What marketers should be doing to tackle ad fraud

Programmatic has opened up new opportunities for hyper-relevant advertising but it is also presenting brands with some sticky situations. None occupies digital marketers more at present than ad fraud.

The main method by which this takes place is through ‘bots’ that are downloaded onto consumers’ computers with the purpose of mimicking browsing behaviour. The automated software creates the false impression that ads are viewed or clicked on. Brands’ buying algorithms are therefore duped into placing ads on unseen pages.

Naturally this inflates the true volume of ads seen by real consumers, burning through the brand’s ad budget in the process. At ISBA’s annual conference in March 2015, TUI’s general manager of digital marketing, Christian Armond, stated the problem quite simply: “Bots don’t book our holidays.”

Andrew Booth, chief revenue officer of LateRooms, believes he has an idea of the scale of the problem: “Our agency, Mediacom, believes that the level of bot traffic is sitting at about 10-20%. There are processes in place to exclude them but they are always being reviewed.”

The answer is to be selective in publisher choice and put in some manual work: “I went into infinite detail about creating black and white lists – a whole afternoon of bringing up each site and saying yea or nay. You don’t think you’re going to have to do that with programmatic but I wanted the brand integrity there.”

Charles Lloyd, head of both the trademarks, copyright and media group and of the advertising group at law firm Taylor Wessing explains: “Businesses can reduce their risk of falling victim to digital advertising fraud by comparing their impression volumes to audience sizes. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) also recommends that online businesses filter their traffic through companies who specialise in fraud detection and that they sign up to the IAB’s Traffic of Good Intent Task Force.”

Non-brand-safe sites are one symptom of programmatic ad fraud

Trinity Mirror Solutions’ strategy director, Piers North, agrees that publishers should be doing all they can to create a trusted environment for brands. “We have a vested interest to make sure that the inventory we provide is best in class. We reach 25m people with great content and we want to get return on our investment too. We have no issues with non-human traffic – you can minimise your risk there by the way you source your traffic. We don’t buy it in and we’re always looking to grow organically. Nor do we do as much ‘reach extension’ as others. When publishers start to buy inventory the risk increases.”

Just as the brands are seeking to be brand-safe in their advertising, publishers want to make sure their reputations aren’t tarnished by fraudulent operators using their inventory. ISBA’s director of media and advertising Bob Wootton explains: “These highly reputably bastions of media abhor the idea of themselves being passed off fraudulently. All of them who value their reputations will say that they are not going to count any fraudulent activity. They will distance themselves.”

Internet and advertising companies have joined forces to create the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). Its 24-member board includes representatives from Google, Facebook and AOL. TAG is aimed at tackling the problems associated with piracy, fraud, malware and transparency.

In the UK trade bodies have been quick to react to the fraud problem and have responded by working together to and address the problem head-on. JICWEBS (the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards in the UK and Ireland) and the IAB chaired a meeting in December, bringing together its members and fraud technology vendors for the first time, in order to identify the extent of online fraud in the UK. This has quickly been followed up by a second meeting in January and the formation of an anti-fraud working group that will work under the JICWEBS banner.

Taylor Wessing’s Lloyd adds: “These are the first important steps towards tackling the UK online ad fraud challenge. Fraud impacts the advertising industry as a whole, from quality publishers, right across the industry to internet providers.”

But even when there is a genuine human being in front of a screen ready and waiting to see an ad, all is not plain sailing. The issue of viewability – whether or not the ad has been placed so a consumer can see it – comes into play.

It’s not unusual for consumers to have 10 or more tabs open in a browser at any one time, or indeed to have more than one browser open as well. Agencies aren’t necessarily able to tell clients whether an ad on one open tab has been seen – though this is usually not by reason of fraud. In December 2014, a Google report estimated 56% of ads are not seen by humans because the impression is served outside the viewable area of the screen.

Nestle digital lead Gawain Owen says: “On the video sites we only buy big player sizes. With the small sizes the consumer hears something playing but can’t find it. That’s a form of ad fraud.”

