Publishers: Five Tips To Keep Zombie Bots At Bay

Whether you’re in advertising or publishing, scale is the Holy Grail. In a digital environment, dollars and cents really mean clicks and impressions, or traffic to your site.

But traffic quality is quietly being degraded and devalued -- by zombies.

That’s right. "The Walking Dead" isn’t just a TV show; we’re living it every day. According to security firm Solve Media, just under 30% of all global display ad traffic is driven and maintained by bot networks. Botnets are hordes of zombie users nefariously controlled by third parties via code. They cleverly simulate impressions and clicks, but are certainly not human.

The point, of course, is to defraud advertisers into paying for phony users and user activity. And it works. 

In 2013, fake traffic and bot-led “engagement” ultimately cost advertisers $11.6 billion. And it will only get worse as programmatic growth continues, with less human oversight across buying and selling – the trade-off for ever-greater scale. 

To this point, most have focused on how bots impact an advertiser’s bottom line. But what about publishers? Bots can water down their inventory. They make scale, a once infallible metric, suspect.

With this in mind, here are five tips for digital publishers to safeguard against traffic fraud.

1. Know your traffic sources. This goes without saying, but it’s always the first step. Publishers need to understand their traffic sources intimately. It’s necessary for conversations with advertisers, but it can also help in identifying any traffic source aberrations, possibly driven by botnets. Anything other than organic and search traffic brings some level of risk. Sometimes, even when the traffic is organic, there are bots out of your control that may crawl your site.

2. Invest in analytics technology. You can’t fight a pack of zombies on your own. You need tools and weapons. Publishers need site analytics tools that enable them to measure all of their traffic partners’ metrics. Beyond that, publishers need to employ mechanics in-page to verify real audiences.  Publishers should also have their audience metrics validated by third-party vendors to create neutral benchmarks for measuring advertising engagement.

3. Know your marketing metric. To understand traffic vulnerabilities, publishers need to go beyond top-funnel metrics like clicks or impressions and consider downstream data. It’s at the top-of-the funnel where metrics can often be gamed with ease. But by analyzing marketing channels, you get a better sense of bounce rates (high = zombie), engagement metrics (low = zombie), and overall odd patterns of behavior. These numbers speak to traffic quality and can indicate non-human actors.

4. Avoid buying traffic. Admittedly, this one is difficult for most publishers. Even premium publishers are known to purchase traffic in some form. But consider the risk of ceding scale to an external party that is strictly incentivized to deliver quantity on your behalf. Quantity can dilute quality, with outsourcing leading to fraud.

As a result, sites with poor-quality users and suspect traffic can encounter serious monetization problems. Being added to the blacklists of third-party verification companies can put a publisher in eternal purgatory where they can’t receive brand budgets from ad network partners. Even if the site avoids blacklist denotation, some networks will optimize premium dollars away from sites showing suspicious patterns and low-quality traffic. It can then be hard to right this ship, so the risk is huge.

5. If you buy, buy smart. Buying traffic inherently increases risk for the publisher, and buying non-organic traffic could drive drastically disastrous results. However, if you find yourself needing to increase inventory to deliver the expected impressions for the advertiser, per comScore, be sure to “ask the third-party traffic providers how they are generating traffic for the site.” If they deliver a credible, clear explanation, that’s a good sign. If not, it’s best to stay away. Recently, the IAB put together a series of questions for digital publishers to consider when buying non-organic traffic. It’s worth a look if you’re committed.

If we’re smart, it’s very possible for us to stave off the zombie apocalypse. But as automated systems take hold in the industry, we’ll need to work that much harder to ensure traffic’s legitimacy.

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1 comment about "Publishers: Five Tips To Keep Zombie Bots At Bay".
  1. Andy Kowl from ePublishing , July 1, 2014 at 5:46 p.m.
    Why would Zombie-bots bother invading a publisher's site? I thought the point was to get the clicks and/or traffic on their own bogus sites and collect the money. What's in it for the rip-off artists to cause advertisers to pay legitimate publishers more? In other words, why would a publisher need to worry about most of these suggestions?