Commentary

How Ad Fraud, Ad Blocking And Viewability Are Interrelated

Ad blocking is all the rage now, after years of talking about viewability and ad fraud.

However, ad blocking is not just the topic du jour, it is actually closely related to ad fraud and viewability too. Many people still view these as separate topics and have dealt with them using separate vendors, policies, and practices. But these should be approached holistically and managed that way. 

Fraud bots don’t use ad blocking
Let’s first take a step back and look at the root cause of digital ad fraud -- bots. Bots are automated browsers that are programmed by cybercriminals to do a specific set of tasks, like hit Webpages to cause ad impressions to load and then click on them.

These activities are tracked in site analytics and other metrics used to judge the effectiveness of digital advertising, such as clicks and click through rates. But if the visits and the clicks are all fraudulent, then the analytics are all messed up and any optimization efforts using these corrupted numbers would be wrong.

The fraud bots that deliberately cause ads to load will not use ad blocking, while human visitors do use ad blocking. Therefore, if there is a large portion of traffic coming from these bots, then the average rate of ad blocking observed will be lower than it should be.

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Put another way, as fewer ad impressions are served to real humans (because they have ad blocking turned on) then a greater proportion of the impressions bought and sold in programmatic ad exchanges will be coming from bots -- even ones that look and act very much like humans.

Just citing an average rate of ad blocking without also measuring bot activity will be incomplete and likely incorrect. 

The cash-out sites that fraud bots visit have higher viewability
Fraud bots are also part of a larger ecosystem set up for digital ad fraud (see:Digital Ad Fraud Ecosystem). This ecosystem includes cash-out sites -- websites whose sole purpose is to carry ads. When impressions and clicks are generated on the site, the site owner makes ad revenue. The bots mentioned above are used to cause the fraudulent impressions and clicks on these sites. 
Since these sites are designed for fraud, they don’t play by the rules that normal publishers must play by. For example, instead of arraying the ads across the page (some above the fold and others below the fold) these fraud sites can simply cheat and stack all ads, one above another, all above the fold. In this way, they trick viewability measurement systems so that the entire site appears to have higher than average viewability. 
Debunk common assumptions and measure bots along with ad blocking and viewability
Knowing the above, it should now be clear that lower average ad blocking could be a good thing. But if this is due to a large portion of traffic coming from fraud bots, then the lower average rate is deceptive. And a simple, single number for ad blocking is not enough; it must be measured along with bots to get a more accurate picture.

Also, higher average viewability could be a good thing. But if it is measured in isolation of measuring for fraud and bots, then it could also be misleading. 

A good rule of thumb is that any measurement that is too high or too low should be treated as highly suspicious. And any rolled-up average number should be treated as incomplete -- fraud hides easily in rolled-up averages.

In the case of ad blocking and viewability, it is crucial to also measure for bot activity, to understand if the analytics are accurate and reliable. Otherwise, optimizing your media campaigns based on bad data will only make it worse.

9 comments about "How Ad Fraud, Ad Blocking And Viewability Are Interrelated".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 29, 2016 at 9:08 a.m.

    Very interesting and informative piece, Augustine. Maybe digital ad sellers---the legitimate ones, that is-----need to consider alternative ways to get ads delivered to and/or placed on websites. Perhaps embedding them or some other bot-avoiding mechanism is the answer.

  2. Augustine Fou from Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc., April 29, 2016 at 11:42 a.m.

    Hi Ed, yes .. or they can additionally use services like Distil Networks, Incapsula, and Akamai to detect bots and scrub them out even before they hit the website. 

  3. Dee Williams from ClickReport, April 29, 2016 at 7:42 p.m.

    Great article.....Can you share your thoughts and knowledge on browser injection malware?

  4. Augustine Fou from Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc., April 30, 2016 at 8:40 a.m.

    Hi Dee, yes. If there is malware running as an extension in the browser, it can read and do literally anything on any webpage. This means it can read its contents, log users' keystrokes (to steal passwords), read cookies and browser history, and also modify any of the contents on the page, like inject ads or override existing ads with other ads. 

    Contact me privately if you need more details than what I put in the comment above. 

  5. Lauren Moores from Moores Data, May 1, 2016 at 11:49 a.m.

    Augustine - Great article. We need more education like this on the reliance of single metrics that can be gamed. 100% viewability without fraud is highly unlikely in our current system.

  6. Augustine Fou from Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc. replied, May 2, 2016 at 9:55 a.m.

    Thanks Lauren ...  yes, agreed.  Any number that is too high or too low, should be treated as suspect (or guilty) until proven innocent. 

    Advertisers and their agencies need more detailed data in order to determine if there is farud or foul play. 

  7. Michael Joerin from Namogoo replied, May 6, 2016 at 2:18 p.m.

    Hi Augustine and great article.

    I'd love to arrange a time to speak with you to explore this further as my company has developed a solution for this and we're working with a number of global brands. I would also like to see if you'd like to attend any of our events as a guest expert speaker.

    Please let me know if we can arrange an exploratory call.

    Many thanks

    Michael

  8. Jeff Martinez from Oxford-Biochron.com, May 6, 2016 at 3:49 p.m.

    Here's a good article from a few weeks ago.

    Google Online Advertising Bubble
    https://goo.gl/WvW4BV


  9. Alberto Mendizabal from iTracker, February 20, 2017 at 12:46 a.m.

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    Fwe have use your post on our network.. please check it out and hope to see you become a memeber and contribute your koweledge of this industry. 

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    Regards

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