‘Everybody’s making money on invalid traffic’: Confessions of a media auditor

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Talk about ad fraud has never been louder, but when it comes to stamping it out, digital media has a long way to go. For the latest in our Confessions series, where we grant anonymity for brutal honesty, we talk to a longtime media auditor about what it’ll take to really clean up the state of digital advertising. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed.

As an auditor, how do you see fraud come up?
Our role has been to ensure companies are measured in accordance with industry guidelines — that ads are served to a human being. The companies that submit themselves to an audit are pretty clean. The problem of ad fraud lies in the mid-to-long tail. The market hasn’t demanded the same level of accountability, so these bad actors can stay under the radar.

What are some of the traffic tricks you see publishers play?
The biggest ones they use are source traffic. They use content marketers to drive traffic to their site. It’s rife with fraud. Source traffic in and of itself is not bad. But when you use these to increase your audience, you expose yourself to the audience, which could be bots.

What other things should advertisers be aware of?

Some publishers are sourcing traffic, and they don’t know any better. They don’t have a lot of content, so you have a lot of one-hit wonders. They don’t understand what they’re doing is bad. Because publishers’ staffs are fairly limited, they don’t do a lot of monitoring of their traffic. We were working with a new publisher recently, and they had three Google Analytics tags on their page so it overstates their traffic. You should only have one. In some cases, they add a new tag and don’t realize they have to remove the old tag.

What else are people getting up in arms about?
Transparency. The buyer doesn’t know where their ads are running. If you’re going through an exchange, they don’t really tell you that much about the placement.

What’s the auditor’s role in all this?
We make sure the companies we’re auditing are passing on the information they should be or if they’re a demand-side platform, that they don’t bid on impressions that don’t meet the requirements of the buyer. The SSPs have the major responsibility to make sure they’re working with quality publishers. We make sure supply-side platforms have procedures to vet these publishers. Certain networks are more than happy to take violent or pornographic content. But only a handful of companies get audited.

Why aren’t there more?
Some of these audits aren’t cheap. If you get audited to Media Rating Council standards, you could have a six-figure audit bill. Publishers look at that as an expense, not an investment. You have to have pressure from the marketer. That’s what’s been lacking. When digital first entered the supply chain, it was small dollars. Now it’s going to surpass TV revenue. The reality is, there’s no incentive to change. If you do, you’re going to take a hit to the bottom line. Everybody’s making money on invalid traffic at the advertiser’s expense.

Marc Pritchard made statements [at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting] about demanding more accountability. That’s P&G. I haven’t heard any other marketer say we agree. They have a tendency to buy in tonnage, and they accept a certain amount of that to be fraud. It’s just a cost of doing business. They don’t think, we’re putting money in the hands of criminals.

How do you rate the efforts to prevent fraud and lack of clarity in describing ad inventory in the first place?
TAG [Trustworthy Accountability Group] is a good step, but most of the companies are self-certifying against the guidelines. I’ve gone into a company that’s supposed to audit themselves, and they’re in remediation right now. They were misleading the marketplace that they were compliant when they were not. One of the requirements was to do an audit on a quarterly basis, and they didn’t do the audits.

Do you think that was an isolated case?
My guess is if you went into self-certified companies, you’d find problems. Every one of them.

What’s it like when you come in to audit a client?
In most cases, we’re treated with respect. But you can get in contentious moments. When we presented some really large adjustments and we provided them with evidence, they accepted it. It kind of nips the rebuttal in the bud.

Do you see a lot of corruption?
Back in the good old days, the publishers were more apt to try to get on your good side — take you out for lunch and try to have you overlook some things. Now, lunch is not uncommon. But if you can get bought for a 20-dollar meal, you’re probably in the wrong profession.


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