What’s Hiding Behind That Iframe?

ian-2Data-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 Ian Hewetson, vice president of client services at Eyereturn Marketing.

In the ongoing debate over traffic quality, there’s something few people are talking about: the supply-side choice to continue using unfriendly iframes, which is the single biggest impediment to measurability, viewability and transparency.

Quality publishers may argue that unfriendly iframes can protect premium inventory pricing and prevent third-party tags from getting too much information about a page, but by obscuring their content to advertisers, they’re contributing to the overall lack of transparency and erosion of advertiser trust in the marketplace.

Iframes are the holes in the content of web pages where ads are served. An iframe is essentially a little page within a page, with each iframe being the size of the ad that will go into it. The iframe also has its own domain, whereas the main page URL is known as the parent domain.

There are friendly and unfriendly iframes. Friendly iframes offer transparency between the domain of the parent page and the iframe itself. Basically, the advertiser can see the important details of the site that they’re buying, such as the URL and the position of the ad within that page.

Unfriendly or “jailed” iframes offer no transparency between the domain of the parent page and the iframe itself, so there is no way for advertisers to access domain or contextual info or to see where the ad is located on the page. In this scenario, the ad could appear anywhere on the page or on any domain, since the original publishers could have sold it to another domain. There is no easy oversight by the advertiser.

Unknown Quantity

Especially in the context of RTB, an advertiser buys inventory from an exchange or a supply-side platform (SSP), not the actual site itself. The advertiser must rely on that exchange or the SSP’s trust in the site. Quite often, due to automated onboarding processes and limited oversight, the exchange or SSP won’t have a close relationship with the site either. So, if advertisers buy inventory from suppliers running unfriendly iframes, they are buying an unknown quantity.

But instead of solving the problem by making friendly iframes the standard, the industry has embraced a host of additional technologies to counteract suppliers’ choice to obscure inventory behind unfriendly iframes.

Arguments For Unfriendly Iframes

Publishers say unfriendly iframes are important because they can hide their domain from advertisers running on networks or exchanges. Their standard defense: If an advertiser sees that they’re buying a premium domain at a bargain RTB price, they’ll never buy that domain at the rack rate again. This is less of an issue than in the past since tiered pricing models are now commonplace. Advertisers know they may get some inventory bargains this way, but for any kind of volume, they must make a private deal with a publisher.

Publishers also say iframes protect their sites from third-party tags, which can scrape data from the page to create segments of the premium site’s users by dropping cookies on users and retargeting them later, while also targeting that premium audience with other, cheaper inventory. While this issue could still be a concern, it has been largely addressed through the tightening of contract terms.

Finally, publishers argue iframes protect sites against slow loading ads that might also slow the loading of the page. With faster connection speeds and updated tech that allows ads to load at the same time as the page, this issue is also fading away.

Despite all of this, advertisers continue to buy unfriendly iframe inventory because it’s generally cheaper and these blind impressions generate clicks, which is still a very popular KPI.

But if you’re buying something without the ability to see what it is, from suppliers that obscure their product, is that cheap, opaque inventory creating a false economy?

Follow Eyereturn (@EyereturnMktg) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. You get what you pay for.

    Beyond reasonable volume discounts and private deals, all that supercheap inventory on the shady long-tail sites is just crap. Any person just looking at a site can quickly judge whether it really gets real traffic or not but these blind iframes running on old networks are basically all fraud. Those clicks are not real people, it’s just bots. Any study on actual ROI would reveal that pretty quickly.

    It’s on buyers to start buying better stuff and actually looking at the whole picture instead of patting themselves on the back for buying a million clicks cheap, even when they have no value.