In his recent study titled State of Digital Ad Fraud Q2 2018, Dr. Augustine Fou found that ad fraud is at an all time high—both in dollars and in rate. This form of crime is so intensely profitable that more and more criminals are focusing on it, instead of other things like robbing banks or stealing credit card numbers. So what are marketers doing about it? Not a lot, still, as we found out when we sat down to interview Dr. Fou.
What is the greatest source of ad fraud today?
Mobile and video ads remain under heaviest attack, since mobile is now over 50% of all digital ad spend and video has far more lucrative CPMs—so criminals are focusing their attention on these two areas. They literally go where the money is. The greatest sources of fraud are no longer bots. There are other forms of fraud that are more vast and better disguised, for example, page redirect traffic, infinite pop-unders, or mobile apps loading webpages while tricking measurement tags.
Of the sources of ad fraud you mentioned, which ones do you think marketers have a handle on?
None. That’s because everyone in the supply chain keeps reassuring them that “everything’s fine” and that there’s no fraud. It’s not because there’s no fraud—it’s because the fraud is better disguised and fraud detection technology is just not seeing it. Marketers need to take a long hard look for themselves at their own analytics to see if things even make sense. There are often tell-tale signs that ad fraud is still there, even though the detection reports say there’s low to no fraud at all.
What is the connection between ad fraud and fake news?
There’s only a slight connection between ad fraud and fake news. Fake news is just like clickbait that tricks some users to click, and therefore generate more pageviews for ad impressions. But tricking humans to click on clickbait is not nearly as scalable as outright fraud, where criminals use fake traffic to fake sites to generate ad revenue or fake mobile apps to load more ad impressions in the background. These are fully automated and massively scalable.
How long have they been connected? Is the world waking up too late?
Fake news or fake sites that have fake content have been around since the beginning of the Internet. This phenomenon has caught the public attention recently because the mainstream press is also covering it as a topic, tied to the recent election. There is plenty of fake content out there, for example there’s plenty on all user-generated content (UGC) channels, but few consumers have complained about that previously. All of that content generates pageviews and therefore ad revenue.
How can brands protect themselves from appearing on fake news sites or next to false information?
Brands should always be careful about where they buy digital ads. There is inherent risk in placing ads on UGC channels because no amount of technology detection or even human reviewers can prevent all non-brand safe placements 100% of the time. And furthermore, some UGC content may be borderline—it may be appropriate for some brands but not for others. So each brand should carefully place their ads and monitor that those placements are actually going where they were supposed to go.
How can brands be sure that their ads go where they are supposed to go?
Brands should always ask for detailed placement reports – ones that contain both the domain and the sellerID that got paid. This is because domain spoofing—where a fake site pretends to be a legitimate site in the bid request so it can get bids—is common. But the fake site will still put in their own sellerID since they want to get paid. If the brand requests placement reports that contain both the domain and the sellerID, it can cross-reference whether the sellerIDs actually matches the domain. If they don’t match, then the brand was ripped off. They paid for impressions that they thought went to a legit site, but instead went to a fake or inappropriate site.
In this era of fake news, shouldn’t fact-based publishers be the winners?
Yes, it is always best for brands to advertise on sites that have real journalists and real editors, and have been around for a long time with an established track record. There are countless sites that spring up overnight that carry all sorts of content, often plagiarized from somewhere else. These sites also use fake traffic (i.e. sourced traffic) to boost their own ad revenue. By advertising on these sites that no one has heard of, or did not even know existed more than a few months ago, advertisers are opening themselves up to all kinds of ad fraud, not just fake news.
How can fact-based publishers rise against the tide of fake news and draw brands that want high-quality traffic — and maybe even make a buck?
Good publishers—real publishers—just have to keep doing what they’ve been doing. They operate real sites that have real human audiences because they have real content that humans want to read. So marketers should advertise with them and even pay for higher CPMs rather than bottom-of-barrel prices they pay on ad exchanges. Marketers should realize that when it comes to digital advertising, they truly get what they pay for. If they want their ads to be shown to humans and be exposed to minimal ad fraud, fake news, and other abuses, they should advertise on real, good, credible mainstream publishers.
Is the ball still in marketers’ courts to ferret out ad fraud?
Yes. Period. If they don’t care (and it’s their money) why should anyone else in the supply chain care? Those middlemen are trying to maximize their own profits and they rely on the large volumes that flow through their networks. Anything they do to ferret out fraud and fake news means a reduction in volume and therefore revenues and profits. So middlemen will not help. Marketers must do this for themselves.
Want to learn more about ad fraud? Attend RampUp on the Road in Chicago and hear Dr. Fou speak on How Marketers Can Tell if Ad Fraud is Impacting Their Campaigns.