Beware Advertisers, Bots Lurk in MRC Viewability Accreditation

/ Jun 13, 2014

A woman works on a laptop surrounded by watching androids

By Travis Lusk

Recently, the Media Rating Council (MRC) lifted its Viewable Ad Impression Advisory for display ads, issued Viewable Impression Measurement Guidelines, and updated its list of accredited ad verification vendors. The news was uniformly welcomed with open arms by the ad industry. Finally, everyone thought, we have standardized guidelines and vendors we can trust. Now we know with certainty exactly how much of our ads are viewable.

But before you celebrate by ringing up an accredited vendor and transacting ad space in reliance on the guidelines, beware, there are grave dangers lurking. These dangers are much more insidious than any that are living or breathing. They are bots and they can wreak so much havoc on your measurements that your viewability metrics mean absolutely nothing — even from MRC-accredited vendors. Meaning that you may be paying for ad space that appears highly viewable, when really flesh and blood human beings are not the ones viewing it — at all.

Think I’m being dramatic? Let’s walk through the specifics. Bots account for over 60% of all internet traffic. Most of the noise is coming from infected machines. It’s hard to tell the difference between a living and breathing user surfing the web and a zombie operating the computer without the user even realizing it.

Not only do bots account for the majority of internet traffic, they also generate traffic that appears to be the most viewable. That’s because bots look at the entire page — virtually every time. Meaning that while human traffic always generates viewability that’s less than perfect, bots generate near 100% viewability, upending metrics.

Surely, the 3MS (Making Measurement Make Sense) — which represents the overall governing body on the issue for the MRC — has taken measures within its guidelines and accreditations to combat the zombie invasion? Hmm, well, not really. The problem is twofold.

First, the guidelines, while very specific about other metrics such as pixel percentage and duration, gloss over the pressing non-human-traffic issue. Specifically, the MRC doesn’t define the filters that are necessary to weed out the bots.

Second, and more importantly, the MRC-accredited companies are a completely mixed bag when it comes to comprehensive suspicious activity filtration. Some are good. Others are mediocre. And some detect very limited types of suspicious activity.

So what should the 3MS do instead? Is there a way to standardize the bot battle rules so that advertisers can truly breathe easy?

In the MRC’s defense, it is not their mandate to declare one company “better” at detecting suspicious activity over another. That would introduce a host of ethical dilemmas.

Instead, MRC and 3MS must delve into the nitty-gritty of fraud prevention and clearly identify a list of core-detection capabilities that every accredited vendor must be able to demonstrate. These capabilities must be updated and revised on a regular basis to keep pace with the evolving landscape.

For example, the MRC should define such nefarious tactics as “stacked iframes” (when a publisher stacks ads on top of each other in the iframe so that 12 impressions are generated instead of one) and “ad injection” (when an infected script on a computer injects a different ad on top of a legitimate ad).

To be considered MRC-certified, every ad verification company must have a solution to this baseline set of fraudulent tactics curated by the 3MS. Plus, and this is crucial, the tactics list must be reviewed and updated by internet traffic-fraud experts regularly.

The schemers perpetrating this fraud are the most elite hackers on the planet. They are working around the clock to devise new ways around the traps that we set to ensnare them. Like it or not, this is an arms race.  And so far, we, as an industry, are losing. Collectively, it’s time to step up our game. We must be just as tireless and vigilant as those we seek to thwart.

The good news is the industry is heading in the right direction thanks to the fine folks involved in the 3MS initiative. But as the bot war rages on, let’s call on our standard-bearing organizations to double-down and lead us — aggressively — into the battle.

travis_wtTravis Lusk is VP – head of video for Collective, responsible for the company’s marketing, leading video products across all formats, screens and device types, product strategy, inventory supply, and vendor management. He has also filled the role of VP of video and mobile distribution at Collective, handling video and mobile inventory supply/buying, managing ad tech integrations with dozens of platforms, ROI and yield management, and network and development growth.

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