ANA Study: Advertisers Are Blind To Fraudulent Sourced Traffic

ana-sourced-trafficMore than half of US advertisers are unaware they’re buying "sourced" publisher traffic that may be riddled with bots and fraud, according to a study released Tuesday by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA).

Sixty-one percent of advertisers are either "slightly familiar" or "not familiar at all" with sourced traffic. Only 5% of advertisers surveyed say they are "extremely familiar" with the practice.

The report defined sourced traffic “as any method by which digital media sellers acquire visitors through third parties,” where “a publisher pays a third-party vendor to send users to its site by advertising on other publishers’ sites.”

Sourced traffic often begins with a sponsored link, video or display ad at the bottom of a publisher site, enabled by a vendor like Taboola or Outbrain. Users, or perhaps bots, click those links and wind up on the page of a publisher eager to supplement its organic audience. A publisher often will buy sourced traffic from third-party vendors when it runs out of inventory to fill a buy.

The worst of these publishers, often mid- to long-tail sites, “fly under the radar, participate in networks that don’t have solid controls on inventory vetting and drive traffic to what experts consider cash out sites,” said Steve Guenther, VP of digital auditing services at the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM). The AAM is working with the ANA and other trade groups on guidelines for monitoring sourced traffic.

Guenther alleged such publishers “are owned and operated by bot nets and that’s how they get paid.”

And ANA Group EVP Bill Duggan said these sellers often arbitrage sourced impressions by acquiring them from third-party sites for lower CPMs than advertisers pay.

“There’s an outrage in that," he said.

For advertisers and their agencies, it’s impossible to distinguish sourced from nonsourced traffic within a buy.

“The challenge is even if agencies are aware of the issue, the ad tech platforms that support the ad delivery supply chain don’t really call out sourced traffic,” said Guenther.

Advertisers should work provisions into their contracts that require publishers to monitor and report on all traffic exchanged in a buy, he said. And vendors supplying sourced traffic should be audited to ensure they are directing legitimate traffic to publisher sites.

“Right now there’s not an incentive in the industry to change because everyone is making money at the expense of the advertiser's dollar,” he said. “The advertiser, being the 1,000-pound gorilla, has to flex their muscles and say, ‘I’m not going to spend money unless you start cleaning up your act.’”

The study, conducted in April, surveyed 134 ANA members in the US, of which almost half were at the director level or above. Fifty-nine percent of respondents had media budgets of more than $100 million.

Creating Order

When it comes to agencies' role in educating clients, Duggan said he’s not really sure how much they know.

“Gone are the days where a marketer could say, ‘That’s why I hired my agency – to look at stuff like that,’” he said. “My biggest takeaway to marketers is that it’s your money and you need to be front and center in making sure it’s being spent appropriately.”

The ANA first spotted high levels of fraud in sourced traffic in 2014, when it released a study with White Ops that revealed sourced traffic shows four times more fraud than nonsourced. The report didn’t quantify, however, what percentage of all traffic was sourced vs. nonsourced.

The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) is working on creating Publisher Sourcing Disclosure Requirements, under which publishers would have to report percentages of traffic they source on a quarterly basis.

In the report, the ANA called out seven “recommended action steps” to protect advertisers from sourced traffic. These included working publisher transparency into contractual agreements, getting media agencies to analyze and report on traffic quality and sharing formal guidelines on sourced traffic with media agencies and publishers.

Advertisers should also work with their agencies to set realistic campaign goals so that publishers are not forced to oversell on inventory, the organization urged.

“Sourced traffic is a piece of the fraudulent activity puzzle, but advertisers need to react to fraud in general,” Guenther said. “They need to take steps to demand more accountability and transparency.”

 

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