As the digital ad spend rises, so does the amount of non-human traffic online. That is no surprise to Brian Pugh, comScore’s SVP of Audience, who has been tracking the issue for about 15 years. In those early days, says Pugh, no one wanted to talk about it; non-human traffic was one of the internet’s dirty little secrets. The bad news is that has grown a lot since then. The good news is that today people are discussing it openly and solutions are emerging to address the problem.
To fuel on-going discussion around these issues comScore recently released a booklet on Non-Human Traffic, which provides a clear overview of the issue as well as how a failure to address the problem causes inaccurate audience measurement, which negatively impacts the entire value chain. “Over the last 18 months, the issue has been talked about much more openly,” says Pugh, “because brands are becoming more sophisticated and aware.” And while viewability has been in the spotlight for a while, Pugh sees issues of fraud moving to the fore “because before you can judge if an ad is really viewable, you need to know if the viewer is human.”
comScore has been working to address the issue of fraud since the launch of its Media Metrix product in 2001, and the company’s acquisition of MdotLabs last summer signaled a significant push to weed out fraudulent traffic in order to accurately measure and report on audiences. MdotLabs co-founder Timur Yarnall joined comScore as SVP and anti-fraud evangelist, to help educate the industry and marketers, many of whom still think viewability is all they have to worry about.
The reality is that non-human traffic undermines the integrity of every performance and effectiveness metric. And this is not just a buy-side issue, at least in part because the growth of the digital advertising industry must be predicated on trust. Yarnall points to comScore’s recent launch of Industry Trust as another effort to increase transparency around problems in digital advertising, but also “to highlight the good things happening in the industry and not just provide fodder for the next shocking story.”
Industry Trust is intended to enable trustworthy programmatic transactions by providing a rating of ad inventory quality. Pugh says that the popularity of programmatic ad buying has further escalated fraud with bad actors delivering non-premium inventory by “claiming to be another site.” Low-quality sites impersonating a high quality publisher in order to steal ad sales is known as Domain Laundering and is one of the issues covered in the new comScore booklet. “This sort of thing is much too easy right now,” according to Pugh, who believes that more transparency and accountability are essential to strengthen the ecosystem. “Content is still king,” says Pugh. “The best audiences are going to be around great content so of course there are going to be fraudsters out there trying to impersonate the best publishers.”
The Non-Human Traffic booklet doesn’t touch upon the issue of third-party traffic sourcing, an area of much concern to publishers that was raised in the ANA White Ops report “The Bot Baseline: Fraud in Digital Advertising, which found that sourced traffic display inventory was almost five times more likely to be fraudulent. While Pugh says he has seen cases of publishers trying to hide that sort of traffic in the past, these days they are becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects and are working hard to ensure that third-party traffic comes from reputable sources, thanks in part to vocal industry leaders such as AdWeek’s Mike Shields. Ultimately, he encourages publishers to continue to place a premium on building quality audiences, “If you are a publisher, you have to get traffic to your site. No, all sourced traffic isn’t bad, but the old saying you get what you pay for applies here.”
While both Yarnall and Pugh note that scammers continue to change their tactics in order to counteract the anti-fraud measures put in place by publishers, they also highlight the creativity coming from the media, marketing and measurement side of the equation in addressing these issues. What’s key to staying ahead of what’s sure to be an on-going issue is the sharing of information and continued efforts by leaders in the industry to shine a light on the problems as well as the victories in combatting fraud and non-human traffic. And while fraud will never be entirely eliminated, Yarnall’s goal is to make it much harder and more expensive for fraudsters to exist.