Facilitating a Transparent Marketplace: Challenging the Status Quo


While fraud has been high on the industry’s agenda for a couple of years now, there’s still much work to do on improving the quality of inventory particularly on open exchanges. Here Coull’s Ben Sonnex and Forensiq’s Scott Burford explain how the industry needs to up their game via a two-pronged approach combining fraud detection technology alongside manual vetting.

For too long, brands have been either hidden behind a shroud of deceit or a veil of transparency, but the industry is now fighting back. An increasing number of companies, such as AIG, are standing up against online ad fraud – including video ad fraud – by demanding evidence that their ads have been seen by real humans, rather than bots.

Ben Sonnex, Coull
Ben Sonnex, Coull

Perhaps buoyed up by the widely circulated figures from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) that advertisers will lose $7.2 billion in 2016 to ad fraud, some advertisers now enforce within their contracts that they’ll only pay for online ads which have fraud protection technology based reports proving their ads have actually been seen. Within the same ANA report, programmatic video ads were found to have 73 percent more bot activity than the study average – demonstrating the potential scale of the issue. As an industry, we need to find a balance between transparency and protection. It’s not about spreading fear and panic that will result in budgets being pulled; it should be about providing advertisers with the real truth – not the extrapolated numbers being bandied around. It should also be about finding a better solution than blanket black lists on publishers due to a single-phase approach to tackling fraud.

Providing publishers with the ability to identify and rectify fraudulent inventory that they may not be aware of within their own network is an important element in stopping it. Looking deeper than a URL is necessary because fraud is not a one trick pony, it needs to be attacked from all angles – a fact that’s becoming increasingly important as video ad fraud becomes a reality and spend increases concurrently.

The industry now accepts that the lack of transparency impacts results. But does that mean online video buyers and sellers are willing to be transparent? Unfortunately, many are still not. This is disappointing, as there can be positive results when a proactive approach is taken to delivering transparency for clients.

At Coull we have been working with Forensiq (recently acquired by Impact Radius) to run full fraud analytics across all of the inventory on our SSP, including desktop video, mobile web, and in-app video traffic. Rather than simply sampling a portion of their inventory, we believe it’s essential to be fully transparent – to firstly work in line with industry standards, and secondly, to deliver accurate attribution, and ensure performance and results are optimal.

A particular area where transparency is vital is the uncovering of masked domains and ghost sites. A common technique used by fraudsters is to mask the domains and even replicate entire landing pages, deceiving buyers into mistakenly buying fraudulent video inventory, that could also potentially appear against inappropriate content.

Scott Burford, Forensiq
Scott Burford, Forensiq

One example of this is where an ad exchange has a seller available called www.bbc.co.uk. As most people know you cannot advertise on this site so this should be obvious that it’s a masked URL, yet buyers are still bidding on this inventory. No surprise that the actual domain does not have the BBC standard of content – quite the opposite. This is only one instance, but there are many more. Masked domains affect buyers and sellers, and are drawing spend away from premium publishers and putting money into the hands of the criminals. The only way to combat this is to implement technology to expose the true URL.

So what are the necessary steps that need to be taken to deliver transparency in digital video ad trading?

Identify the types of fraud affecting your business and form your strategy

Ad fraud can be a catchall that doesn’t sufficiently represent the constantly evolving types of fraud present in the ecosystem, so it’s important to pinpoint what’s relevant to your business. It’s also important to note that in reality – even with the latest detection methods made possible with dynamic VPAID inventory – there are still opportunities for fraudsters to slip the net and companies must address this.

At this stage every ad tech vendor should  has a dedicated in-house compliance team committed to stopping all forms of fraud, and it’s vital to have an ongoing discussion about what types of analysis need to be offered, in close consideration of the inventory of our traffic.

Understand your strategy’s strengths and weaknesses, then supplement it accordingly

For certain fraud methods, such as domain spoofing, a fraud detection tool can provide a yes or no into the presence of fraud and the SSP can act immediately. For more sophisticated forms however, ad-fraud has become a numbers game. Several techniques tackling these types of fraud rely on detecting patterns of fraudulent behaviour exhibited by the originating IP addresses and determining them as fraud based on calculated probability. Increasing the statistical confidence level in this determination requires as much data as possible for the analysis. However, the SSP must be dedicated to contributing as much traffic data as possible, providing information on every single VAST and VPAID ad impression to the fraud detection vendor. The result of this has been used to great effect to enforce higher quality standards on incoming inventory and eradicate fraudulent traffic at the source, through productive communication with suppliers.

With all of that said, gaps still remain. Ghost websites and VAST inventory in mobile environments continue to present challenges for the industry. To tackle these you need your compliance team to manually audit the web domains and apps that pass through its marketplace, and by investigating sets of criteria determined in-house it is able to block numerous bad domains or apps that still remained undetectable using technology alone.

Take advice from experts and ensure responsibility that you’re showing due diligence

Work in open partnership with technology to identify video ad fraud, utilise the fraud analysis, and supplement it with your own company’s efforts to ensure fraud free, transparent video trading.

As an industry, we are unearthing the extent of the problem but a proactive approach to tackling the issues can produce powerful results. We keep hearing that transparency and ethical trading is the way forward for the digital video industry but evidence is mounting that can no longer be ignored. Don’t be the headline. Do be transparent. Definitely be an ethical trader.


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