Viewability (and that is to say, "Unviewability") is the Internet’s crazy thing, like a bridge to nowhere, and for advertisers, it’s money very unwell spent, and to me it’s something that seems impossibly hard to fathom. But the guts of Internet advertising works even faster than the blink of the eye, so deception, which works really well in that environment, seems inevitable and wildly profitable, easily into the billions of dollars.
When I ask Forensiq CEO David Sendroff, with decades of experience in the tech fraud business, who it is that does the deed, his answer is quick: Organized crime, much it from overseas, has a big role. I wonder if he ever hears of FBI investigations. He says it never happens. His company attempts to catch, stop and prevent scams to mimic Internet views by bots, using tricks with curious names like “ad injection” and “domain spoofing,” and also nabbing scam artists who are hiding pixels or stacking ads. Not all of his competitors are that holistic, but they’re all in the same game, to some degree.
What a game. Forensiq created a video showing a bot at work, tracking 10,000 phony ads in 25 minutes. It’s fascinating, baffling viewing.
There are trends in the fraud and viewability racket. “Sometimes we see a new kind of fraud being committed,” he says, and sometimes there are big spikes in fraud, often around major ad campaigns. It is a business that he confesses will never be totally solved. It’s good, he acknowledges, that Forensiq has competitors with their own methods; all those detectives create more obstacles for the crooks to circumvent. But the fraudulent we will always have with us. “There are still scenarios where it is impossible to know if an ad is viewable or not,” Sendroff says, fully aware that for all the trick in the book Forensiq catches and solves, there are more where those came from.
So when he hears about Unilever and Group M’s demand that 100% of its ads be viewable, he can applaud the goal, but that’s about it. “The difficulty with 100% viewability is that the technology is not perfect,” he says. Sendroff says Forensiq can nab anywhere from 10% to 50% of scam ads. The big gap between the two number is because some clients give them more access to data than others. The more Forensiq is let inside, the more it can detect.
Forensiq offers a service, True URL, that looks at where an ad is purportedly being displayed that, in fact, is being served somewhere else. “You’re looking at inventory that says an ad is on Forbes.com, but when you track it, it’s really showing up on an adult site or it’s a pirated Website,” Sendroff says. The advertiser and the legit Website would never know it happened.
That’s called “faking the refer.” Says Sendroff, “You think your ad is going one place and never stop the consider that it’s been put somewhere else,” and in the viewability racket, where so much is going on so rapidly, even modest tricks go a long, long way toward screwing up the whole scene. Because video sites carry the highest-priced ads, they attract the most botnets. When Forensiq purposely infects a computer to see where it’s sent, it invariably goes to Websites loaded with ads, clearly designed not to be seen by humans but to scam them instead.