Policing Bad Ads

A startup measurement company is looking to make tidal waves in the online ad inventory. In fact, its data points to a dire problem in the online ad world, one colored by corruption and deceit. So why aren’t more publishers and advertisers paying attention?

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, RealVu is looking to pulling back the curtain on bad ad practices. The company boasts of a technology that allows advertisers or publishers to track whether an ad actually appears on a user’s screen. Its research can be eye-opening. For example, a report issued by RealVu last year found that just 20 percent or so of ad inventory sold on ad networks is actually viewable. For ad exchanges, the numbers were even more staggering; just 5 to 10 percent of ads are viewable, according to RealVu’s data.
The question is whether those stats are pulling the curtain back on a festering problem or simply standard fare for a vendor hyping a problem its technology is built to combat. Opinions are divided on that count.
“It is a pretty interesting technology,” said Adam Kasper, Media Contact’s evp digital. “It can give a planner a lot of good info that can be used to renegotiate with publishers and, possibly more importantly, understand why certain placements/executions may or may not be working.”
RealVu has earned crucial accredidation from the esteemed Media Rating Council — a huge endorsement in the research world.
According to MRC CEO George Ivie, the organization took its time with RealVu’s audit, but found its ability to determine whether a impression is actually viewable on a page both sound and revolutionary (the MRC does not vouch for RealVu’s ability to isolate why bogus impressions are being delivered).
“Their technology is very interesting,” said Ivie. “It’s driving us to ask a lot of questions. This is a new thing that we’ve never been able to do.”
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Yet others roll their eyes at the claims that nearly all inventory on ad exchanges is below the fold.
“RealVu grossly over-reports unviewable impressions,” said Kirby Winfield, CEO of the ad verification company AdXpose. Winfied said his company fielded a similar study two years ago. And while he sees a lingering problem with unseen ad inventory on the exchanges. “This is old news to us.”
Winfield is not alone. Digitas tested the tech and came away unimpressed. MSNBC.com dumped it to develop its own tech, ServeView.
“I think these guys are just headline grabbers,” said one top buyer. “I think the exchange problem is working itself out. You don’t see the IAB pushing RealVu.”
According to RealVu evp Alan Edwards, every segment of the ad world deals with non-viewable ads to some degree. Besides below-the-fold ads, there are numerous reasons as to why ads don’t completely render on a Web page. A link can be broken. There can be problems with creative. A user might be jumping from page to page quickly.
But there are also many shady reasons why ads are often delivered but never seen, according to Edwards. Long-tail publishers who get paid by the impression can load 15 ads on a page. They can hide ads on a site using tiny 1×1 pixels. Some even use what are called iFrames, a technology primarily used to protect publisher’s sites, where ads can be hidden one on top of the other.
“It’s an industry where there isn’t enough transparency and nobody can see what they are doing,” said Edwards.
Indeed, it’s not just rogue long-tail sites taking advantage of the lack of transparency, according to Edwards. The growing list of middlemen in the online ad food chain can also ad to the non-viewable ad problem. “Some publishers don’t even know what they are serving,” he said. “They are getting screwed in a way.”
When RealVu started meeting with key digital ad executives a few years ago, some buyers’ eyes immediately popped. David Cohen, head of digital for Universal McCann wrote in a blog post, “Have you ever had a meeting with a potential business partner that rocked your world? Something that called into question everything that you believed to be true? I recently had one of those meetings.”
Tomorrow Digiday examines the problem of low-quality ads in ad exchanges.