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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The war on ad fraud: Why publishers need an armory to win the battle

June 18, 2019 | By Steve Guenther, Vice President, Digital Auditing—Alliance for Audited Media @SteveGuenther13

It’s difficult to track the true cost of ad fraud, with estimates varying from $5.8 billion to $23 billion in 2019. But no matter what the estimate, fraudsters are taking advantage of the programmatic ecosystem’s complexities to funnel ad dollars to fake websites that should be going to legitimate publishers.

Yet digital publishers have power in the fight against ad fraud. In fact, the websites that are doing everything right can be a major part of the solution to the digital ad fraud problem. Publishers can take steps to reduce fraud and get rewarded for their quality content and audience.

The impostor problem

Media buyers have thousands of sites to choose from when buying ads programmatically. Their problem isn’t a lack of options; it’s having assurance that the sites are legitimate with human audiences. Fraudsters can create bots to look like humans, and fake sites to look like premium sites.

That’s where the fraudsters are winning. They enter the advertising ecosystem with an army of bots that look legitimate enough to fool media buyers into believing they’re placing an ad in front of their target audience at a lower cost than a premium site. Quality sites end up competing with illegitimate sites that look legitimate, though they don’t offer advertisers human audiences.

Fake websites and fake users give advertisers no return on their investment. Both publishers and advertisers lose because the money intended for a legitimate publisher is diverted into the pockets of bad actors.

One solution isn’t the solution

There are many valuable anti-fraud tools available today including fraud detection software and inventory/seller verification initiatives such as ads.txt. While it’s important for publishers to incorporate accredited solutions into their anti-fraud arsenal, it’s also important not rely solely on any one solution.

For example, the 2019 ANA/White Ops Bot Baseline report revealed that less than half of all ad impressions are able to be fully, transparently validated by measurement tools. Fraud detection companies use different methodologies that produce varied results whether the ad campaigns or the publishers’ pages are tagged.

As another example, sourced traffic may be engineered to pass through fraud detection technologies. A publisher may think that the ad fraud detection tools they have in place are preventing fraud from occurring on their website, but sourced traffic may introduce bots unknowingly.

Since there are many angles to the ad fraud problem, it takes a multi-layered, integrated approach to confront the problem as well. Publishers have opportunities to go beyond current solutions and stand out as quality publishers.

What publishers can do

It’s important that publishers use a holistic approach to ad fraud prevention and detection that incorporates a variety of solutions to ensure all aspects of a website are covered from traffic sources to ad delivery. There are several steps publishers can take to limit their exposure to ad fraud and reduce the risk to their media buying clients.

Follow best practices for driving traffic to your site

Take advantage of your content that attracts human audiences and promote it through legitimate marketing methods such as paid ads, e-newsletters or social media. Don’t source traffic, which can invite invalid traffic to your website. Monitor traffic sources to identify any suspicious patterns. Filter traffic from bots and data centers to prevent ads from being served to invalid traffic.

Educate your clients

Communicate how your quality content gives media buyers a greater return on investment. Inexpensive ads may generate lots of clicks at a lower CPM than ads on premium websites, but nonhuman clicks will never convert into paying customers. Quality content attracts human audiences. Next time you have a client meeting, simply ask, “Are you sure you are advertising on quality sites?” An educated advertiser will understand the value of investing in human audiences and quality publishers will get rewarded for their hard work.

Implement industry solutions

While no one solution can solve the entire ad fraud problem, integrating multiple tools into your overall fraud protection plan can go a long way. Adopt tools such as ads.txt, IAB Tech Lab’s OpenRTB Version 3.0, and accredited ad fraud detection software.

Engaging in an independent, third-party website audit can identify areas of risk and help publishers make improvements. A website audit also assures advertisers that steps are being taken to provide them with the highest level of transparency and a safe place to reach their target audience that will provide a greater return on their media investment.

Learn more about what you can do to help minimize ad fraud by downloading the AAM white paper: Three Truths That Help Confront the Digital Ad Fraud Crisis.

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