Understanding Digital Ad Fraud and Bot Traffic

Much has been made of the rise of fraudulent digital ad traffic over the last couple years, with headlines such as “Russian Ring of Digital Ad Crooks is Reportedly Making Over $3 Million a Day” and “Hackers Make $5M a Day by Faking 300M Video Views” making a splash in the press.

Hackers! Russian rings! Crooks! $5M/Day! It sounds quite dramatic, full of intrigue and hinting at a huge conspiratorial criminal underbelly in digital advertising – it reads like the stuff of James Bond films. And it is dramatic. Sort of.

But before we get sucked into the hype and declare all digital marketing tainted and rife with fraud, it’s important to understand what the fraud is really about, where it came from, and why it matters.

When programmatic (machine/software-led) ad buying and selling started to become a seriously viable and effective way of advertising digitally, some clever individuals (clever AND shady!) began to realize that the removal of the human element in ad buying (time-consuming, tactical, costly) in favor of the machine element (quick, intelligent, cost-efficient) opened up possibilities to capitalize on the trend and make themselves some money. They saw a Trojan Horse entry point to the model and leapt on it.

Put simply, bot or fraud traffic is the result of this “get-rich-quick” scheme. Personal computers are set up in an infrastructure that essentially turn them into auto-clicking machines. The computer is served an ad, “sees” it, “clicks” it, and repeats. Over and over and over again. Therefore, these ad impressions that are being served to and seen by a computer, or even clicked on by a computer, are fraudulent. They never even cross a human’s field of vision. These hackers then went about creating websites upon websites upon websites, and offering up their ad inventory to the programmatic exchanges. The ad space on one of their sites gets sold programmatically, an ad is served programmatically, a bot sees or clicks on it, the websites make money. And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

That sounds all very grim; it would seem all advertisers should cease and desist programmatic buying altogether, right? It’s not real traffic, it’s wasting money, it’s all a big con job, etc. etc. Not so fast. 

Now that this is a known issue, both publishers and advertisers have taken on the challenge to reduce and remove ad fraud. Quality publishers who want to continue to make money by offering ad inventory on their sites are taking the first steps on their own to ensure their inventory isn’t subject to this fraud. Companies such as Integral Ad Science and MOAT have created software suites that seek to identify and root out non-human elements from ad inventory; major industry players like comScore are now focused on measurement that detects levels of invalid traffic.

Both publishers and advertisers have the ability to engage with these types of platforms and measurement solutions to ensure their ads are being served to human beings; as advertisers have become more empowered, publishers are responding to pre-emptively fix the issue because their revenue stream depends on it. DAC Group works closely with our clients to help them make informed decisions on the right monitoring solution for them, and is continuously investigating the traffic from our ad buys on behalf of our clients to ensure that known invalid traffic is removed. Though this is continually improving, until such time as this sort of traffic is removed entirely or diminished enough to no longer matter, it is incumbent upon advertisers and agencies to ensure they’re talking about this issue and including the human touch in their campaigns.

Truth in Advertising is a three-part series developed by Jenna Watson, DAC Group’s VP, Digital media and Michael Jurik, Director of Display at DAC Group. The collaboration examines some of the most pressing concerns in digital advertising today and provides brands with strategies to safeguard their reputation and maximize their investment in digital advertising.

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