Publishers Are the Real Victims of Ad Fraud
While ad fraud causes advertisers to lose billions each year, it brings even more devastating consequences to publishers and content creators by undermining trust in the economy that funds their work.
It’s no secret that digital media is experiencing growing pains. Huge staff cuts and shifts in leadership have become the rule rather than the exception among major publishers. Internet users’ attention spans are getting shorter all the time, and competition for it is only getting more fierce. Writers, video producers, and other content creators are all struggling to find stability in an industry that can’t seem to effectively monetize what they produce.
But if making a profit in the media business has become more difficult, it’s not for lack of technological sophistication. The digital advertising systems used to monetize publishers’ content today are armed with cookies, analytics, and advanced targeting capabilities. These tools help brands understand who saw what ads, when, from what kind of device, and whether it pushed them to a conversion with levels of precision that were unthinkable even five years ago.
As people are consuming more media than ever before and our mechanisms for tracking and monetizing that consumption have never been stronger, why is it that publishers are still struggling to turn all that attention into a reliable stream of advertising income? The industry’s problems can be put down to a wide variety of different factors, but one of the biggest, least often discussed of them is ad fraud.
Ad Fraud Doesn’t Just Hurt Advertisers
People tend to think of ad fraud as a problem that principally impacts advertisers. But while fraudulent impressions obviously hurt the advertisers who buy them, they arguably have a much deeper impact on the publishers whose business depends on the trust of those advertisers.
With the exception of a few sites who rely on subscription service models, the vast majority of digital publishers pay the bills by offering their readers as audiences for advertisers. The internet’s principal commodity is the attention of its users, so the more of that attention publishers are able to garner, the more advertisers are willing to pay for inventory on their site – and the more publishers are able to pay their creators for the attention they attracted.
What cybercriminals do is create counterfeits of this vital commodity, tricking advertisers into buying impressions that aren’t coming from real, interested users. This obviously steals money from the advertiser that could have been spent on real human audiences, but it also suppresses the value of the commodity on which publishers and content creators base their business. Since fraudsters don’t have to spend money creating content that will attract real users, they can offer their fake inventory at far lower prices, forcing legitimate publishers to offer their legitimate inventory at lower prices in turn, thus artificially deflating the entire market.
Advertisers are losing profits to fraudulent advertising, but by deflating the value of ad inventory in general, ad fraud causes publishers to lose the very thing that enables them to make a profit in the first place.
Engineering a Solution
While individual advertisers have some recourse in their fight against ad fraud in the form of pre-bid bot detection and other forms of anti-fraud technology, the way forward for publishers is less clear. A dedicated fraudster can spend close to nothing and spin up more views for a completely blank web page than the New York Times homepage gets in a few hours. Why bother purging non-human visits to your website when competitors with completely fraudulent audiences are beating you out for advertising dollars?
What publishers need to fight against fraud is a way of proving to advertisers that they have real human engagement. The solution might be as simple as a verification system like the one Twitter uses to distinguish popular accounts from would-be imitators. Much like the industry uses Ads.txt to cut out fraudulent media buyers, publishers today could work with anti-fraud specialists to demonstrate that their traffic is coming from real human internet users and take market share back from fraudulent competitors.
In the meantime, the industry can take an approach to fraud detection that minimizes negative impact on publishers. Some advertisers may tend to favor an aggressive approach that blocks any transaction that shows even the slightest signs of fraudulent activity, but it’s easy to see how this tactic is disadvantageous for publishers, who may see their sales unnecessarily impacted as a result. Bot detection methods like those favored by White Ops presume every interaction is innocent until our software is able to definitively prove otherwise, ensuring that legitimate publishers are able to sell their inventory without fear of being unjustly blocked.
Whatever tactic publishers adopt in the fight against ad fraud, it’s important that they begin to settle on one quickly. Digital publishing may suffer from a wide range of problems, but none of them are as fundamental as the fraud that’s undermining their value to advertisers. With the help of advertisers and cybersecurity experts, publishers may be able to save not just themselves, but the economy that sustains the modern internet.