Ads.txt, created to help publishers fight fraud, isn’t being adopted by publishers

Ads.txt is supposed to help clean up the industry’s ad fraud problem, but publishers are dragging their feet in adopting the initiative.

Few publishers have adopted ads.txt because their tech teams are overcommitted to other projects, and they don’t understand how ads.txt will benefit them. Plus, some publishers want to avoid notifying ad buyers that they rely on unauthorized resellers to drive demand for their inventory. Of the 500 most-trafficked sites in the U.S., only 34 use ads.txt, according to a recent analysis by MarTech Today.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab launched ads.txt in May as a tool that can help ad buyers avoid illegitimate sellers that arbitrage inventory and spoof domains. The way it works is that publishers drop a text file on their web servers that lists all the companies authorized to sell their inventory, which allows buyers to check the validity of the inventory they purchase.

If a publisher uses ads.txt, then anyone with an internet connection can verify the publisher’s authorized sellers. For example, since Business Insider uses ads.txt, businessinsider.com/ads.txt shows which vendors have permission to sell BI inventory.

Other publishers that use ads.txt include ESPN, Forbes, the USA Today Network, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox Media and the New York Post. Publishers not using the feature yet include Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Slate and CNN.

Although dropping a text file on a web server doesn’t take much effort, many publisher web developers already get assigned more work than they can handle, so ads.txt isn’t an immediate priority for them, said Business Insider CRO Pete Spande, who has advocated for more publishers to adopt the tool. Another issue is that the benefits of ads.txt — it helps buyers avoid spoofed domains, which helps publishers protect their reputations — get lost in bureaucracy.

For many publishers, ad ops, ad sales and product teams operate independently of one another, so even if an ad ops specialist recommends putting the text file on the site, the coder must go through several layers of approval to get permission to do so. Throughout that chain, the coder’s request can get blocked by someone with less familiarity with ad tech who doesn’t fully understand the ad fraud problem plaguing digital media, said independent ad tech consultant Paul Gubbins.

On Monday, Gubbins ran a poll on Twitter asking why publishers are slow to implement ads.txt. About 100 people responded, and 63 percent said a “lack of understanding” of ads.txt’s benefits was the main roadblock to wider adoption.

Another concern with ads.txt is that it might give away too much information and inadvertently cut off demand for publishers, said Ari Paparo, CEO of ad tech company Beeswax.

“Some publishers are probably getting demand from unauthorized resellers,” he said. “So if you cut off demand through these resellers, this demand goes away.”

Ads.txt also suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem, Spande said. Buyers need to see more inventory that’s authorized via ads.txt before they use the tool to dictate their buys, while publishers won’t feel pressured to adopt the tool until more ad buyers limit their spend to publishers who have adopted ads.txt.

Rory Edwards, vp of business development and strategy at demand-side platform DataXu, said DataXu can detect which sites have ads.txt. But the company hasn’t implemented a filter that solely restricts ad spend to sites with ads.txt because there isn’t enough inventory there to fulfill campaigns.

“Buyers moan about fraud, but they don’t push publishers,” Gubbins said. “Publishers moan about fraud, but they don’t push their buyers to only buy ads.txt verified domains.”