Trick Or Click! Why Are Advertisers Letting Themselves Get Tricked?

Trick or treat! Before I open the door to hear that perennial cry, I often wonder what's behind my door. Could it be a cute, innocent, costumed child hoping for a sweet return for his or her efforts? Or this time will it be a masked teenager with a malicious, hidden agenda -- just looking to get some loot? Oddly enough, this is what advertisers and agencies experience every day when they buy across networks and exchanges.

Agencies knock on doors, too, going from networks to exchanges to direct publishers to help them achieve their performance goals and eke out a little profit for themselves. Along the way, agencies know they are going to get a plenty of wax lips, pennies and last year's Christmas mints, which will likely get tossed out later, but at least go back to their clients with a full bag. Advertisers realize and expect this, too. The Smarties and lollipops are okay, but they're really looking for the Butterfingers, Twix and Three Musketeers.

Wouldn't it be better for both advertisers and agencies if they had a neighborhood map that showed which houses always deliver the best treats, and which houses always deliver junk? This way, they could concentrate only on the most lucrative houses or neighborhoods. The end result would be a bag full of only the best stuff, and both advertisers and agencies would be thrilled.



Such maps exists in the online advertising world -- tools that can help advertisers and agencies reach only the premium publishers -- but for many reasons, they still go knocking door-to-door, taking the good with the bad. Here's what we're hearing:

1) Fraud is to be expected. You can't stop it -- you just have to make the best of the given situation. My answer to that is -- yes, there will always be fraud as long as advertisers keep patronizing the fraudsters. Of course, the problem will never go away if ad dollars keep funneling into fraudulent sites -- why would it?

Campaign verification technologies can identify which sites are fraudulent, which sites are not delivering on promised placements, which sites are selling the same inventory to 50 advertisers and burying them in nested i-frames, and more. If you know which sites are doing this, you can tell your network to exclude those sites from your ad buy, or use the information as leverage to get a credit, charge-back or other make-good.

2) It's too difficult, costly and time-consuming to combat fraud. Yes, fraudsters are a tricky bunch -- but if they made themselves easy to catch they wouldn't be very effective, would they? But looking the other way so long as performance goals are met only perpetuates the fraud. Understandably, agencies and networks don't have the time and resources internally to vet every site for fraud, but there are experts who handle this sort of thing.

Would it be a worthwhile investment, then, if at the end of a campaign an agency could say that they got the same -- or better -- results (in terms of user engagement and clicks and conversions) for their client, spent less money (in the form of reduced ad waste), and thereby earned a greater margin or performance bonus? Suddenly, it's no longer about combating fraud, but improving performance.

3) It's not that big a problem, is it? Click and impression fraud is actually much more prevalent than most people in the industry care to admit. We recently released some fraud data and findings based on a 20-million-impression RON buy for 53 advertisers spread across nine well-known networks. The original nine networks filled the impressions through downstream daisy-chaining on at least 45 additional ad networks on more than 100,000 sites. The test revealed that more than half of the ad impressions and 95% of clicks in online ad buys were fraudulent. Nearly all the fraudulent traffic was hidden behind numerous layers of nested i-frames, which attempt to hide in-view data. It also revealed significant impression fraud and URL padding among those networks, where 90% of all the traffic came from 2% of the sites in the ad buy -- most of which was fraudulent. Obviously, this was a limited test, but the reality is that buying inventory via non-vetted linked partners on major exchanges opens advertisers up to a universe of fraud from unqualified publishers.

4) It's not my responsibility . Advertisers say it's the agency's responsibility. Agencies put the onus on Networks. Networks say they do what they can to police their publisher sites, but it's caveat emptor. If it's no one's responsibility, then how does one combat the problem? Who really wins in this situation? Advertisers have the most to lose -- they pay good money, expecting legitimate traffic and engagements, and get empty clicks instead. Agencies, in general, are so focused on meeting performance metrics while being squeezed by shrinking margins that they lack the resources and incentive to police downstream. Networks also lack the incentive, but for the opposite reason -- they receive up to 60% of the ad spend, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But the real winners are the fraudsters, who can generate incalculable ad revenue from just a few lines of code.

It's hardly likely that any one event is going to galvanize the ad community to combat fraud, but if it's going to start anywhere, it has to start with advertisers. In all fairness, many top advertisers are aware of the problem and are taking steps to combat fraud against their own brands. But this is merely a case of winning the battle but losing the war. If enough advertisers begin to pressure their agencies, said agencies can leverage vast amounts of available fraud data and aggregated ad dollars to put pressure on networks, exchanges and publishers clean up their acts. If the money flowing to fraudulent sites starts to dry up, it will be more difficult for these sites to survive, which over time will decrease fraud. Once that happens, the candy will start flowing and it'll be clicks -- not tricks -- for everyone.

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