3 Ways to Prevent Bots From Committing Fraud
Yes, bots can commit fraud, too. In fact, the major way that fraudsters commit ad fraud is through implementing automated AI bots.
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Whether we'd like to admit it or not, the Internet we’ve all come to know and love (and get more customers from) would not be what it is without precious ad dollars. From social media to search engines, the Internet has something in common with traditional media that came before. Advertising has been the lifeblood of the Internet since the very beginning.
Ad dollars have been critical to the current state of the Internet, and malicious parties have been trying to get a slice of the pie for just as long. Digital advertising has been subject to “ad fraud” for decades and many are already aware of its existence. As a direct result of ad fraud, it’s estimated that almost 50% of every dollar spent on digital ads is wasted.
This type of fraud comes in many shapes and forms, but the major way in which fraudsters commit ad fraud is through the implementation of automated bots.
Among marketers, some claim that bot traffic and click fraud are two of their primary concerns when it comes to spending online ad dollars. Diving deeper, there are a handful of statistics worth considering:
15% of impressions ever have the possibility to be seen by a real person (Mediapost)
60% of all traffic on the web is bots (The Atlantic)
Ad fraud cost an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016 (ANA)
54% of ads are not viewable (Adweek)
Considering the above statistics, there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear: ad fraud is big business and it probably will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. Not only does ad fraud directly affect SEO and SEM efforts, affiliate marketing fraud is also on the rise due to these malicious bots.
How Bots Help Fraudsters Steal Ad Dollars
If ad fraud has been synonymous with digital advertising since the very beginning, why is it still so prevalent? More importantly, what is the actual impact these bots are having on digital advertising dollars?
When asked about the real affect ad fraud is having on the industry, “Nobody knows the exact number, but probably about 50 percent of what you’re spending online is being stolen from you.” That’s a direct quote from the widely respected advertising professional Bob Hoffman in a 2015 Bloomberg interview. Hoffman is also a frequent critic of the ad industry, but the data most certainly backs up his claim.
If marketers know this already, then why is fraud continuing to happen?
Digital Ads: Like Fish in a Barrel
The fact is that there’s relatively little stopping fraudsters from reaping the benefits of stealing undeserved ad dollars from marketers. The current ecosystem is both a playground and a safe haven for these individuals.
The most prevalent reason why digital ads are like “fish in a barrel” is that advertisers are blind to fraud after it’s occurred and don’t become aware of it until well after. If something remotely questionable is happening, standard reporting metrics fail to offer any insights. Part of the cost to capture real leads and customers, unfortunately, includes the cost of ad fraud, meaning that detecting ad fraud can be an insurmountable task without the proper help.
Another reason for ad fraud’s prevalence is that ad networks rarely have the appropriate systems in place to prevent fraudsters from applying to become part of the network. When applying, a fraudster need only submit data relating to their site’s audience, user engagement, and overall traffic. After approval, a site will use their ad network membership to start displaying ads.
In reality, ad networks practically have nothing to lose when it comes to ad fraud. Ultimately, if the site is able to consistently generate traffic, then everyone is happy. If they can’t drive users to their site, fewer ads will be displayed and they will lose their earning potential. Ad networks will probably never fight back against ad fraud since it will have a direct impact on their bottom line.
The Many Forms of Ad Fraud
Ad fraud comes in many shapes, but automated bots do most of the heavy lifting. If a bot visits a page, it can be difficult to discern whether the visit is legitimate. So if an ad is displayed on a page during a bot’s visit, it will often be considered a legitimate visit and the advertiser has to pay up.
But there are there other ways ad fraud can take place:
Pixel stuffing systematically crams one or more ads into a 1x1 pixel unit on a particular page. These ads are relatively invisible to the average person, so the odds that the ad will ever be seen by a human visitor are astronomically low.
For programmatic ad buying, the URL of a page where an ad will eventually be served can first be cloaked. This results in marketers having no idea what type of site their ad will be served on, meaning that relevance and placement quality ultimately suffer.
Fraudsters will also turn to content farms which are sites that scrape the web for content from other sites. Bots are then deployed to make up fake "qualified audiences." Using this, these content farms will then apply to become part of a digital ad network to serve ads on their site. Ad networks block content farms from time to time, but many will fly in under the radar, under the guise of falsely fabricated traffic numbers.
How to Fight Back Against Ad Fraud
Fraudsters will always adapt, and ad fraud will always be something marketers have to consider as part of their costs to use digital advertising. Dealing with fraud can be met with feelings of confusion, frustration, or even a general misunderstanding. The worst thing that CMOs and marketing teams can do is be afraid to make the wrong decision since this will lead to procrastination and ignore the expensive elephant in the room.
It’s time to fight back — and here are three surefire ways to get it done.
1. Regain Control
Publishers have the most control due to the fact that many publishers actively participate in questionable traffic sourcing practices, of which bots are the leading contributors of traffic. Because their business is directly affected if they attempt to control bot traffic, there’s little motivating them in doing something which reduces their ability to earn ad revenue.
Really dig into your site traffic data and try to see if anything looks even remotely suspicious or unusual. From there, it’s all on you add the proper measures to clean up your data. If your site relies on common analytics services like Google Analytics, the best place to start is by creating custom filters. Your list of bot spam will never stop growing, but by creating filters and segments in Google Analytics, they can be applied to any traffic source.
2. Invest in a Trustworthy Software Solution
Fighting back is all about making the life of a fraudster incredibly difficult, even if you can’t stop them completely. Finding a trustworthy solution that is designed specifically to combat fraud is the best thing you can do in the long run. The best defense against ad fraud is bot mitigation, and there are two ways these solutions can be implemented.
Bot mitigation can also be deployed at the CDN level and these solutions evaluate each HTTP request as it happens. If you want a more proactive software to prevent ad fraud, this is definitely worth considering. Although they work very well in protecting your site from automated bots, a large number of resources are required when implementing.
Regardless of the solution you think may work best for you, detection and mitigation are the tools which ultimately help you stop fraudsters in their tracks.
3. Monitoring With Vigilance
Take stock of where you are today and really dig into your data to get a profound understanding of the types of traffic your site is getting from online advertising channels. From there, evaluate the quality of leads you’re getting relative to a number of dollars you’re spending on digital ads.
Some questions you need to be asking yourself:
Are you getting engaged visitors, sales, and legitimate leads from your advertising?
Is engagement non-existent?
What does your typical visit look like?
What do visits from qualified leads look like in comparison to “typical” visits?
You need to know how people engage with your site in order to suss out friend from foe.
Don’t Be a Victim
If you think there will be one perfect cut and dry solution to fight against ad fraud anytime soon, it’s advised that you don’t hold your breath. Admitting and acknowledging a threat is the first step in taking back control and stopping the theft of your ad dollars.
From there, it’s up to you to take action and minimize the level of fraud going on. Whether you have a lot or nothing at all to invest, there are ways to combat ad fraud.
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