Fears grow on online ad fraud

28 May 2014
LONDON: More than half the online ads in a recent campaign for a major carmaker were viewed by automated computer programs rather than real people, raising new concerns about levels of fraud in the industry.

According to the Financial Times, an investigation undertaken for Mercedes-Benz found that 57% of its online ads had been seen by bots.

Telemetry, an advertising security specialist, examined a sample of 365,000 ad impressions brokered by adtech company Rocket Fuel over a three week period and found heavy traffic from five small ISPs. Further enquiry showed that computers viewing the ads were running the Linux operating system, which is rarely used on consumer desktops.

Telemetry had traced the ownership of the bot network to two people in the UK, who were directing the bots to websites they owned in order to make money from the ad sales.

Rocket Fuel responded that the findings came from a small sample and did not represent the type of traffic that normally passes through its systems. It claimed to have rejected 500bn bid requests from online publishers in February alone because of inventory quality concerns. It added that it rejected approximately 40% of all ad space daily due to its failure to pass bot and brand-safety screens.

Mercedes-Benz said that the proportion of suspect impressions was less than 6% over the whole of its campaign, and added that Rocket Fuel had refunded it accordingly.

The Wall Street Journal highlighted a more novel form of fraud, describing a website that contained within it several tiny websites the size of a single pixel, all of which served up ads. Major advertisers appearing on the main site were then charged as the tiny sides played ads that couldn't be seen.

Vivek Shah, the chair of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US, recently said that ""traffic fraud has reached crisis proportions", as he cited comScore figures showing that 36% of traffic was generated by machines.

"The ability to buy cheap 'bot' traffic and arbitrage it via ad exchanges has created an enormous financial incentive for bad actors to engage in a deception that threatens the very integrity of our business," he stated.

He urged publishers to be aware of all their traffic sources and buyers to end their willingness to be defrauded "because the performance looks good on paper". He also called for the establishment of listing standards for ad exchanges.

Responding to the story, Rocket Fuel commented: "There is an ongoing arms race between Rocket Fuel and scammers who create fake websites and bot traffic in an attempt to fool advertisers into spending money to 'advertise' to these bots who can appear human if not studied carefully."

It added that it provides free tools to help advertisers keep bot traffic out of their results.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by Warc staff
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