Bots Don't Have Cash or Credit Cards

As Much As 10% of Internet Traffic Isn't Human, It's Fake

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Innovations breed competing innovations designed to disrupt, conquer and steal market share. Unfortunately, we're not just talking about Samsung Galaxy versus iPhone 5. The innovations I'm talking about have mal-intent. One example plaguing online advertising is bots -- small pieces of software that roam the web masking themselves as human. While online advertising aims to build awareness and attract customers, bots undermine that system by impersonating humans for mischievous and often illegal reasons.

Bots create inefficiencies by wasting valuable advertising budgets without ever converting into a real customer, and they can harm a brand's reputation. These bots are capable of clicking repeatedly on a display advertisement, posting comments to a site or stealing content for unauthorized use on other sites. Bots can even create fake accounts to be used as spam assets at a later time.

As an industry, we've known about this problem for more than a decade. Publishers are being victimized, and it's time to put an end to nefarious, fake traffic.

According to a recent eMarketer study, brand advertisers will spend approximately $15 billion this year on online advertising. Given an average 10% of traffic is bot traffic (according to our own internal system), the resulting loss is estimated to be in excess of $1.5B in 2012 alone. Measurement firm comScore sees bot traffic range from 4 to 11 percent. Others such as security tech firm Incapsula estimates it's as high as 31 percent. No matter what data you use, we can all agree that bots are present in the market, and they waste huge amounts of advertising investment.

Brands are typically fastidious in identifying which publisher sites they want to appear on, and employ robust technologies to make sure their ads will never be shown next to inappropriate content or placed inaccurately. Yet, despite all of these precautionary measures, brands are often unaware of how much bot traffic they are actually paying for. Marketers and their agencies deserve a real human audience.

Many publishers are keenly aware that bot traffic could quickly diminish their hard-earned reputations. So they have become proactive about deploying anti-bot security technologies. They recognize that their properties are more valuable to brands if their audience is high quality and verifiably human.

How can advertisers and publishers work together to stop the bots? Here are some recommendations.

  • Invest in cost-per-engagement (CPE) media opportunities that demand human cognition. Participatory ad units are less likely to be gamed.
  • Work with publishers that proactively take a stance against bots: it's better to have a slightly smaller, much higher quality audience than one riddled with bots.
  • Demand third-party attitudinal metrics that confirm effectiveness. Advertisers can ensure that ad buys actually work by using measurements provided by research companies such as comScore and Vizu.
  • Avoid auto-play inventory, as it is a breeding ground for bots.
  • Implement attribution tracking technology wherever possible to weed out bad traffic sources.

As we open the Q4 media spending season, let's be careful out there. Avoiding bot traffic is good for campaign ROI and good for the ecosystem. Bots don't have cash or credit cards and they can't buy anything, so let's make a conscientious effort to stop marketing to them.

Ari Jacoby is co-founder and CEO of Solve Media. You can find him on Twitter @arijacoby.
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