Andy Flint, Head of Business Development, ABC
In 2006, when we collaborated with the IAB US to create the IAB/ABC International Spiders and Bots List, we at ABC saw that invalid traffic was inflating online figures by as much as 60%. What we didn’t know was that 10 years later it would be costing the ad industry £5.5billion in wasted display revenue, according to research company Forrester.
This list was, and still is, designed to identify and enable any known robotic activity to be excluded from website traffic measurement. It works because, although this type of traffic is non-human, it’s at least polite enough to say ‘hi’ and ask to be excluded from being counted in this way.
And that’s one of the main challenges we face today. The other type of non-human traffic – the kind that is intentionally created by fraudsters for their own financial gain – is much more devious by design. And because it has many different faces, it can be difficult to define and therefore identify and address.
So what can we do to promote transparency across the digital advertising ecosystem while maintaining the right balance and fairness for all parties? With our 20+ years’ experience in digital media auditing, we’ve identified some key tactics that media players can employ to minimise the effects of ad fraud.
Defining the problem & identifying the solution
Ad fraud takes many different forms and, unsurprisingly, is always being updated by fraudsters so they can take best advantage of the current media landscape they’re operating in. This means trying to detect all the different types of ad fraud can be a bit like ’whack-a-mole’. However the criminals themselves are experts, so the last thing we want is to help them through disclosing the methods by which the fraud is being detected. A degree of sensitivity and prudence around sharing information is therefore essential.
In response to this need, industry bodies like JICWEBS in the UK and TAG in the US have established anti-fraud trading standards, taking both the seller and the buyer positions into account. They don’t reveal the intricate testing methods that are applied by independent auditors like ABC to check companies meet these standards; instead they define the main sources of ad fraud and the key steps companies should take to minimise the risk of exposure to ad fraud, as agreed by cross-industry consensus.
There’s increasing demand from the buy side, especially from the big spenders like P&G and Unilever, for the principal digital platforms and media owners to be JICWEBS and TAG certified. And for good reason – a recent study in the US by The 614 Group showed that the rate of Invalid Traffic (IVT) on TAG certified channels was a staggering 83% lower than industry averages.
It was welcomed therefore when JICWEBS and TAG confirmed they’re partnering with a view to aligning their standards globally. A positive step forward that not only recognises the strengths in both approaches, but also that the challenges and opportunities within our ecosystem aren’t bound by geography.
Using certified technology is one of the easy ways to immediately take proactive action against fraud. There is a range of certified tools out there, all offering different capabilities to the market. Both media buyers and owners are increasingly recognising the importance of investing in certification and certified tools, especially when they consider the amount of marketing budget that could be lost to ad fraud - or the potential lost revenue if advertisers decide to pull their spend! Our advice when purchasing and using technology is to:
- Check what it’s been certified for.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Put in the time to configure the technology correctly, ensuring you understand how to get the most from its capabilities.
Not everyone can be an expert in identifying the latest types of fraud, but anyone working in the online media industry can nourish themselves with industry news, presentations, events and training.
And this is one of the main areas that can really make a difference – education. Make sure that you and your teams know about ad fraud as a key topic and importantly, what you can do about it; by understanding and continuously refreshing what your own business approach is, you’ll be arming yourself with enough knowledge to effectively reduce its negative effects.
Support industry initiatives
Advertisers should be aware that, while digital advertising carries risks, there’s no need to be deterred by the horror stories. You can look at ways of reducing risk by demanding that certain checks and balances are in place before you trade. A digital partner with a JICWEBS or TAG certification is a very good start.
Another example of a successful and increasingly implemented initiative is Ads.txt from the IAB Tech Lab. A relatively new initiative for fighting inventory spoofing and unauthorised sellers, it effectively increases transparency between online ad traders in a safe and simple way. The more it’s implemented across the digital ad supply chain the more effective it will be.
Quality vs quantity
Unfortunately, it’s rather easy for fraudsters to fake things like page impressions and clicks. What they struggle to mimic successfully is true engagement - the stuff that brands crave. So the next time you’re booking a campaign, think about the metrics you want to use to measure success. As JICWEBS puts it “focus on the measurement of real ROI, which is difficult for fraudsters to falsify”… Metrics like Cost per Acquisition, Visit Duration and Average Programme Streams, for example, are measures of deeper engagement by the humans you’re seeking to reach.
Consistency is king
The “content is king” maxim is often heard in our industry, and rightly so. When it comes to fraud, however, consistency deserves an equally fitting crown. Fraudsters won’t rest on their laurels when large financial gains are at stake; they’re just waiting for you to slip up. All businesses therefore need to keep themselves and their teams informed and continually carry out the necessary due diligence on who they partner and trade with. And they need to do this unfailingly. Remember, in the world of ad fraud, consistency is king.
To the future
As an independent industry owned Verification Provider for both JICWEBS and TAG, and as a media JIC (Joint Industry Currency) ourselves, it’s important to us that the industry follows the principles set by these types of organisations. Not simply to meet the requirements of our verification but, on a more holistic level, in the interests of increased transparency that is fundamental to the health of our marketplace as a whole. Delivering confidence to advertisers is key to the continued growth of digital, for the benefit of all.
And finally, if as an industry we can’t demonstrate that we can manage this issue ourselves through self-regulation, there’s a chance that governments will step in with legislative measures - something many wish to avoid. So in the words of Mike Zaneis, President and Chief Executive of TAG, “when the industry links its arms and stands together, there is no place left for the criminals to hide."
You can read more about our recent TAG announcement on our ABC News page