Media Briefing: Some agency execs are mystified by heightened invalid traffic counts from Google compared to DSP reports

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

This week’s Media Briefing is a market check on why some agency execs are noting an inflated rate of invalid impressions and click-through rates from Google despite DSPs telling a different story.

  • The invalid traffic dispute
  • Connecting the advertising dots
  • Condé Nast and theSkimm face layoffs, OpenAI teams up with Axel Springer and more

The invalid traffic dispute

During the Digiday Programmatic Marketing Summit last week, two agency executives voiced frustrations in the town hall discussions that Google was invalidating impressions and clicks from demand-side platforms to a greater extent than what the DSPs were reporting. But outside the walls of the town hall, those experiences around invalid traffic (IVT) don’t seem to be shared by other agency execs or publishers. 

“Our ad servers are bringing back a good 20 [to] 30 [to] 40% of impressions, and even 90% of clicks, as invalid,” said an agency exec during the town hall who was granted anonymity under Chatham House rules. “We have a couple of… theories as to why. It’s usually around Google touching the media at some point to validate the different media that’s coming through, but in instances where it’s not touching it at some point, that’s really where we’re seeing the invalid go through.”

After the town hall, an attendee cited Adelphic as one DSP having this issue; Adelphic did not respond to a request for comment for this story. When asked if this was happening at other DSPs, a spokesperson from Nexxen said the company is unaware of this issue and The Trade Desk and Yahoo did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Another agency exec in the room echoed this happening to them as well. This second agency exec said that it was primarily an issue regarding click-through rates (CTRs), however, and less around impressions. “We have these great CTRs in the DSPs, and then we get the [Google Campaign Manager] report and it’s a really bad click-through rate,” they said. 

“It’s definitely just a guess on our behalf because all we can do is guess that Google is doing this as a self-serving type of ploy because they want to be able to touch more of the media and take more of the media dollars,” the first agency exec said. Of course when they asked Google and the DSPs why this was happening, the exec said they both pointed fingers at the other and neither were able to provide great insight into what could be leading to this inflation. 

Google did not respond to why some agency execs and media buyers are experiencing an increase in IVT, but a spokesperson said that the Ad Traffic Quality team is tasked with preventing “all types of invalid traffic so that advertisers don’t have to pay for it and the people who cause it don’t profit from it.” And while IVT is meant to be snuffed out with real-time filters, post-campaign adjustments are sometimes made, which credits affected buyers. Publishers are also alerted that they were dinged as IVT, the spokesperson added, and provided guidance for how to avoid being dinged in the future. 

“There’s a whole host of reasons that can trigger invalid clicks and … Google won’t tell you. They’re very black box about what and why because people use [that] information to evade detection in the future,” said Scott Messer, principal and founder of media consultancy Messer Media, who formerly oversaw programmatic at Leaf Group. 

Messer continued that it makes sense that buyers are getting frustrated if the numbers don’t align with what they’re seeing from other verification companies like IAS or DoubleVerify. But given the Google algorithm is different from competitors, that’s expected to happen. And DSPs that aren’t built on Google’s tech aren’t going to be using the same fine-tooth comb to pull out invalid clicks and impressions, he said. 

A not-so big problem 

When other agency execs and media buyers outside of the DPMS town hall were asked if they were seeing elevated invalidation rates within impressions or clicks, one buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there was “nothing out of the ordinary” going on regarding an increase of invalidated clicks or impressions. 

The buyer, whose agency uses Adelphic, Yahoo and DV360 as its primary DSPs, added that on average, their invalid impressions sit at about a 0.5% average while the average invalid click-through rate is much higher at 29%. The max they’ve seen for invalid CTR is 89%, which is high, they admitted, but given most of their clients have moved away from using CTR as a KPI, it’s not a major concern. 

