According to research conducted by digital security firm White Ops and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), nearly a quarter of video ad impressions are triggered by "bots;" (automated entities that mimic the behavior of humans by clicking on ads and watching videos) and 11% of display ads are viewed by fake consumers, created by cybercriminals with the purpose of taking a slice of the billions of dollars spent on digital advertising each year.
The White Ops/ANA study is one of the most comprehensive on the subject of online fraud in digital advertising. It analyzed 181 campaigns from 36 ANA member companies, over a two-month period earlier this year. Ad budgets ranged from $10 million to more than $1 billion and brands ranged across nine vertical categories. Tagged to identify bot fraud, the ads accounted for 5.5 billion impressions in 3 million domains.
The study found that while some bot fraud was triggered by fake websites, the majority of it (67%) came from bot nets taking over unsuspecting users’ home computers. As users logged into services such as Gmail, Facebook and Twitter, the bots infiltrated their systems and mimicked the user’s behavior; sophisticated bots were able to move the mouse and move the cursor over ads; they also put items in shopping carts and visited websites to generate cookies, in order to appear more demographically appealing to advertisers and publishers.
An industry-wide problem
Bot fraud has long been part of the ecosystem of low-price ads, but this study has revealed that many premium websites and publishers are just as vulnerable. It found that direct-buy campaigns on well-regarded domains showed percentages exceeding 10%, with the fraud being generated by bots and ad injection.
The ANA has estimated that advertisers will lose a staggering $6.3 billion to bots in 2015, and have published an action plan for advertisers and publishers, to reduce the likelihood of fraudulent activity. The action plan includes key tactical advice on how to structure business operations in a way that will protect against ad fraud, along with practical tips based on the findings of the research. For example, the report observes that botnet activity was highest between midnight and 7 am, meaning that ad buyers can reduce illegal traffic by focusing on the period when the majority of people are awake.
Advertisers are advised to implement continuous fraud monitoring for bots and adware and use bot detection to ensure publishers aren’t sourcing third-party traffic, even when buying inventory from trusted sources.