Opinions

Going One-on-One with Ad Fraud

Posted by Todd Miller on June 2nd, 2014 at 10:40 am

We experience the positive effects of the internet every day. Billions of people use the internet for business, banking, shopping, learning, sharing, and more. What we often don't see is the darker side of the online world. This is where fraud and criminal enterprises live and breathe. Here, machine traffic is purchased, advertising systems are exploited, stolen identities are traded, and credit card numbers are acquired. I like to call it “The Undernet,” and some refer to it as “The Dark Web.” It is fluid, mobile, and highly adaptive. The Undernet began as soon as people realized that money could be made online. In a previous article, I laid out why quality and compliance work is so important. Now I’ll focus on effective ways of practicing constant vigilance against these threats.

It’s always beneficial to develop a plan to ensure quality. At my company Adaptive Media, we have a three-pronged attack in place: our internal “play book”, 3rd party validation, and focused participation in industry self-regulatory organizations. This system is robust enough to deal with today’s threats and flexible enough to deal with whatever comes next.

Internal quality and compliance work begins with vetting and qualifying every Publisher before running advertising with them. Publisher websites must receive passing marks from anti-spyware/malware/virus tools, such as SafeWeb and SiteAdvisor. Also, each Publisher site or mobile app should be reviewed manually for overall quality. Admittedly, quality is difficult to quantify, but here are a few things on Adaptive Media’s checklist:

  • Are the sites’ traffic measurement ratings consistent with search engine indexing for relevant keywords?  For example, a “Top 1000” website featuring funny videos should be found on the first two pages of searches for “funny videos” and related terms.
  • Is the website updated frequently? And is the content original and unique? Less reputable sites are notorious for stealing and scraping content from top-level sites and passing it off as their own. If an article from, say, WebMD.com is also posted on “OnlineDocAdvice.info,” it’s safe to assume that the post did not originate from the less reputable site.
  • Does the web site have broken elements, or functionality?
  • Does the web site have lots of content, but no user/visitor engagement in terms of comments, likes, etc.?

Publisher approval is just the start of the quality process. Publishers we advertise through are continually monitored for patterns that would be indicative of non-compliant activity. Websites should also be monitored and examined to ensure that the Publisher is continuing to offer the same quality, brand-safe experience you saw when you first approved them.

It’s all well and good for me list these things, but trust requires transparency and disclosure. Our second prong-of-attack is achieved by working with best-of-breed 3rd parties to verify our work. OpenVV is a consortium of online video companies, verification services and industry organizations. The company has developed an open-source standard for measuring viewability, as determined by Media Rating Council (MRC) guidelines. Namely, that 50% of the ad/video must be visible on the user’s screen for a minimum of 2 seconds. But OpenVV goes beyond this to measure viewability through every quartile of the video. Another partner we work closely with is mDot Labs, which monitors and reports on every impression and view generated through our ad server. This allows us to block automated and bot driven activity, shielding users from being hijacked by the Undernet.

Our third prong of attack focuses on active participation in some of the largest industry associations and lobbying groups. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) comprises more than 600 leading media and technology companies that are responsible for selling 86% of online advertising in the United States. As IAB members, we adhere to its Quality Assurance guidelines. This means categorizing all sites and apps by their content, and rating that content accordingly. In addition, we participate in a number of groups and task forces pertaining to quality and compliance. For example, the Task Force for Traffic of Good Intent meets to determine standards for detecting and blocking fraudulent traffic. By sharing what we are learning, along with contributions from other IAB members, we can help the entire industry build bot-blocking into their serving technology.

It’s imperative to vigilantly monitor your publishers and network for quality. Tackle the problem internally by rigorously qualifying every website and mobile app that wants to partner with you. Then continually monitor for non-compliant behavior – not only by yourselves, but also by respected and independent verification services. By working diligently with industry groups to implement and enhance standards, we are at the vanguard of an industry movement towards quality and transparency.

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