If invalid impressions were as high as 20%, as the agency exec from the town hall shared, “it would definitely be a massive problem,” the buyer continued. But counter to the idea that Google is favoring itself, the buyer said that “we saw some of the highest invalid clicks and impressions actually on YouTube, which I know it’s not quite the same because it’s not really programmatic but it does slightly go against the idea of Google kind of favoring themselves.” 

Flipping switches

Not knowing how to really resolve the issue, the second agency exec from the town hall said that in the meantime, they’ve built “really extensive blocklists to combat” the increase in IVT rates by removing whichever sites have the highest invalidation rates from their media mixes and they’re starting to test more PMPs vs. relying mostly on the open exchange. 

A further frustration, the second exec added, is that “they seem like good sites [but then the] clicks aren’t coming as valid but the traffic is.” Despite that, the exec said they haven’t reached out to the publishers themselves who they put on the blocklists to try and resolve the issue outside of the DSPs or ad server. 

“It’s hard to optimize in the DSP or trust the DSP’s documentation because we use [Google Campaign Manager] as our source of truth,” the second exec from the town hall said. 

“The hardest part is it’s all bewildering. I have a publisher [client] we’re trying to solve a big IVT issue for and it’s hard to figure out. Google won’t tell you why or what, [but they’ll] show you [their] best practices and then you’ve got to go flip switches until they tell you it looks better,” said Messer. 

As for other publishers, this doesn’t appear to be too much of a concern and for some premium publishers, it may actually benefit their programmatic businesses in the long run. “It appears to be more of an open-market issue, which could potentially drive more campaigns to PMP deals where they know exactly what sites they are on,” said a programmatic lead at a publication who spoke anonymously. 

Justin Wohl, CRO of Salon, Snopes and TV Tropes, said that “programmatic publishers likely don’t know much about their IVT scores unless a demand partner reports it to them.”  

Another programmatic lead at a digital media company said that, while they were unaware of this issue occurring between DSPs and Google, it led them to double check their payments within Google Ad Manager to see if there were any discrepancies or inflation to the adjustments for invalid traffic deductions. 

“There has been no increase in deductions for invalid traffic. In terms of percentages, while Google doesn’t share specific impression or click numbers for these deductions, the actual adjusted amount is less than 0.5% of our estimated Google revenue which is very low,” said the second publisher programmatic lead.

What we’ve heard

“Standardization is just the first step. You have to use it to then effectuate, which we’re all trying to get to, reduced emissions. We don’t think standardization is any end goal in this process. It’s just the beginning.”

— Alison Pepper, evp of government relations and sustainability at the 4A’s on the process of standardizing carbon emissions measurement in the advertising and media industries

Connecting the advertising dots

Last week, The New York Times added interactive, full-screen video ads to its newest game, Connections. The Times sees it as an opportunity to monetize the huge volume of people that play its games who aren’t subscribers to its Games product, according to Joy Robins, global chief advertising officer of New York Times Advertising. A Times spokesperson declined to say what percentage of Games players are not subscribers. They also said the company does not separate out Games subscribers from its total subscriber base, which recently surpassed 10 million in total

The first time The New York Times tried this was in July, when it introduced interstitial ads to its most popular game, Wordle. A New York Times spokesperson said the campaign had a 0.6% average click-through rate in the first month, with launch sponsors Doordash and ŌURA. 

Other advertisers have paid for interstitial ads (and large format display ads) on Wordle since then, spanning the travel, finance, luxury, education and retail categories, according to Robins. The ads have performed “well above IAB’s benchmarks and in line with some of the other large format display ads across the Times,” she said, declining to share more details on the campaigns’ performance.

Connections, which launched in August 2023, is now The Times’ second most-played game after Wordle and has amassed more than 10 million players per week since then, according to Robins.

Image description –
An Uber Eats ad featured on Connections

Launch sponsors of Connections’ interstitial, skippable video ads are Uber Eats, Capital One and ŌURA, and the campaign will run from December 4 through the end of the year. On one randomized day per week, players can also unlock an Uber Eats discount code when they complete the green category word grouping on Connections.

