Traffic fraud in the online industry hit the headlines once again recently with a Financial Times story about how more computer bots saw a recent Mercedes-Benz online advertising campaign than humans. According to the internal document that was leaked to the newspaper, over a three week period, 57 per cent of the ad impressions were “viewed” by automated computer programmes.
Although in this instance the agency involved is reputable and refunded part of the campaign monies when the issue came to light, it is a timely reminder that even the largest brands and established agencies can be victim to fraudsters. And there continues to be a minority of unscrupulous players who will manipulate and misrepresent traffic in their efforts to deliver the required scale to clients, often using our own Asian region as a location from which to defraud.
Much has been discussed as to the financial impact that this has on advertisers. In the US, IAB Chairman and Ziff Davis CEO Vivek Shah estimated earlier this year that 36 per cent of all Web traffic is non-human traffic. But the issue casts a long shadow across the entire online advertising ecosystem; publishers are also detrimentally impacted. Bots can significantly water down their inventory and call into question scale, a once infallible metric.
With this in mind, here are the five things that publishers across the region should be doing to safeguard against traffic fraud.
1. Know your traffic sources. Obvious, but it needs reiterating. Publishers need to understand their traffic sources intimately. It’s necessary for conversations with advertisers, but it can also help in identifying any traffic source aberrations, possibly driven by botnets. Anything other than organic and search traffic brings some level of risk. Sometimes, even when the traffic is organic, there are bots out of your control that may crawl your site.
2. Invest in analytics technology. You can’t fight a pack of zombies on your own. You need tools and weapons. Publishers need site analytics tools that enable them to measure all of their traffic partners’ metrics. Beyond that, publishers need to employ mechanics in-page to verify real audiences. Publishers should also have their audience metrics validated by third-party vendors to create neutral benchmarks for measuring advertising engagement.
3. Know your marketing metrics. To understand traffic vulnerabilities, publishers need to go beyond top-funnel metrics like clicks or impressions and consider downstream data. It’s at the top-of-the funnel where metrics can often be gamed with ease. But by analysing marketing channels, you get a better sense of bounce rates (high = zombie), engagement metrics (low = zombie), and overall odd patterns of behaviour. These numbers speak to traffic quality and can indicate non-human actors.
4. Avoid buying traffic. Admittedly, this one is difficult for most publishers. Even premium publishers are known to purchase traffic in some form. But consider the risk of ceding scale to an external party that is strictly incentivised to deliver quantity on your behalf. Quantity can dilute quality, with outsourcing leading to fraud.
As a result, sites with poor-quality users and suspect traffic can encounter serious monetisation problems. Being added to the blacklists of third-party verification companies can put a publisher in eternal purgatory where they can’t receive brand budgets from ad network partners. Even if the site avoids blacklist denotation, some networks will optimise premium dollars away from sites showing suspicious patterns and low-quality traffic. It can then be hard to right this ship, so the risk is huge.
5. If you buy, buy smart. Buying traffic inherently increases risk for the publisher, and buying non-organic traffic could drive drastically disastrous results. However, if you find yourself needing to increase inventory to deliver the expected impressions for the advertiser then you need to be asking how they are generating traffic for the site. If they deliver a credible, clear explanation, that’s a good sign. If not, it’s best to stay away.
We all need to be smarter and work harder than those that push the zombies at our ecosystem. Brands, agencies and publishers alike are compromised by their continued march across the industry and its is incumbent upon all of us to take direct action to try and stamp and ensure the legitimacy of all traffic.
Rick Abell is VP of global publisher development with Exponential Interactive