Bot Monitoring: Important, but Complicated
It’s possible to monitor traffic for bots. Fou says publishers can also create filters that, when recognizing a bot, either allow the pages to serve without calling ads or prevent the page from loading at all so bots can’t grab a cookie. Today, many proactive publishers are just at the monitoring stage, with fewer at the “filtering or blocking” stage, Fou says.
Monitoring is an important step, though—it is only through monitoring that publishers can understand how clean their traffic is and which third-party sources are bot-heavy and should be replaced. Frank Amorese, senior media director at HEINEKEN USA, says more publishers should have partners verify their traffic and should guarantee that advertisers are not paying for fraud. “I don’t think the community at large [of advertisers] is putting enough pressure on publishers to do that,” he says.
And yet, Amorese says advertisers should employ their own third-party verifications too, as HEINEKEN does. Otherwise, he says, “It’s kind of like asking someone to grade their own homework. If there’s a grey area, [publishers] would probably give themselves the benefit of the doubt.” Amorese likens it to the use of a third-party ad server. “We want to make sure we have a third party there verifying the plan delivery that was agreed upon,” he says.
However, problems can arise when publishers and advertisers independently use traffic monitors since they’re likely to have different methodologies. The overlap may not produce the same results, and legitimate web traffic can be falsely identified as suspicious, Tiffany states, which produces reconciliation problems.
He says the industry’s currently in an “awkward period where the [bot detection] standardization in this field is so new” and predicts it might take time for the industry to come up with a sustainable solution to prevent false positives.
Industry Initiative Launches Anti-Fraud Certification
Meanwhile, eliminating ad fraud is a top concern of the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), which was formed in 2014 by three advertising trade groups: the ANA, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). In May 2016, the initiative announced the launch of its anti-fraud certification program for direct buyers, direct sellers, fraud detection vendors and measurement services, and intermediaries. Participants must comply with guidelines relating to their specific roles in the supply chain.
Earning the Certified Against Fraud seal signals that a company is meeting the standard set by the industry and is doing its part to fight fraud, says Rachel Nyswander Thomas, SVP of operations and public policy at TAG.
For publishers, the requirements include complying with Invalid Traffic Detection and Filtration Guidelines (from the Media Rating Council, Mobile Marketing Association, and IAB), employing domain list filtering and data center IP list filtering, and following publisher sourcing disclosure requirements (PSDR). These disclosures about traffic sources can benefit both publishers and advertisers. “It encourages publishers to really know what’s going on in their own backyard and to give buyers the transparency to make informed decisions about whether they are comfortable working with a publisher that has that level of sourced traffic,” Thomas says.
Likewise, the anti-fraud certification program can also help publishers find partners that are working toward establishing a cleaner ecosystem. “[Sellers] can be sure the folks to whom they are passing their inventory are also doing their due diligence,” Thomas says. “That is why we built a certification that covers the entire supply chain with different roles depending on where you sit in that supply chain.”
Getting verified by TAG—an initial requirement—and earning TAG certifications can cost thousands, but Thomas says the investment is worth it. “The lack of transparency is what has made it possible for criminal activity to become embedded in a legitimate $50 billion supply chain,” she says. “Transparency is also what is going to help us solve these problems and ensure we don’t have a new set of problems facing us in the future. That’s a pretty good reason for companies to be a part of the TAG community.”
As of this writing, no publisher has earned the TAG Certified Against Fraud seal.
Premium Publishers Launch New Ad Marketplace
There are other collective efforts in the works, such as one from Digital Content Next (DCN), an association of premium publishers, which is constructing a digital advertising marketplace from the ground up. It’s called TrustX and will operate as a public benefit corporation with no profit motives.
Advertisers can use the marketplace, which should start transacting early this year, to buy inventory from participating members. As of this writing, 27 publishers have signed on, including AccuWeather, Condé Nast, ESPN, and Univision.
Jason Kint, CEO of DCN, says building TrustX is a highly unusual step that goes beyond today’s important cross-industry efforts of drafting standards, doing research, and talking about ad fraud. “Maybe we need something more here,” Kint says. “An actual live marketplace where we can demonstrate what the right thing to do is for the advertiser, the publisher, and the consumer in a completely transparent fashion that’s not trying to make money. Can we actually accelerate things [in terms of solving issues relating to fraud and transparency]?”
The marketplace will use the analytics company Moat to filter out invalid traffic and measure human and viewable impressions. Advertisers will only pay for the ads that are seen by humans. Kint says for maximum transparency and trust, DCN is rethinking every element of the exchange through ad delivery. “We know the more companies, the more intermediaries, the more technologies that get inserted into the transaction, there’s more vulnerability for fraud,” he says.
It’s worth noting that although there are technologies and business practices to help stop fraud, publishers can have incentives to not question the makeup of their traffic. “I think it is a publisher’s role to not show ads to bots, but it’s not in their financial interest to do so right now,” Dhar says. That could change if they were able to demand higher cost per mille for their human visitors, he says.
Ultimately, it may be pressure from advertisers that gets publishers to take a more active stand against ad fraud. HEINEKEN, for instance, works with a number of verification companies to ensure it is getting the inventory it agreed to. The company won’t pay for impressions that are fraudulent or not viewable. “We’re very clear up front on what we want,” Amorese says. “When people get the business, they understand how they’re going to be measured—and if they don’t live up to it, then they understand why we’re optimizing out of them.”