Will IAB Networks And Exchanges Guidelines Live Up To Promise?
The IAB recently released the final version of their Networks and Exchanges Quality Assurance Guidelines. Overall, these guidelines have the potential to improve the quality and transparency of network and exchange inventory. They should also make it easier for buyers to compare inventory and assess value and risk.
Whether these guidelines deliver on their promise is still an open question. Will the IAB's self-policing approach work, compared to other standards that require a 3rd party audit? Will networks and exchanges adopt the IAB's taxonomy or continue to use their own? And will agencies vote with their dollars, rewarding those networks and exchanges that go to the trouble of getting certified? These are a few of the questions that only time will answer.
A Ticking Clock
This release signals the start of a six-month countdown, during which time Networks and Exchanges can self-certify by assigning a compliance officer, attending training, vetting their inventory and submitting a compliance checklist. At the end of the six months, the IAB will publish the initial list of certified networks and exchanges; those certified can display a compliance seal (at left). After the initial list is published, additional networks and exchanges can submit their certification documents at any time, and the list will be updated.
How the Guidelines Work
Unlike the EU's IASH guidelines which require a twice yearly 3rd party audit, the IAB guidelines require only that the network or exchange "self-certify." The IAB does create a process for registering complaints against a network that doesn't seem to be living up to the guidelines; three unresolved complaints in a six-month period will get a member de-certified.
While this self-policing approach would seem to be a bit looser than the IASH approach of third-party audits, it does have the benefit of reducing costs (which inevitably get passed on to advertisers) and is perhaps also a bow in the direction of practicality. Audits can be difficult and time consuming to perform. Nevertheless, this is one of the questions about the IAB approach: will networks and exchanges effectively police themselves?
What do the guidelines cover?
The guidelines primarily cover four areas:
- How inventory is represented for sale, the degree of transparency provided and what level of detail is provided
- A standard taxonomy for contextual targeting
- How inventory is vetted for inappropriate and illegal content
- Data disclosure rules
Acquiring inventory from some networks and exchanges can be compared to throwing a dart while blindfolded, and never knowing if the dart hit the target or not. While the IAB guidelines leave room for blind networks, they encourage transparency and they provide a framework for gathering information about inventory in a standard fashion that allows buyers to assess the risks and the value.
A certified network/exchange must reveal their degree of transparency in the following areas:
- Source of the inventory -- will the network provide real-time disclosure of the full URL, a certain site list, a representative site list or no disclosure? Any level of transparency from full to no disclosure is allowed, but networks must be up front about the degree of transparency they offer.
- Relationship with the source -- does the network acquire the inventory directly (either from the publisher or one of their authorized agents) or indirectly (from another network, for example)? This is intended to address an issue where certain premium publishers insist that they don't work with ad networks, but networks represent those premium sites on their site lists because they can sometimes buy inventory through a third-party.
- Content -- what type of content surrounds the inventory? The seller must also disclose whether they are classifying the content at the page, section or site level.
- Placement details -- is the ad above or below the fold, as well as some details in regards to rich media and video ads.
You Say Tomato and I Say Tomahto
The IAB proposes a two-tier contextual taxonomy, with 23 tier 1 categories and 371 second tier categories. Networks may also add their own tier 3 categories, and may map their proprietary taxonomies to the IAB's standard taxonomy. Content can be categorized at the portal, site, section, page or unit level. It will be interesting to see if the networks adopt the IAB's taxonomy or simply provide a rough mapping of their own proprietary taxonomies to the IAB.
Networks and exchanges are required to vet their inventory initially and at least once per quarter. They may use a 3rd party rating service, but are not required to do so. The vetting is done along three dimensions:
- Rating -- something like the G, PG and R-rating system for movies
- Non-standard content -- pornography, violence, profanity, hate speech, etc.
- Illegal content -- things like spyware/malware, torrent sites, and copyright infringement
In order to be in compliance, networks and exchanges must disclose to publishers when leveraging their data for off-site behavioral targeting and inform advertisers when buying third-party data, typically for ad targeting. Although many agencies negotiate data disclosure in their contracts, this is a good addition to the guidelines.
A Good Step
The final publication of these guidelines is a good step in the direction of greater transparency and improving the quality of inventory available from networks and exchanges. Given the increasing amount of inventory that is purchased every year from networks and exchanges, this is a good thing.
Whether the guidelines are successful or not depends of course on the rate of adoption, and to a certain extent on whether buyers vote with their dollars, rewarding those networks and exchanges that go to the trouble of getting certified, and punishing those who don't.
I'm betting on their success.