to no chance of being seen by qualified buyers constitute ad fraud. According to the IAB, such fraud is conducted by infiltrating legitimate systems to generate false ad views, ad clicks and site visits using robotic programs. The IAB group, and TOGI (Traffic of Good Intent), classify ad fraud into three segments:

Nonhuman traffic (bots). Bots attack networks and exchanges in order to artificially enhance page and unique visitor views.

Hidden ad impressions and false clicks. These are 1x1 pixels or frames on pages (i.e., impressions that are stacked on top of one another), resulting in false impressions stemming from each URL returned.

Laundered ad impressions. These are ad impressions from URLs/sources that are obfuscated, hidden or misrepresented in the networks and exchange platforms from a programmatic perspective. Publishers pay for impressions from undisclosed sources (websites hosted by fraudsters selling “impressions” that are often “storefronts” sending bot traffic through the publishers’ sites), diluting impressions and CPMs across a network (See Figure 1, numbers 4 through 7).

How do ad fraudsters operate to make money?

Fraudsters deceive even the best marketers. Fraudsters are paid by selling cheap traffic to publishers wishing to boost traffic, which may be genuine or robotic. Brands lose money on campaigns that are not going to actual people. Industry research on fraud compares this situation to viruses or hackers/developers of these viruses. Trojans or malware have infected over 30 percent of the industry.

Fraudsters infect legitimate systems. One fraudulent practice persuades consumers to install toolbars in their browsers, and then uses bots to affect browser behavior and infect systems. For example, how many people have a family member who has a resident toolbar in his or her browser but is not sure how it got there? Many users have tried to close a browser only to discover several separate browser windows still open, presenting unsuspected behavior.

Fraudsters generate false traffic. Bots operate behind the scenes of a computer outside its owner’s knowledge, emulating user behavior by loading impressions, clicking on ads or loading advertisers’ sites to appear as the target audience. Many times bots will run in the background of computer systems, forming botnets of infected users.

How to Fight Traffic Fraud.
In this traffic fraud example, instances of impressions and clicks were actually generated by bots. Source: IAB

What is Being Done to Fight Ad Fraud?

Development of more reliable metrics. The Media Rating Council (MRC), IAB and other leaders are collaborating to define more reliable ways to measure impressions. This may prevent advertisers from paying for fraudulent ads. The viewability metric is one that’s meant to reduce ad fraud, improve the value of ads, and create a better user experience. 

Traffic verification.  Sites and domains that generate invalid traffic and conduct fraudulent actions are being well documented. Invalid traffic from sophisticated techniques often requires a greater degree of analytics as well as human interaction to detect it. More work is being done in this area.

TAG certification. The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), a nonprofit created from leaders in the industry to develop a method of validating traffic for publishers and advertisers, has developed the Certified Against Fraud program. The TAG Certified Against Fraud seal requires that entities must, according to the table below, meet the following sub-criteria according to the types of activities a given entity employs. 

Ad Fraud Table.

TAG Certification Requires Entities to Meet Several Criteria Source: Tag Today

Ad verification. Ad verification is designed to validate a campaign’s intended execution per the advertiser's choice and exclusions. According to the IAB the five primary lines of ad verification are: site context, geo-targeting, ad placement, competitive separation and fraud detection (click and impression fraud). 

Four stages of verification should be used: brand safety, compliance, avoiding waste and path to attribution. Most third-party ad verification companies are competitive in some or all of these four areas; however, each ad verification company has key attributes that may set it apart from its competitors when looking at how they’ll perform. It’s important to look at each campaign’s unique set of key metrics when determining the ad verification company you select. 

How is ad fraud and viewability related to ad verification? 

The IAB and the MRC, along with other partners, have developed guidelines for dealing with viewability, which have contributed to the growth and adoption of new measurement practices across digital media. The term ‘‘verification’’ has evolved, now generally referring to both ad fraud and viewability, since most vendors in this space offer both capabilities. A primary service of many ad verification vendors is to identify and block ads that are not viewable or are associated with fraudulent activity. Ad verification tools have the ability to detect manual or automated methods used to monetize media through inappropriate and/or deceptive practices. 

Three of the leading ad verification players, Integral Ad Science (IAS), DoubleVerify and Moat, offer differing capabilities across tagging, integrations and customer service. Determining the right fit will vary based on your needs. Razorfish recommends clients conduct vendor evaluations at least twice a year as new technologies and integrations are developed. 

Look for media rating accreditation (MRC) organizations. 

