Traffic fraud costs marketers billions of dollars in wasted ad spend annually. Ever since it emerged out of the pay-per-click model in the late 1990s, traffic fraud has evolved into a constant game of cat and mouse -- creating real and expensive problems for advertisers, agencies, intermediaries and publishers.
Traffic fraud has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Originally, fraudsters hired actual humans to click on search and display ads (remember click farms?), but it was expensive to scale so they began building scripts that simulated humans clicking on ads. Today, the fake-impressions business has grown more sophisticated, with hidden and laundered impressions being sold to unsuspecting advertisers through a number of sophisticated technologies.
Originating with search ads, and making its way to display, ad fraud has matured and bled its way into the highly lucrative online video ad landscape -- and for good reason. The sheer volume of budgets flowing into digital video -- U.S. marketers will spend nearly $6 billion on video ads this year and nearly $13 billion in 2018 -- has made it a key target for traffic fraud perpetrators. Fraudulent bot traffic (i.e., fake visits to websites from computer bots) was reported to drive 36% of all online traffic, according to the IAB.
Clearly, traffic fraud is the culprit for a lot of wasted marketing spend. As more and more consumers shift their attention toward digital video, one of the biggest challenges advertisers face is understanding how to continue their digital marketing investment, while ensuring that their video ads are being viewed by real people.
Advertisers and agencies can take concrete steps to protect themselves from traffic fraud. While no methods are foolproof, taking a systematic approach to identifying and avoiding fraudulent traffic dealers works to significantly reduce risk.
1. Use accredited, third-party verification services to validate that your campaigns are being delivered to humans. Look for an independent third-party measurement company that is not involved in buying or selling media; your referee shouldn't also be playing the game. If a media seller's numbers can't be verified, or are dramatically different than those reported by a third party, consider that a red flag.
2. Establish your target audience and verify that it's been reached. Define your goals in terms of audiences rather than just numbers of impressions. Work with your agency to make sure these audiences are being specifically targeted. Verify that your ad has been shown to your target demographics. Use an impartial, independent third party such as comScore or Nielsen to verify that your target audience was actually reached.
3. Use platforms that are certified compliant with IAB quality assurance guidelines. Your buying software should comply with industry best practices around transparency, and using IAB-certified partners is a key step in the collective effort required to mitigate the problem. Sophisticated demand-side platforms enable you to filter the inventory you buy based on the IAB's QA guidelines.
4. Review the URLs your ads run on on. Your brand is accountable for its ad placement, so you need to know where your impressions are running. Get specifics on URLs before your ads run and ensure your third-party verifier is continually reviewing and verifying those URLs.
5. Determine upfront what recourse your supplier provides for fraudulently-served impressions. Should you confirm that your traffic has been affected by fraud, you and your supplier will need an agreed-upon plan of recourse. Will the supplier refund money you've paid for fraudulent impressions, or "make good" with legitimate impressions?
6. Participate in industry efforts to mitigate the problem. The key to success in solving this problem will be collective action by advertisers, publishers and tech platforms. Industry efforts such as the IAB, 4A's and ANA's trustworthy accountability group are lining up to make it easier for all of us to work collectively to solve this problem.
Traffic fraud continues to be an industry-wide concern, but the key players in the advertising ecosystem are taking unprecedented steps to fight these perpetrators, who won't stop until the dollars dry up. For this reason, advertisers must protect themselves from fraudulent traffic, educate themselves on best practices and new technologies, and ensure that money spent on video advertising goes to legitimate, impactful impressions.
When armed with the right strategies and partners, advertisers can get a clearer lens on traffic fraud and how best to fight it.