It's Time For Quality Assurance In Advertising

Are you maintaining quality assurance standards in your online advertising?

Questions seem to be popping up more often as of late, qualifying the topic for meme status.  Articles about click fraud, the topic of viewability in impressions, and brand safety concerns are all serving to make quality a topical discussion once again -- and I would argue it’s about time.

I tend toward optimism when these issues arise, assuming the majority of the publishers, vendors, and advertisers online are taking the high road and abiding by standards for counting impressions, delivering targeted ads and maintaining brand safety. But when I tour conferences and see booth after booth featuring companies I have never heard of touting “cost per action” targeting and “mass reach + high response rates” I start to question my optimism, and wonder what the seedy underbelly of our industry actually looks like.

In recent weeks I’ve heard disturbing figures about viewability and impression fraud.  I won’t share them here, but it would appear far more ads are delivered than seen.  I hear from numerous sources about publishers delivering ads off to the far right in a browser so the viewer never sees them, but they count as a page load and impression.  I’ve seen sites that still stock up as many as 14 ads on a page and count these as impressions.  I’ve heard and read about bots that deliver false impressions and clicks, driving up delivery numbers for advertisers without actually reaching the desired audience.



These tactics make me upset because they give a bad name to an industry that is otherwise dominated by ethical companies full of people with integrity.  As far as I can tell, the majority of online ad dollars are spent with publishers and platforms who absolutely follow standards and guidelines laid out by groups like the IAB and the NAI, but a minority of companies are creating an undercurrent of questionability -- and that has got to end.

I can’t say for certain that I know how to end fraud and deliver quality assurance to all advertisers in the industry -- if I did, I’d be rich.  I have to hope that some combination of exposure to the companies and tactics that are being used poorly would help to surface the problem and make it addressable.  I know groups like the IAB are trying to push forward with guidelines that advertisers need to adopt. Publishers need to take responsibility for understanding the channels through which their inventory is being managed, and they have to dive deep into the delivery of targeted impressions on their pages. 

Conversely, advertisers need to do their homework.  They need to employ services to ensure their ads are only being delivered on brand-safe inventory.  If all sides of the industry attack this issue, the challenge could be met quickly -- probably even solved in the next two years.  The budgets continue to go up and the expectations rise at the same pace.  I know it’s literally impossible to stop fraud, especially in a programmatic world, but the top 250 online publishers and advertisers, if rallied to support these guidelines and standards, should be capable of solving the problem. 

Of course, the landscape will thin out as a result, since not every company plays by the rules.  How much of the industry will go under if we adopt positive business practices?  What’s your guess?

6 comments about "It's Time For Quality Assurance In Advertising ".
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  1. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, May 29, 2013 at 11:59 a.m.

    Cory, I share your frustrations but I do think this problem can be solved by BUYERS -- just stop looking the other way when their client's ads appear in unseemly environments they purchased -- as soon as that occurs -- and I have horrific screen grabs of such examples, -- that entity responsible for the sale of that impression is no longer used end of story. If this hurts "small or long tail publishers" so be it -- who ever said that just because you created a web site you have earned the right to sell ads?

    Nice column per usual today.


  2. Arlo Laitin from Cardlytics, Inc, May 29, 2013 at 12:26 p.m.

    This was inevitable when we decoupled advertising and content - as the race to reach "The WSJ reader for $.50 CPM's vs. site direct $25 CPM's" became mainstream, what did everyone expect? The reason buyers don't solve this problem is simple economics. They are willing to live with the underbelly, as the underbelly drives prices downwards for all content providers. As Ari mentions, everybody has seen the horrific screengrabs, but clearly the cost has not yet outweighed the benefit for most marketers.

  3. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, May 29, 2013 at 12:59 p.m.

    Cory, Having been told by several large ad agencies that ST produced more USA Facebook entries than Facebook, your story only reaffirms my suspicions of how bad the problems are. I am honest with my sponsors and advertisers yet we get hurt.

    The simplest solution will never be adopted by the online ad industry. Simply flat rate charge or billboard pricing. Simply charge by the day, week or month and get away from the alphabet soup charging methods. Every Fortune 500 company we work with on their sweepstakes ads love this because they know I can not screw them. Nearly all the liability of a poor performing campaign falls on the shoulders of the sponsor advertiser.

  4. Rob Rasko from 614 Group, May 29, 2013 at 1:04 p.m.

    Hello Cory, Thank you for taking up the mantle on this conversation I absolutely agree with you that more can be done. Where I would redirect is to make you more aware of the program we manage at The 614 Group on behalf of the IAB which is called.....
    The Quality Assurance Guidelines.

    If you take a closer look I am sure you find something that is an excellent step in working towards the goals you so eloquently write about.

    This program is geared towards buyers (advertisers) and sellers (publishers,) as the solutions lie in a balanced effort by the entire market.

    More companies need to choose to certify, these programs will have enormous effect as the rank and file of members adopting it grow and grow.

    Best regards, Rob Rasko
    Program Director - QA Initiative

  5. Rodney Mayers from Google, May 30, 2013 at 12:35 a.m.

    Cory, as usual, you hit the issue right on the head. Quality Assurance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and thus varies by client. Is there agreement on the elements of quality? Are those elements communicated in a consistent way to Publishers? is Pharma the same as CPG or Health Advertising? Would each advertiser see quality assurance the same way? In traditional media, you knew what you were buying. In digital media we suspend belief long enough to fire off a couple billion impressions based solely on an audience/cookie match, irrespective of the ad environment they are entering....but this is better than traditional right? right?. To solve the quality assurance problem requires an entity that has no incentive to game the system. To attract real brand dollars, there will need to be a way to consistently define quality for the advertiser, based on the advertiser's specific definition of quality and to be able to do it globally, across languages. It can be done.

  6. Kerstin Recker from Vertical Search Works, May 30, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.

    Quality Assurance is key to combating fraud - as you said it's never going to go away all the way but it can be mitigated with a great QA program. We've developed a checklist to help our advertisers make better choices when it comes to where they place their ads: •What sites is the ad network comprised of? Is there a mix of top quality and niche sites?
    •Do they have standards in place before allowing sites to join their network?
    •What process do ad networks use to scrub traffic? Do they have an on-site ad ops team?
    •What is the contingency plan if bad traffic is detected?
    •Is the network a participating member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau or the Network Advertising Initiative?
    •Is the network vertically aligned so I can target to be industry specific or is the only option to advertise across the network?
    •Does the network have reporting available and accessible to me? What transparency do I have into site refers?
    •What technology do they use to target my ads?
    •Does the network have examples of where their current ad inventory is running?
    •Can I talk to a human if I need support?
    It's the responsibility of all of us: advertisers, publishers and technology providers to identify problems and develop solutions to combat it.

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