Consider the following vendor solutions when evaluating your own needs:

  • DoubleVerify offers DV Digital Impression Quality and DV Video Impression Quality: Brand Safety, Ad Prominence, Ad Delivery and Display and Video Ad Viewability Metrics
  • Integral ad science provides its Ad Viewability Measurement Platform (Display and Digital Video Viewable Impression Metric), Campaign Monitor and Firewall Verification Services, GIVT
  • Moat, Inc. offers Display and Video Ad Viewability Metrics (Desktop, Mobile Web and Mobile In-App)

From our review of MRC companies, we found that DoubleVerify has been in the space the longest and is very active in identifying where the digital marketing industry can improve. Recently, it identified fraudulent practices where publishers were monetizing fake audiences. Its ad-blocking ability prevents the ads from serving, which is a key strategy for protecting a client’s brand.  

The accreditations show that DoubleVerify and IAS are accredited for viewability only on display and video but not mobile, while Moat is accredited for mobile viewability. However, DoubleVerify and IAS are still leading Moat when it comes to ad verification, brand safety, compliance and avoiding waste. While Moat is relatively new to ad verification, it has shown itself to be a leader in the mobile space. DoubleVerify and IAS have been working to catch up with Moat’s mobile integrations and accredited viewability measurements. Over the long term, IAS and DoubleVerify will most likely overtake the gains that Moat has made as these vendors create their own technologies to meet or exceed the MRC standards. Advertisers should also become familiar with MRC/IAB Guidelines:

Display. Pixel Requirement: Greater than or equal to 50 percent of the pixels in the advertisement were on an in-focus browser tab on the viewable space of the browser page.

Time requirement. The time the pixel requirement is met was greater than or equal to one continuous second, post ad render.

Video time requirement. To qualify for counting as a viewable video ad impression, two continuous seconds of the video advertisement is required to play, meeting the same pixel requirement necessary for a viewable display ad. This required time is not necessarily the first two seconds of the video ad; any unduplicated content of the ad comprising two continuous seconds qualifies in this regard.

For Rising Star ads or ads larger than 970 X 250, the standard calls for 30 percent of pixels in view rather than 50 percent for at least one second.

Mobile. Pixel requirement should be greater than or equal to 50 percent of the pixels (density independent) in the advertisement on an in-focus browser for one second, or a fully downloaded, opened, initialized application on the viewable space of the device.

Time requirement. The time the pixel requirement is met was greater than or equal to one continuous second, post ad render. This time requirement applies equally to news feed and non-news feed environments.

Video time requirement. To qualify as a mobile viewable video ad impression, it is required that two continuous seconds of the video advertisement are played, meeting the same pixel requirement necessary for a mobile viewable display ad. This required time is not necessarily the first two seconds of the video ad; any unduplicated content of the ad comprising two continuous seconds qualifies in this regard.

How Can Advertisers Protect Themselves Against Fraud?

Ad fraud is prevalent across the web, and even publishers aren’t in complete control of the situation. Networks and exchanges are particularly vulnerable. The rapid growth of the digital advertising ecosystem has allowed less scrupulous businesses to participate, unnoticed by their partners. The ecosystem’s complex interconnectivity means that even well-intentioned participants may inadvertently serve the goals of unscrupulous ones. This happens when money is unintentionally fed into an infrastructure designed not to deliver the right ad at the right time to the right user. 

The best approach to prevent ad fraud for an advertiser is to run media through an ad verification vendor and block all fraudulent ads from being delivered, looking for General Invalid Traffic (GIVT) as well as Sophisticated Invalid Traffic (SIVT). Ad servers such as DCM also have a layer of security built into their systems, automatically scrubbing out fraudulent impressions from bots and spiders across all publishers. To maintain a leadership role in this space, Razorfish will continue working with leaders in the ad verification space like IAB, 4A, TAG, ANA and MRC to meet the challenges ahead.

Other steps digital marketers can take to prevent ad fraud:

  1. Look for agencies that have taken the TAG Anti-Piracy Pledge. The pledge promises to take ‘‘commercially reasonable steps to minimize the inadvertent placement of digital advertising on websites or other media properties that have an undesired risk of being associated with the unauthorized dissemination of materials protected by the copyright laws and/or illegal dissemination of counterfeit goods.’’
  2. Continue working with reputable ad verification vendors that can verify that impressions served were not fraudulent. This will help strengthen positive relationships with the appropriate partners for each client.
  3. Conduct quarterly or semiannual reviews of ad verification technologies to see the new offerings in the marketplace, as well as the new kinds of fraud that are being perpetrated by bad actors.
  4. Utilize measurements from ad verification companies to renegotiate media with any partner serving fraudulent impressions in order to hold them accountable for their end of contracted buys.

Razorfish professionals employ the above measures. As a leading agency, we continue to assess risk and evaluate best practices. Our technology-neutral position lets us select best-of-breed-of-partners that can deliver the best possible results for our clients. We also believe that producing better business outcomes for our clients can be facilitated through automation via a well-managed programmatic initiative.

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