Whack a Bot: Why Online Advertising Must Fight Video Traffic Fraud Tooth and Nail

/ Apr 4, 2014


By Travis Lusk

Last year, there was a ton of focus on video across the web. The stats are staggering. The number of online content videos being watched was up 34.5% in 2013 versus 2012 and the number of video ad views increased by a whopping 195.6% over the same period, per comScore.

From our vantage point at Collective, we saw a slew of publishers coming on board. Newspapers and magazines were increasingly producing original video content and this trend is only growing.

This is great news for everyone, consumers and marketers alike: more quality content to watch and advertise within. But there’s a dark side to this happy story: traffic fraud.

Naturally, publishers want to drive views to their content. What’s the point of putting time, effort, and money into creating a compelling video if no one sees it? So, they and their vendors buy traffic intending to increase exposure among real human beings.

Instead, shady individuals take advantage, resulting in a large percentage of non-human or bot traffic in the market, including premium publisher sites. In fact according to a December 2013 report by Incapsula, bot traffic makes up to 61.5% of all website activity.

This video traffic fraud is dangerous for the digital advertising industry. The value of an online video ad is determined by impressions or engagement. How can advertisers trust the value of an ad buy if a substantial portion of video views are bogus?

That’s why it’s imperative that online media networks do everything in their power to avoid bot traffic. This is easier said than done, however.

Trying to stay ahead of bad traffic is like playing a game of Whack a Mole. Each time we hit a mole on the head, i.e., identify a pattern of bot traffic and avoid it, another pops up. That’s because there are people who spend all day every day trying to figure out new ways to game the system.

There is a multitude of tactics being used to drive bad traffic. Here’s an example:

Newspaper publishers, who are not native to video themselves, are hiring video experts — freelance videographers — to produce the content. The videographers’ professional worth is wholly dependent on their content’s view count. So they are incentivized to drive traffic and often go out on their own to buy it, independent of the publisher.

Unbeknownst to the videographers, they just may be purchasing views that are generated from hijacked computers. This means that malware on an innocent user’s machine is generating fraudulent views. It’s a real person’s computer but no one is actually sitting in front of it viewing the content. Impressions are being generated when a screensaver is running or, even more sinister, clone versions of browsers are running in invisible windows.

And this is just one of maybe 30 or 40 sources of bad traffic. While it’s definitely an overwhelming task to combat these methods, online networks must continue fighting the good fight to preserve the legitimacy of the industry. We need to allocate substantial resources to stay on top these varied and constantly adapting fraudulent tactics. How?

First, look for patterns. We must direct our data-science teams to spend time looking for fraudulent patterns, then make sure we’re weeding them out and completely avoiding that traffic.

Second, coordinate. Networks must work alongside publishers and a variety of third-party vendors to ensure that what each is doing is in line with the rest of the market from an inventory-blocking perspective.

While it’s impossible to solve the problem for good, by investing heavily in fraud prevention and working collectively we can whack each bad traffic mole as soon as it rears its ugly head. And that’s the only way forward for the future of online advertising.

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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