The Catch-22 Of Ad Fraud And Verification

ericmonianData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Eric Monian, senior director of product management at Amobee.

Gone are the days when an advertiser’s primary brand-safety concern was to guarantee that its campaign would be delivered in a digital environment sans sex, drugs and violence.

Bad actors with sophisticated programming and engineering skills have infiltrated the supply chain between brand, agency, media partner and publisher. As a result, nearly $7.2 billion worth of ad spend is lost to nonhuman traffic, with overall ad fraud totaling $18.5 billion.

This is happening because ad fraud is a more lucrative organized crime than credit card fraud, counterfeiting goods or being a Somali pirate where the reward far outweighs the risk of being caught, according to ad fraud expert Augustine Fou.

Although fraud in the ad ecosystem is by no means a new issue, the scale at which it’s accelerating is cause for serious concern. Unfortunately, the lack of universal standards for identifying fraudulent traffic only compounds the problem.

Larger Issues

The ad fraud problem is so rampant that 37% of advertisers say they are willing to pay a 11% premium or more for MRC-certified, human traffic, according to IAB’s Internet Advertising Report. By tackling ad fraud, players in the space have the opportunity to protect their brand clients and reduce the investment wasted on fraudulent traffic.

There are a handful of larger issues preventing the industry from wiping out ad fraud in its entirety. By and large, there are no widely accepted standards for measuring or determining bot traffic. Those who work in ad ops can surely attest to this. They may think campaigns are running well per their ad verification partner only to get a report from another verification partner that they are running fraudulent traffic.

Due to the competitive nature of the brand-safety players, there is a “black box” factor as to why one vendor categorizes a site as fraudulent, but another does not. Ad verification partners keep a closed lid on their methodologies used to identify traffic as nonhuman, as they would naturally lose competitive advantage by sharing information.

It’s a Catch-22, which is why ad fraud is such a complex problem to solve.

If organizations are entirely transparent, all the bad actors would quickly learn how bots are flagged and reverse engineer the process. However, there needs to be a greater degree of transparency between fraud prevention organizations, advertisers and their agency partners to tackle the issue head-on, with accuracy and speed.

So, what are the most effective tools to combat fraud?

“All of this starts with transparency,” said Ron Amram, Heineken USA’s vice president of media, in a recent interview. “The more you can work with the vendors to remove fraud, the better chance we have at cleaning the ecosystem at the root.”

Industry Moves

The October 2015 Media Ratings Council’s guidelines requiring ad verification vendors to separate reporting of invalid traffic into “general” (data center traffic and/or bots and spiders) and “sophisticated” (intentionally misrepresented traffic) categories are a step in the right direction of unifying types of invalid traffic. This helps technology buyers compare the proverbial apples to apples.

The IAB also has had working groups for years regarding fraud, developing a unifying taxonomy of fraud to get all players in the industry talking the same language. And finally, with the creation of the Trustworthy Accountability Group in 2015, there is an entity focused directly against the fraud issue.

Although the issue of consistency with anti-fraud solutions is less prominent than it was a year or two ago, the fact is that different digital channels with different technical builds still require changes in strategy, implementation and internal process management.

For this reason, brand safety isn’t “a set it and forget it” kind of problem. What we can accomplish in terms of eliminating ad fraud on mobile channels may be entirely different from the solution for video or social channels.

Taking Responsibility

There is general agreement that ad fraud is everyone’s problem and we should all be held accountable. However, action speaks louder than words.

Each party – brand, agency and technology partner – should be fully responsible for their individual piece of the puzzle. Strategies that leverage pre-bid blocking, real-time blocking and post-IMP reporting are steps in the right direction to prevent acts of fraud before both time and money have been wasted.

Brand safety will likely have no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution, but the goal is that by tackling some of these key issues we can start putting some of that $18.5 billion back into the pockets of advertisers and agencies by delivering digital ads to credible, human traffic.

Everyone needs to own their share of accountability by providing a clear understanding of how their organizations are combating fraud. We need to have partnerships in place to stay ahead of fraud’s next evolution.

“It’s a game of chess against an opponent that is constantly changing the rules,” said Andres Ferrate, Google’s chief advocate of ad traffic quality.

For the ad industry to win, we must be smarter and more effective than our challenger.

Follow Eric Monian (@ejaydante), Amobee (@amobee) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Good article.. Recently for us its not the bad fraud causing us issues it all the verification companies that scan sites we are buying programmatically against which inflate all of the down stream analytics (Google Analytics, Attribution) When a campaign executed through a DSP like Appnexus yields almost 10 to 20X the traffic down stream perhaps we need to rethink the value of “secret sauce” for identifying bots, fraud etc.. Its not that secret when you can use grep and an apache log to find it.

  2. “If organizations are entirely transparent, all the bad actors would quickly learn how bots are flagged and reverse engineer the process.”

    Traffic vendors already reverse-engineer the bot detection standards even without having to know the technical details.
    They can send a number of different traffic sources to a bot filter, see which sources come out clean, and now sell those clean sources as “IAS traffic” or “DV traffic” for example.

    But I think you’re spot on with how its a Catch-22 for most companies in the industry. Thanks for writing this and putting it out there.