“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Jana Meron, vice president of programmatic and data strategy at Business Insider. Jana will present "Insider View From The Publisher" at AdExchanger's upcoming PROGRAMMATIC I/O New York conference Oct. 25-26.
Ad fraud is a much-discussed headache for the digital advertising industry, but it wasn’t until Business Insider discovered arbitrageurs misrepresenting our own video inventory that we realized what a tricky problem it’s become.
We discovered it was happening when a displeased advertiser revealed the reason for their discontent: It was buying ads on the open exchange for significantly less than the private marketplace we had in place with them.
But here’s the thing. It was news to us that the advertiser had ever purchased any of our video inventory on the open exchange. Turns out they were buying ads from an unauthorized seller. More importantly, the ads never actually appeared on Business Insider.
We found that while the advertiser spent several thousand dollars on our ads – or so they thought – they actually purchased only a tiny amount of our inventory, less than $100 worth.
Determining how this was happening was tough. We spent dozens of hours working closely with various exchanges to track down shady sellers and get a clearer picture of how our ads were being misrepresented, including a painstaking effort poring through our inventory channels.
A few of our demand-side platform partners helped us track down the shady sellers. But once we got in touch with the sellers it was even more challenging to shut it down. One arbitrageur even threw up its hands: “We’re just the pipes, not the sheriff.”
Until then, while we knew fraud was happening in the industry, we also believed that because of tight controls we had in place that it wasn’t happening to us. What we learned is that there was something about the whole ecosystem that we first needed to uncover before being able to truly combat the fraud.
Who was buying our inventory and re-selling it? What entity was buying impressions and then multiplying them – by a factor of 10 – and reselling our inventory? And who was “spoofing” our valuable inventory?
We redoubled our efforts to ensure our inventory wasn’t being misrepresented in the marketplace. Where previously we allowed many buyers access to it – assuming they were behaving in good faith – now we operated under the assumption that buyers are guilty until proven innocent (sorry!).
It took the better part of this year to understand how this all happens and what we as a company need to do to prevent it. Yet our efforts feel insufficient, given the scope of the problem. We believe the industry as a whole must work collectively to tackle the ad fraud problem. Publishers can’t do it alone.
Exchanges must work to ensure buyers don’t resell inventory. Supply-side platforms (SSPs) do need to play sheriff. And if they feel that’s too much to ask of them, they should at least enforce their contracts with buyers. While it’s difficult to identify fraud, not trying to point out shady intermediaries is a dereliction of an SSP’s duty to its buy-side and sell-side partners. As the first line of defense against this kind of fraud, exchanges need to commit to enforcing higher standards.
Buyers must get real. If ads appear too good (cheap) to be true, they most likely are. Buying on the open exchange is a brand risk because there’s no control over where ads will appear. Plus, advertisers need to worry about alienating publishers by acting carelessly. They should seek third parties to play a role in tracking fraud percentages and suggesting sites for blacklisting. Buyers should also sort through sites with abnormally high click-through rates as these, too, are likely too good to be true. Lastly, they should work closely with exchanges willing to help test for fraud.
Finally, publishers must get on board. Discouraging the unauthorized reselling of inventory is imperative. It’s why Business Insider has been a staunch advocate of IAB Tech Lab’s Ads.txt initiative, a groundbreaking effort specifically aimed at reducing domain spoofing and unauthorized selling of publisher inventory. Unfortunately, most publishers have yet to sign on to the initiative, which is needed for the industry overall to follow; trading desks, for example are unlikely to participate unless publishers are first on board.
It’s clear that ad fraud is a real problem and goes beyond just bot fraud and domain spoofing. And it’s one that is exceedingly tough to weed out. Based on our experience, I’m optimistic the industry can at least drastically reduce its occurrence. But this won’t happen until all players in the ecosystem start playing their part.