Again, despite the automated nature of programmatic, the manual labour can’t be avoided, he continues: “We’ve vetted every one of those sites and used Tube Mogul for every publisher we’re running on [to ensure correct ad placements]. We will spend more money with publishers who are giving us better viewability. I can see if the customer is dual screening or has pressed the pause button and I use that data to find the sites and audiences that are most engaged with me.”

LateRooms’ Booth adds: “My agency can walk me through how we are performing on ‘whitelisted’ websites and use manual intervention to get to 60%-plus of ‘above-the-fold’ viewability [versus the norm of 50%] without blowing my budget. With trading directors watching the two networks we’re buying on, and sharing deliverability reports, it wasn’t straight forward to go and set it up. To succeed, you need to be able to get into the nitty gritty.”

Trinity Mirror Solutions’ North believes the ability to monitor and optimise will grow as the sector matures: “As the technology evolves, ad impressions will get caught within viewability [measurement]. We have to be careful that we don’t lose perspective though. Online is still the most accountable channel; display, for all its grey areas, the most measurable. I hope the market will find its natural rhythm.”

The viewability issue is distinct from that of fraud, however in both cases the maxim ‘buyer beware’ is apt. Marketers must work with providers, agencies and publishers who can demonstrate their ads’ viewability and where they run, and then weed out less competent suppliers.

The third related issue is that of ad misplacement. It most recently hit the headlines in April, when The Sun picked up on the fact that ads were being served by big name brands such as Asda, M&S and British Gas on sites categorically deemed not ‘brand-safe’. Destination website content included paedophilia, incest and bestiality.

Naturally, the brands involved were extremely disturbed.

Though not one of the brands mentioned in The Sun’s article, it’s an ongoing consideration for Nestle’s: “As an advertiser I want to be on brand-safe websites. We need to be with the companies who are continually investing money and have a robust partnership.”

To this end, he is working with Tube Mogul to make sure his placements are as brand-safe as possible. For Nestle this involves creating a white list of only 500 publishers where Owen is happy to see his ads appear. On top of this, he reveals that as much work is done creating a list of banned keywords as creating the usable keywords linked to his ads.

“A number of big advertisers were mentioned in that Sun piece. When an article like that appears I can go back to my suppliers and say ‘are these procedures in place?’ We are very hands-on with our agencies and we recognise that they are the experts,” Owen adds.

ISBA’s Wootton, agrees that brands will always have to be vigilant: “We spend a lot of time needling the brands to take care in this space,” he says. However he adds: “Mercifully the scale is not as great as it could be. There are lots of tools in place. If you think that these ad spaces are bought in their billions if not trillions, then a few going astray is a very small failure rate.“

But, he admits: “Although the failure rate is infinitesimal we still have to push to reduce it further.”

We have been partnering with a vendor for the last 18 months and they provide us with reporting that feeds back viewability by site and inventory and creative. We can see our site-by-site viewability rate and we are looking to exclude the sites that fall below the industry average of 50-60%.

One of the difficulties we’ve had is that there are quite a few vendors out there that have inconsistent results. If one advertiser partners with one technology provider and another goes with someone else, which one is showing the true result? There’s no consistent framework for viewability.

It’s the responsibility of the trade bodies and technology vendors but also of brands to put pressure on those companies. You’ll never see innovation otherwise.

I would like to see consistency in terms of results and granularity of reporting. It would also be good to see understanding around the data sets. We have made white lists but we would also like to have confidence that pressure is put on publishers around the inventory that is available to advertisers. We know that the average is between 50-60% – how can we make it better?”

There’s a lack of education. When a brand looks in the trade press and sees 50% viewability they are shocked and start questioning their agencies. I know that this is an industry-wide issue and that organisations are looking to improve. For me as an advertiser that’s enough. But for Moneysupermarket viewability is increasingly important. We are not crediting conversions to ads that are not being seen.