There’s a shiny new weapon in the fight against digital ad fraud, and everybody’s talking about it.
Although the ads.txt initiative sounds innocuous and might not seem like a particularly dramatic defense against the ad fraud problem the digital advertising industry is facing, it represents a major step forward for the market and is being adopted more quickly than anything we’ve seen before.
Ads.txt enables publishers to place a file on their server and declare which companies are authorised to sell their digital inventory, thus preventing fraudsters profiting from practices such as domain spoofing or counterfeit inventory. The initiative allows publishers increased control over their inventory and gives buyers more confidence that they are buying authentic impressions.
The entire industry is getting behind ads.txt, with the VP of DigitasLBi writing an open letter to publishers advising them to adopt the protocol as the agency will only be buying impressions from sites with ads.txt by the end of the year. DoubleClick Bid Manager will also only buy inventory from sources identified as authorized sellers when an ads.txt file is available.
But while the industry is quite rightly flying the flag for ads.txt, it’s important to remember this initiative on its own will not solve all the highly complex and ever-evolving challenges of the digital ecosystem. Focusing solely on encouraging publishers to implement ads.txt to prevent domain spoofing could pose a real danger in allowing other threats to grow. There are many other issues the industry needs to work on to make the digital advertising ecosystem a better, safer and more transparent environment for buyers, as follows.
Ensuring quality inventory
In addition to the specific issue of domain spoofing, which can be eliminated through domain detection technologies as well as ads.txt, the general quality of advertising impressions needs to be monitored. This means continually evaluating factors such as content, engagement, and viewability, and signalling when any of these metrics fluctuates, indicating potentially fraudulent activity. Tools from the likes of Integral Ad Science, Moat, SimilarWeb and Pixalate can be used to automatically weed out substandard inventory, but these must be combined with rigorous human review. Non-compliant domains should be added to blacklists, which can be fed through other third-party providers. For some publishers the cost of investing in these tools can be prohibitive, so make sure you’re working with a sell-side partner that uses these tools on your behalf.
Identifying legitimate traffic
In addition to assessing inventory, traffic quality also must be scrutinised to ensure that ads are being delivered to genuine users and not to bots. Partners like Forensiq and WhiteOps offer services that identify whether or not a request is risky before the bid requests go out to demand partners. This is an excellent way to weed out bad inventory before it goes to auction. One of the most effective ways to identify legitimate traffic going forward is likely to be through organisations like DigiTrust, which identifies users across sites with its single user ID. Publishers signed up to the service have committed to using a single ID in the form of a publisher first-party cookie that can be used by DSPs, SSPs, DMPs and data exchanges. The initiative identifies genuine users, reduces the audience loss that happens when two parties match their IDs, and speeds up page load times as it removes the need to drop and sync separate cookies.
Guaranteeing genuine ads
Last but by not least, ads themselves should be scanned for suspicious activities, including malware, forceful redirects and ad stacking. By checking each and every impression and blocking malicious ads before they reach the publisher while still allowing clean ads to be served, tools such as Confiant create a safer more effective ecosystem for all. In addition, blocking malware helps to stem further distribution of the botnets that generate ad fraud, and by presenting a better overall experience to the reader, helps to avoid the increase in ad blocker downloads.
In addition to the tools available to fight fraud, numerous initiatives are pushing the industry in the right direction, and many companies are working together to make the web a safer and more user-friendly place to advertise. This includes the Coalition for Better Ads, whose mission is to develop and implement strict new standards for online advertising, and the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), a cross-industry accountability program that fights criminal activity within the digital advertising supply chain.
Similar schemes exist in the UK, with JICWEBS audits requiring companies to demonstrate that their products can deal with 16 different sources of fraud before receiving independent certification, and the IAB Gold Standard, which has been established to reduce ad fraud, improve the digital advertising experience and increase brand safety.
Among the thousands of players in the digital advertising market -- including ad networks, service networks, technology providers, and SSPs -- only a handful are certified and supporting industry initiatives. It’s a positive step that agencies and advertisers are planning to buy against ads.txt, but they should equally commit to companies that have put their best foot forward and are audited, approved and support other industry-changing initiatives. It’s important that anti-fraud credentials are used across the ecosystem to help select trusted, compliant partners.
Ads.txt is a very positive step that all publishers should be encouraged to take, but all of us in this dynamic and exciting industry must support industry-improving initiatives and associations and prove through audits that we are doing everything we can to make the digital advertising ecosystem a safe and trusted place. Adopting or championing the new weapon in the arsenal that is ads.txt is one of the easiest ways to help the industry improve -- but while other steps may be more complex, time-consuming and costly, they are essential in ensuring a sustainable future for digital advertising.
Let’s embrace ads.txt, but not allow it to overshadow other ways to improve the industry and eliminate fraud, or lead us to neglect other worthwhile initiatives and tools that are vital to winning this continuing battle.