Will The Ad Tech Ecosystem Ever Provide A Unified Front Against Ad Fraud?

fraduindustrycollabBest practices and policies to deal with fraud and botnets are emerging, but ad tech companies aren’t sharing them with each other – partially because they don’t want their secrets to slip out to fraudsters, and partially because ad fraud detection is a competitive differentiator.

As a result, companies are developing their own policies and ways to communicate progress.

AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley, who runs the company’s internal inventory-quality push alongside chief data scientist Catherine Williams, said that in the past they had been more communicative with other DSPs when fraudulent traffic sources were detected, “but once we’d alerted the community, we’d see the behavior shift because bad actors knew where we were looking.”

While there aren’t any industrywide solutions, stakeholders have certainly made overtures toward unification. Numerous agencies, marketers and vendors, for instance, are participating in the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG).

Efforts like TAG require some commitment, but vastly more resources go into internal anti-fraud efforts.

“The competitive aspect means there isn’t much collaboration,” said John Murphy, OpenX’s VP of marketplace quality.

OpenX, AppNexus and Rubicon Project are all members of the TAG leadership council, but outside of that boardroom the market prevails. “We’ve spent a lot of time and money building these systems that our competitors do not have,” said Murphy.

Great anti-fraud tech means cleaner inventory and, as O’Kelley said, “Inventory quality is a differentiator we see for our platform in the market.”

Consequently, despite a desire to share knowledge and solutions, competitive concerns have been insurmountable. To the extent that companies communicate around fraud, it’s usually a one-on-one. “There are a growing number of us that have private phone calls,” said Sam Cox, MediaMath VP of global partnerships.

“It’s very clearly not a sustainable solution,” he said, “but until you can guarantee safety to companies that are open and the industry actually has a definition of fraud, you open yourself up to too much liability.”

The companies involved would hypothetically be revealing damning or competitive data about fraud on their platforms. Cox also said taking a combative approach would inevitably lead to publishers and media companies being punished for being the innocent victims of fraudsters – as happens now on a daily basis, but in a far less consequential way since it’s settled discreetly.

The inability to define fraud is also a problem.

To the extent that TAG and trade groups like the IAB have developed collaborative steps to fight fraud, they’ve focused on point solutions and verification standards.

When asked about his company’s anti-fraud practices, Adform North America general manager Julian Baring said, “Just to qualify the question: We do not just label traffic as ‘fraudulent,’ because most bot networks are programmed to visit 100-plus domains in order to appear legitimate. Rather than accuse honest publishers of fraud, we focus on nonhuman traffic.”

“Just to qualify” neatly encapsulates the fractured state of ad fraud standardization.

Baring claimed that automated detection methods can deal with 95% of fraudulent traffic coming into the platform, but the other 5% of suspicious traffic must be handled manually.

The same is roughly true everywhere. O’Kelley said that since AppNexus tightened its policy toward ad network partners last year, there are more and more “corner cases” – situations in which a team of engineers and data scientists find themselves in the uncomfortable position of deciding what is or is not ad fraud.

“Is this actually invalid traffic or is it accidental clicks on a low-quality mobile campaign?” O’Kelley proposed as a typical case. “There’s a difference between deliberate fraud and a buyer-beware situation with loose formatting. Should I be the moral police and say, ‘Thou shalt not put tiny X’s on mobile ads’?”

“Frankly, the pace of policy can’t keep up with the pace of innovation from tech companies, and certainly not from fraudsters,” said Cox, who went so far as to compare it to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which was written when factory technology was developing too quickly for comprehensive regulation.

Occasionally, order emerges from chaos. But more often than not, chaos reigns.

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  1. Let’s be honest, there will never be an incentive for the industry to be unified or be effective against fraud.

    There is too much money tied to click performance, retargeting, or online conversions. These are all easily faked. No one wants to admit that to advertisers or their partners.

    There’s was $18 billion in ad fraud last year. No one wants to know how much of that pie is theirs or give it up, especially when so much of the industry is unable to generate a profit.

    Everyone still likes to look like they’re doing great things about fraud. It’s great marketing and PR. They’ll identify cute-named botnets and some sketchy sites. They’ll brag about teams, processes, and integrations. It’s a grand self-congratulatory hullabaloo that accomplishes nothing.

