How ad fraud diminishes the value of digital marketing

In today's world, everyone advertises on the internet. How do you know if your ad-budget is being spent wisely?
8 June 2018

Are you a digital marketer? Make sure you fight ad fraud. Source: Shutterstock

As a marketer, you assume that when you buy digital ads, the ads are shown to humans visiting websites — in other words, the ads load when the pages load when humans visit.

But what if I told you that the vast majority of digital ads are manufactured out of thin air by using software – otherwise known as bots – to load webpages and cause ad impressions fraudulently?

Fake sites, fake traffic, fake ad impressions

Websites that don’t have a lot of natural traffic, and even websites that do have real human audiences, are tempted to buy traffic from shady sellers to drive up their own ad revenue.

The software bots used to generate fake traffic and impressions can easily trick fraud detection technologies and appear to be real. They can also be programmed to click on ads, view videos, stay on webpages longer to manipulate bounce rates.

All of these actions are used to manipulate analytics in order to cover up the fraud. Furthermore, various forms of fraud don’t even require large numbers of bots to hit webpages.

For example, what if webpages themselves redirect to other webpages in infinite loops? Typical bot detection technologies would not catch it.

Or in mobile, bad apps like fake flashlight, alarm clock, or photo editing apps can load thousands of ad impressions in the background every hour, whether or not the app is ever used.

Combine this with fake mobile devices (software that is used by mobile developers to test their apps) and cybercriminals have an ecosystem of tools and techniques that enable them to commit ad fraud on an incomprehensible scale.

Fraud detection cannot detect it, but fraud is still there

So why do various reports say that “ad fraud is non-existent” or that it is low and going lower? It’s probably because the fraud detection technologies cannot see the fraud, not because the fraud is not there.

In fact, case after case of massive ad fraud are still being reported, despite the widespread use of fraud detection.

In countries where programmatic digital ads are still growing rapidly and mobile is the dominant channel, there is evidence of rampant fraud that continues unabated.

What can marketers do to combat and reduce ad fraud?

If marketers are not alarmed about ad fraud yet, they should be. But it is not cause for panic. Instead marketers can use common sense and their own analytics to see if ad fraud affects their digital marketing campaigns.

For example, humans visit websites during waking hours, and sleep at night.

So if the hourly traffic to a website remains exactly the same every hour of every day, something is wrong — there should be more traffic during the day and less traffic in the overnight hours.

Or if 10 different referring websites have the exact same number of visits, or bounce rates, or clicks on the site, something is wrong.

Humans don’t move that way; but entire botnets can be programmed to visit websites in exactly the same way. Marketers must insist on getting access to analytics and detailed reports.

With such details, common sense can help pick out what is obviously fraudulent; these can be simply turned off so no more money is wasted.

This is far more efficient and economical than wasting the ad spend in the first place, paying more expensive fraud detection tech, and then hoping to get your money back — once the money goes into the bad guys’ pockets, you’re never getting it back.

Tips for marketers to fight ad fraud:

  • Run experiments to see if ad fraud is impacting your campaigns by turning campaigns off periodically and checking if there was any difference in business outcomes; if there is no difference then that means those digital ad dollars were not driving business anyway.
  • Insist on detailed reports and analytics so you can double check for yourself whether there is obvious fraud eating up your ad budgets – don’t just trust the ad sellers who tell you everything is clean.

Contributed by Dr. Augustine Fou, independent ad fraud and cybersecurity researcher.