Commentary

Uncovering The Transparency Gap

Nearly 50% of impressions purchased through RTB typically have a URL that does not match where the ad is being shown, a.k.a. the “Transparency Gap.” This blind spot creates an environment ripe for Impression Fraud, where fraudulent sites mask themselves as legitimate publishers in order to monetize ad impressions that otherwise would not be sold if the advertiser knew their true site identity.

The Transparency Gap – Why it happens

The Transparency Gap is made up of those impressions where the Transaction URL (the declared URL where the impression transaction is taking place) differs from True URL (the actual URL for the browser that originated the ad impression call). The complex supply chain in programmatic buying is the primary cause of the Transaction URL being different from the True URL. Every handoff of an impression request presents the chance for information to be lost, resulting in a URL mismatch. For example, the ad server URL could mistakenly be passed as the site URL. However, in addition to the legitimate reasons for the Transparency Gap, it also can occur through deliberate obfuscation and misrepresentation that are the hallmarks of traffic laundering fraud.

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Impact of the Transparency Gap

Based on the traffic analysis of several leading demand-side platforms (DSPs) and exchanges, approximately half of the Transaction URLs were, in fact, properly declared and the ad impression was delivered to the proper site. Another 5-10% of the impressions were intentionally blinded. In these cases, it is known to the buyer that the actual URL is not available, or is deliberately blinded, typically by premium publishers to avoid conflict with their direct sales channel. The remaining impressions (up to 45%) are what constitute the Transparency Gap.

Digging deeper into the Transparency Gap, it was found that these impressions were either from middleware, typically in the form of an ad serving URL, or from mismatched URLs, where the Transaction URL was from a legitimate publisher site, but simply did not match the True URL where the ad was displayed.

The impact that the Transparency Gap causes is that any targeting, blocking or avoidance criteria based on the Transaction URL is likely to be inaccurate. The benefits of black lists, white lists, contextual targeting or any other data point based on the Transaction URL will be ineffective, because nearly half the time the Transaction URL is incorrect.

The second major impact of the Transparency Gap is that it creates a “hiding place” where traffic laundering and fraud can occur. In May, DoubleVerify released a Fraud Lab Report identifying over 1,200 websites that participated in traffic laundering fraud that cost advertisers an estimated $6.8M per month. In fact, 89% of the impressions that were identified as participating in traffic laundering fraud occurred on impressions that were delivered in the Transparency Gap. The Transparency Gap affects legitimate impressions, providing a disguise that is appealing to traffic laundering fraudsters who seek to hide their actual activity.

Addressing the Transparency Gap

The impact of the Transparency Gap and the inaccuracy of URL-based solutions on incorrect Transaction URLs creates an environment where tag-based solutions are required to identify the True URL in order to execute effective brand safety and fraud prevention measures. Unfortunately, in the programmatic environment, tag-based solutions occur after the marketer has already purchased the inventory, usually with little financial recourse when the impression they won turns out to be fraudulent. The good news is that this problem can be solved, if the good actors in the industry collectively decide to take action. It will take a cooperative effort to update the platforms that allow marketers and their targeting providers to broaden targeting and avoidance signals beyond the Transaction URL and include more effective supplier and impression parameters. The effort is a necessary step for the industry to grow and for programmatic display to reach its full potential as a quality transaction channel.

There are companies in our marketplace focused on eliminating the ‘bad actors’ but it cannot be resolved alone. We need a strong call to action for the industry to come together to build a solution that benefits all the legitimate players in the industry.

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