Bots, Fraud, and Non-Human Traffic Continue to Plague Top Publishers
Programmatic buying of digital ads has seen a sharp, seemingly inexorable rise over the past three years. Marketers have seen it as a great way to simplify the buying process, squeeze out excess costs, reduce waste, and target their customers more effectively. Publishers have been a bit more ambivalent since programmatic buying tends to commodify their digital ad inventory and discount the more ephemeral benefits of editorial adjacencies and the beneficial aura that flows from an ad being embedded in a quality media context. Many leading publishers have created private exchange networks that try to capitalize on the marketer’s interest in scale and targeting, while preserving the benefits of brand safety and appropriate context. These publishers also hope to convince marketers that such benefits deserve a somewhat higher CPM than might otherwise occur in the programmatic marketplace.
Alas, a recent report from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), in cooperation with White Ops, indicates that premium publishers actually have a bigger problem with bots and non-human traffic (NHT) than the average site. This is because criminal botnets look for higher-value sites -- a digital variation on the “Willie Sutton effect” of robbing banks because that’s where the money is. In the ANA/White Ops analysis, premium display ad buys at CPMs higher than $10 had a 39% higher rate of NHT. The news was even worse for video: video ads at $15+ CPMs had bot rates 173% higher than average.
You Get What You Pay For
Obviously if one’s site becomes the object of a botnet, the publisher needs to rely on defensive technology to fight back. However the report also indicates that the common practice of publishers buying traffic is also a culprit since this bought traffic often contains a lot of junk. The ANA study found that outsourced traffic had three times the number of bots as organic traffic. Though such “audience extension” techniques help publishers manage their day-to-day business, meet their contractual obligations, and keep everybody happy, the practice can result in significant pollution of the digital media supply chain. It is a Faustian bargain that ultimately will erode the market position of premium publishers.
Though it is much harder and slower to build organic traffic, the long-term benefits are obvious. If a publisher simply must occasionally buy traffic, it is critical that the sources be thoroughly vetted and that the quality of their own inventory management be well understood. The law of garbage-in/garbage out has not been repealed.
A Strong Defense
The ANA report also demonstrates that all players in the digital advertising marketplace will need to continue to invest in technology to defeat bots, fraud, and non-human traffic. This can be an expensive addition to an already burdensome “ad tech tax” that publishers pay. What’s more, the ANA report demonstrates how wily and clever the bad actors in this drama can be. They constantly move around searching for new opportunities, just as they expect to yield formerly profitable locations once their presence is discovered.
When the 2015 ANA results were compared to the 2014 baseline, the researchers found that overall aggregate levels of fraud and non-human traffic had not changed -- but that the best and worst performing advertisers (and publishers) had often switched positions. So just because you had good defenses in 2014 did not mean that you were well protected in 2015. In effect, the participants in this market are engaged in an arms race against shadowy and nefarious adversaries -- a contest that requires constant vigilance and ongoing investment in the hygiene of your digital inventory.
As expected, programmatic buys fared worse than direct buys: 14% higher rate of NHT in programmatic display, 73% higher in programmatic video. While it is tempting to think that this supply chain corruption ultimately will discredit the entire programmatic marketplace and drive advertiser back to the good old days of buying media audiences via direct sales, I would not hold my breath. The efficiency of automation nearly always wins out over more expensive manual processes, and programmatic is likely to grow apace. However the serious problems in the supply chain may drive advertisers away from ad tech itself -- and further into the realm of first-party data, marketing tech, and customer contact points that don’t rely on media. As we move further into the era of the “internet of things,” marketing options will multiply. As they do, publishers will find that they are facing an even wider set of competitors for marketer dollars.
So what is a publisher to do to fend off against bots, fraud and non-human traffic? A few key takeaways from the ANA/White Ops study:
- Build your traffic organically and reduce dependence on traffic bought from third parties
- If you do buy traffic from third parties, do your due diligence on their sourcing practices. (For a good guide to how to do this, follow guidelines issued last year by the Media Ratings Council)
- Keep your bot detection and filtering software up to date. Often, this is part of the same software you are already using to monitor for viewability rates. Given how quickly the bad guys adapt and change their techniques, you need defensive software that is at least as nimble.
In the meantime, the big players in the digital space (e.g. Google, Facebook) are investing heavily in technology to defeat botnets, a development that would improve the outlook for all players. But the ANA/White Ops study indicates that it is likely to be a long slog before the digital advertising supply chain is cleaned up.