It’s one of the Internet’s biggest open secrets, and, thanks to a new expose by Bloomberg Business, it’s finally getting its much-deserved 15 minutes of fame: The online advertising industry, keen to consistently reach more and more eyeballs, is actually serving a big chunk of ads to bots and other non-human traffic. Around one-third, or 36%, of all web traffic is fake, according to a report last year by the Internet Advertising Bureau.
Another study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) last year found that 11% of display ads and about a quarter of video ads were never viewed by humans. The study estimates advertisers will lose about $6.3 billion on fake traffic in 2015.
But there is a critical difference regarding which publishers are affected most. New research from Digital Context Next shows that premium publishers such as Conde Nast, ESPN, Vox Media, CBS Interactive, NBCUniversal and the New York Times had about 2.8% of its display ads and 2.5% of its video ads going to “sophisticated bots” — much lower than the rates ANA found in its study.
“[DCN] members must continue to be diligent as fraud is an evolving problem and trust is earned each and every day,” DCN honcho Jason Kint said in the report. The report also outlined ways that publishers can avoid bots and non-human traffic: vetting third-party traffic sources; not relying on viewability as the sole measure of impressions; and limiting or eliminating retargeting of visitors.
But not all publishers aim for that kind of experience. “Sometimes traffic brokers use shady techniques like pop-up windows to trick users into opening a page,” Vox’s Timothy Lee explains. “In other cases, the traffic is purely automated.” In other words, computers are essentially being hijacked by viruses and programmed to visit sites.
Despite fledgling efforts to move ad measurement metrics to time spent, such as those by the Financial Times, it seems like the entire Internet ecosystem is chasing after clicks — which is what fuels so much fake traffic — the ability to be “bot-free” is emerging as a new kind of premium. Fraud rates and bot “eyes” are much lower when publishers are willing to pay more for high-quality marketing, so it puts an added pressure on them to invest in themselves. Publishers often know what kind of territory they’re getting into if they choose to pay less for traffic, according to a former publishing executive who knowingly bought false ad impressions.
“They would let me decide how much I was willing to pay for traffic, and when I told them $0.002 or below, they made it clear they had little control over the quality of traffic they would send at that price,” he told Digiday. “Quality didn’t really matter to us, though.”
The emphasis on quantity versus quality advertising is the double edge to this sword. Programmatic advertising, which many in the digital advertising industry are shuffling toward because automated advertising increases scale, also opens up the door to fraudulent advertising because publishers are less able to personally vouch for the advertising networks they’re working with. Fraud rates are lower when an actual personal relationship between the publisher and the advertiser exists.
Yet veering away from programmatic advertising is not quite realistic given current industry trends. According to eMarketer, programmatic advertising currently comprises about 25% of the approximately $58.6 billion digital advertising industry. Some experts estimate 80% of all ads will be automated within the next decade.
So what’s there to do? Antifraud teams at companies like Google, for example, are refusing to pay any publishers caught serving fake ad impressions — and won’t charge advertisers anything — in an effort to turn robotic traffic into an unprofitable business. And that’s key, because right now every party involved in this scam, whether knowingly or unknowingly, participates because it earns them money in some way.
And perhaps this is all good news for premium publishers, giving them a way to differentiate themselves by showing they have solid, real audiences who will appreciate top-notch content and acceptable advertising.