    No one has the cojones to actual name people or companies directly (or indirectly) responsible for any fraudulent activity, much less seriously pursue any legal or criminal action.

    • Hey Eric, I agree with you that the supply side will never be incentivize to combat the obvious problem. But on the buy side – the platform you choose to do your programmatic buying is, unless, of course, they are selling ‘clicks’ as performance. Solid marketing ROI cannot be realized if fraud is not eliminated (to the best degree possible) from the supply chain. This could be a unified approach by buy side players, but I only know of one buying platform that is combating fraud at the bid stream level, and will even refund their tech fees for anything over 3%, as measured by an industry leading third party.

      • Bob- I agree that the buy-side has more incentive to do something, but there is still not much.

        For example, video DSPs would not exist without massive amounts of fraudulent video inventory. There is nowhere near enough non-fraudulent inventory to justify the few hundred million invested in building these products.

        On display, not everyone can have valid secure conversions that can’t be gamed. You’re right that some are able to get accurate ROI and that does discount a bit of fraud. From experience, there are still often ways to game even those ROI metrics in campaign execution through programmatic. There are many bots that are able to drive landing and confirmation page traffic. Overly aggressive retargeting tactics are great for getting LTA and MTA. Insanely low upper funnel bids blanket the web impressions and get attribution.

        The refund policy you mention is nice, but it’s not much more than a sales gimmick. Such an offer is only made because they have figured out a way to buy inventory that avoids detection. The “industry leading 3rd party” is simply their way of saying “you can choose from only these vendors that we have a bit of experience gaming and a good relationship with”.

        There are huge discrepancies between various fraud measurement vendors. I’ve seen campaigns run at about 99% fraud according to one vendor but only 2% to another on the same impressions. Both of these are quite industry leading (many MRC accreditations each). And, yes, these were on the same impressions.

  2. Just so I’m clear on the conclusion of the article … that it will take company-specific solutions to stamp out the final 5% of the fraud problem?

    I can’t dispute that conclusion. However, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good … the VERY good in this case. I couldn’t agree more with your premise that there is great industry collaboration going on at TAG and other places to raise the bar for the entire industry. We are making significant progress to bring the best technologies, business practices, and information sharing programs to every legitimate actor throughout the digital supply chain. Leaders such as the ones you mentioned from TAG’s Board of Directors and others have joined forces to share intelligence about known sources of fraud in both the TAG Fraud Threat List and Data Center IP Program. Each launched last year with widespread industry participation. If these types of tools can get us to a 95% solution, then the headline should be one of joy and achievement, not doom and gloom. We are working towards that goal.

    I do, however, have to correct the record in a number of areas. The very first thing TAG did in the Fall of 2014 was to create an industry-consensus definition of Ad Fraud. We have also worked with the Media Ratings Council to ensure that this definition fits squarely within their Invalid Traffic Guidelines. More industry collaboration.

    In addition, we have to recognize that fighting fraud goes well beyond simply identifying the latest bot threat or potentially suspicious click. It begins with transparency, so that buyers know who they are doing business with. That transparency needs to extend to payment ID systems so that the ad dollars can be stopped before they flow into the pockets of criminals. As in industry we also need to continue to improve consumer safety so that malware is detected sooner and those botnets become less prevalent. Finally, we have to protect digital content and stop ad-supported piracy, which creates further financial incentives for criminals to drive non-human traffic to these types of illegitimate sites. TAG is rapidly moving these solutions into the marketplace – https://www.tagtoday.net/movingdesignexecution/.

    Collectively, we are building systems to fight fraud, malware, and piracy, and along the way we will build greater trust in the ecosystem. If information sharing can only get us 95% of the way there, then we are well on our way, but the tools that we are building into the supply chain will allow each company to more effectively fight those edge cases as well. It will be a glorious day when we begin bickering over the last 5%, but for now we can all be proud of the progress we have made towards that end.

    Mike Zaneis
    CEO, TAG

  3. As long as ad networks/exchanges interests won’t be lined up with the actual performance metrics of the advertisers – aka a verified conversion – a conflict of interest will prevail and dictate the anti fraud policies and technologies implemented within ad networks.