Like the Wordle ads, the Connections ads only appear in the mobile web experience where a majority of the game’s players (70%) play as of Q3, per a company spokesperson. Ads do not display on The New York Times’ Games app, its News app or the desktop site, which was an “intentional” decision to test how this audience in particular interacts with ads, Robins said. There are no plans to expand the ads to the Times’ apps or desktop, she added.

The Times has not seen “any disruption in usage” since launching ads on Wordle or Connections – in other words, no one is abandoning the games experience when they see an ad pop up, Robins said. 

All three of the launch sponsors for Connections had already advertised on Wordle, according to Robins, who declined to share how much the Times is charging advertisers for these ads. The Games ads are sold directly and can be purchased to run only within the games experience or as part of a larger buy across the Times’ portfolio, she said. 

The New York Times Advertising team is pitching to advertisers the ability to repurpose brands’ social, vertical video or pre-roll spots and build them into the ad format used in Connections or Wordle, Robins said.

When asked if the Times is looking to expand advertising to other games, Robins said it was “definitely likely.” — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

91,000: The number of subscriptions to The Nation, 80% of which are for its print magazine, that are being reduced from biweekly to monthly starting in January. The publication’s subscriptions grew by 3.8% this year.

12: The number of employees that lifestyle newsletter publisher theSkimm quietly laid off at the end of November, representing about 10% of its total staff.

$3 million: The amount of annual revenue earned by blockchain news company Decrypt in 2023. The company signed a letter of intent to merge with decentralized media company Rug Radio, which also projects $3 million in revenue this year.

2: The number of U.K.-based publications, the Telegraph and the Spectator, that former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker is currently the top contender to purchase. 

What we’ve covered

Future plc CFO stepping down as company reports revenue declines and new two-year investment plan:

  • Future plc’s chief financial and strategy officer Penny Ladkin-Brand is stepping down from the company’s board next year.
  • Her announcement comes as the U.K.-based media company reported $993.3 million (or £788.9 million) of overall revenue in 2023, down 4% year over year.

Read more about the company’s latest earnings here.

Research Briefing – Programmatic hits road bumps heading into 2024:

  • Publishers’ hopes for their programmatic ad revenue didn’t quite come to fruition this year.
  • Despite that, publishers do still rely heavily on programmatic revenue, and they still see it as a growing revenue source.

Learn more about the state of programmatic revenue here

What we’re reading

Condé Nast’s CEO faces the company amid lagging layoffs and financial concerns:

A company-wide meeting is taking place at Condé Nast today and global CEO Roger Lynch has a lot to answer for, from sporadic and “botched” layoffs that included several Wired staffers this week, to senior leaders wondering how the company can break-even this year when traffic is down so far that the company cannot meet its advertising goals, according to Puck. 

X failed the news industry: 

Though Twitter may not have ever been particularly good at driving revenue, it was great at honing audiences and driving traffic at one point in time, The Verge reported. But since Elon Musk’s unceremonious takeover, the relationship between Twitter-turned-X and news media has all but broken, some argue in an irreparable way.  

OpenAI will have the ability to access real-time news thanks to Axel Springer:   

ChatGPT’s parent OpenAI and Politico and Business Insider’s parent Axel Springer have entered into a deal where ChatGPT will have access to the media company’s portfolio of publications so that it can create real-time news summaries in addition to training its large language model, Axios reported. 

The New York Times taps an editorial director for artificial-intelligence initiatives:

Quartz co-founder Zach Seward is joining The New York Times to oversee how the newsroom can establish principles and guidelines for using – or not using – generative AI, according to The Wall Street Journal.’s AI-generated articles look a lot like plagiarism: 

Per a Semafor report, is producing and publishing AI-generated stories that look remarkably similar to stories published just hours earlier by the financial publisher’s competitors.

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