We Need Trust In Every Layer Of The Digital Ad Taxonomy

tonycassonupdatedData-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 Tony Casson, senior director of ad tech products at sovrn.

Advertising impressions are the means by which advertisers attribute value to people they hope to engage in ad campaigns. The gold standard for any given impression: a precisely targeted individual who is guaranteed to have viewed the ad. If we were to classify this unique species, we might call them Homo perspectus – the viewing human.

Unfortunately, the validity of each impression has been enough of a concern for traditional ad buyers that they still focus on acquiring audiences in bulk, from popular sites, with brute force tools that offer no more granularity than the name of the website and some guesswork on demographic characteristics. In spite of these shortcomings and because of the lack of trust, directly sold ads continue to hold their own against programmatic advertising, particularly RTB.

Homo perspectus is just one part of a complete digital advertising taxonomy: supply-side platform (SSP) -> publisher network -> publisher -> site -> page -> audience -> impression.

In order for buyers and sellers to enter into a trusting relationship, as many signals as can be shared from each level of the taxonomy must be transparent to both parties. I envision these signals to look something like this:


SSPs are the kingdoms of advertising supply. There are few, with each containing billions of impressions. Trust in an SSP may be measured by several key components, notably their participation in industry accreditation programs, such as the IAB and MRC, transparent and rigorous onboarding and vetting procedures, utilization of multiple anti-fraud partners and tactics and the implementation of third-party audits.

Publisher Networks

While publishers work directly with SSPs, many also work with networks to extend their reach. As collections of publishers, these networks’ trust signals are identical to those of the SSP. In addition, they must demonstrate via reference customers that they represent high quality, recognizable domains and are able to clearly demonstrate that their ad tags are present on the domains they represent.


Publishers are the content producers and domain owners. Trust in publishers involves establishing the validity of their business relationship with the domains they operate. They must offer transparent domain ownership preferably via a WHOIS record, a valid business address and a demonstrated ability to update their website headers.


The website itself is usually the first level directly targeted by advertisers. Some large sites, such as economist.com and nfl.com, have a high signal-to-noise ratio, in terms of their available audience. Others require finer degrees of targeting.

The trust criteria for sites include, most importantly, domain-level transparency, in which the domain of the ad impression obviously matches the domain of the request. Content freshness and content attribution are additional key signals.

Articles and posts should be recent, original and have a named writer. It is helpful if the publisher and any editors on the site are named as well. Social signals, such as Facebook likes, Tweets and LinkedIn shares, as well as the presence of active Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, are strong indicators of trust which, when combined with community engagement signals from comments, likes and ratings, indicate the presence of an engaged human audience.

Finally, all possible effort should be made, usually via third-party tools, to ensure the absence of nonhuman traffic. Elevated rates of suspicious or robotic traffic will lower the buyer’s trust for any human impressions measured on the same domain.


Pages are about context. Even trusted sites have pages that will not appeal to certain brands. The ability to establish that the content of the page is brand safe and attractive to the advertiser is key at the page level. Look for brand-safe content and lack of illegal content and ad clutter.


Audiences are where the data-management platforms enter the picture and thrive. As such, trust in audience buying revolves around the accuracy of the data. It must be excellent, accurate, transparent and honor privacy.


And then there is the impression. They are typically priced in CPM and valued by their potential to convert a view into a result, which may be a new sign-up, the purchase of a BMW or increasing Coca-Cola’s market share over Pepsi by a fraction of a percent. Data for some impressions is simply unknown since privacy laws and browser features ensure that people can remain hidden.

But when represented as a specific advertising opportunity, impressions should, at a minimum, be human, unique, viewable and fresh and have history. Fresh impressions avoid oversaturation from the same ad while impressions with a valid history signal prior user engagement.

All of these signals can help advertisers reach their desired targets, whether they are Wall Street Journal readers or marathoners from Portland. As available information about each Homo perspectus increases, value to the advertiser and the opportunity for publishers both increase.

Such impressions presented to advertisers, which have a documented trail through each level of this taxonomy, will command the maximum market value, restoring trust to the marketplace and fulfilling programmatic buying’s promise of knowing a human has engaged the ad.

Follow Tony Casson (@tcasson), sovrn (@sovrnholdings) and AdExchanger (adexchanger) on Twitter.

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