Invisible Display Ads Explained

Ever since the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled "Web Ads Hidden Under a Cloak of Invisibility" there has been widespread concern in the online advertising industry about invisible display ads (IDAs). Here is everything you need to know about them:

What are invisible display ads?

Invisible display ads (IDAs) are online advertising units that register as delivered by a typical ad server, but are not viewable by a site visitor. As a result, advertisers are billed for ads that did not run.

Why do invisible display ads occur?

Most invisible display ads occur on sites participating in an online advertising network. Sites use this technique to maximize revenue. To date, they have been traditionally difficult for the online advertising networks to identify and police. They typically involve offending sites changing only one line of HTML in order to dramatically increase the number of ads sold.



How do unscrupulous sites implement invisible display ads?

A simple line of HTML code can allow an IDA to appear. There are a variety of IDA /impression fraud approaches. Essentially, ads are served within an iframe, much like a typical display ad, but not viewable. This allows multiple ads to be served in the same position or for ads from other sites to be run while visiting another site. There are few barriers of entry and almost no technical difficulty for a site to implement.

What are the most common ways offending sites use to implement invisible display ads?

There are three typical "impression fraud" techniques used:

1.) Piggy-back iframes - iframes with no height or width


a. Sites add multiple iframes below established ad positions.
b. While the site visitor only sees one ad in the appropriate position, additional ads are served below it, just not visible.

2.) Size-less iframes - large iframes that can load numerous sites and ads

a. Technique allows an out-of-plan site to run advertising, albeit invisible, from approved sites
b. Hidden iframe loads actual sites and advertising. Ads appear delivered, but not viewable by the viewer.


3.) Display blocking iframes - correctly sized iframes that don't show visible ad


a. Ads appear to serve in appropriate position, but are set not be viewed
b. Difficult to detect, given that the ads run in the correct position.

What are some IDA protection strategies?

Look beyond delivery to verify that your campaign isn't being billed for invisible display ads. Unfortunately, looking at each site on your media buy on a regular basis is untenable to all but the smallest campaigns. Advertising programs need to measure delivery and subsequently validate context on an automated real-time basis. Among the devices used by DoubleVerify and other providers, are pixels embedded in your advertising to verify delivery and, in parallel, use of a network of crawlers to ensure that your ad did appear and that the site was compliant.

4 comments about "Invisible Display Ads Explained".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Roger Harris from Harris Social Media, October 21, 2009 at 8:18 a.m.

    Thank you for this useful information. I guess it's hard for some of us to understand why anyone would sabotage their reputation by running invisible ads.

    Nevertheless, what does this presage for the banner ad industry? With CTRs ever lower because of ad saturation or inappropriate placing (such as ads on social networks) and ever-increasing ploys by advertisers to get users' attention, we are locked into a vicious cycle.

    It's got to end somewhere. Most likely ad dollars will shift away from banner ads to media offering better ROI. Here are some thoughts on my blog:

  2. Joe Cibula, October 21, 2009 at 8:44 a.m.

    The best ROI you can get

  3. Andries De villiers from, October 21, 2009 at 9:58 a.m.

    As a performance based network we see this all over the internet. Impression fraud is masked by click fraud to trick buyers into thinking their impressions can be seen by a user.

    adMarketplace works with performance based advertisers, and are able to track the quality of the click all the way to the conversion. When a network is monitoring for click fraud and measures traffic performance (ie, conversion metrics other than CTR), it is very easy to spot and block all fraudulent traffic, both impression and click based.

    It is great to see buyers are becoming more aware of the rampant impression and click fraud in many networks and are starting to utilize performance based networks such as adMarketplace to deliver high quality traffic to their clients.

  4. Andrew Ettinger, October 21, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    Most interesting- the ad networks that got caught by WSJ never bothered to reach out to media buyers to defend themselves. They simpy wrote it off as one time only bad press. Instead of getting out in front of the story they simply hid.

Next story loading loading..