How Legitimate Publishers Get Caught Up in Ad Fraud


Tom Drouillard, CEO, President and Managing Director, Alliance for Audited Media

Ad fraud is a confusing topic because it is technically complicated and certain underlying issues have not been openly discussed. As an independent auditor, the Alliance for Audited Media sees the underbelly of the media supply chain where little transparency exists, and we notice two ways publishers get confused by ad fraud.

Sourcing Illegitimate Traffic

There are two main methods publishers use to acquire visitors through third parties: legitimate marketing activity and illegitimate traffic sourcing.

Legitimate marketing activity is when a publisher engages in audience acquisition methods that drive people to their site such as running sponsored posts on social media, sending an email newsletter or running a contest. This is a legitimate marketing tactic to bring more humans to the site.

Where we start to see trouble is when publishers pay traffic suppliers for a fixed number of visits to their website, also known as illegitimate traffic sourcing. Publishers may buy traffic at the end of the month or quarter to “make their numbers.” Traffic sellers often promise publishers that the traffic is human and will pass through all ad fraud detection filters.

This type of traffic is likely robotic. Millions of people don’t wait until the last day of the month to visit specific websites in specific quantities. The publisher might not know that this traffic is robotic because it may appear human in their fraud detection reports. It might also appear to be human traffic in the advertiser’s fraud detection reports because it is designed to pass through ad fraud detection vendors’ filters.

Sometimes the traffic suppliers are overt and sometimes they are not. Sometimes publishers know what they are buying and sometimes they do not.

But the whole advertising economy relies on this practice today, and it is the main form of digital ad fraud as was outlined in the 2017 fraud study published by the ANA/White Ops.

Relying on Ad Fraud Measurement Tools

Ad fraud detection services are an important part of how the market transacts today because they add friction to combat the fraudsters. These services measure and filter non-human traffic. When these services are MRC-accredited, the market can have confidence that their processes and procedures adhere to industry standards for measurement services.

Multiple vendors with proprietary methods and technical measurement limitations compound the confusion surrounding ad fraud. To understand the limitations, consider the two techniques used to measure ad fraud today: in-ad and on-page measurement.

Advertisers and agencies use ad fraud detection vendors to measure fraud in their campaigns. They use in-ad measurement by placing a tag in the ad container. As a user travels to a publisher’s site, their browser executes the code and counts that ad exposure as a person or a bot.

There are two problems associated with in-ad measurement. The first is ad fraud detection vendors all have proprietary methods and calculate measurement differently. Running several fraud detection tags in the same ad will likely result in different measurements for each of them. The second problem is that in-ad measurement only sees what is happening within the ad container, not the other activity on the page. Because the ad is limited to a small area of the entire page, there are fewer data points that the tag can collect to determine whether the exposure was a human or bot.

Publishers also use fraud detection vendors to measure fraud on their sites and face the same issues of multiple vendors and methods. Publishers use on-page measurement, which is much different from in-ad measurement. The on-page method places a tag on the page where an ad is displayed allowing the tag to see the whole page. This method has a better chance of producing a more accurate measurement because it can detect more engagement on the entire page such as scrolling and clicking. This is the reason that an advertiser’s in-ad measurements are normally at odds with a publisher’s on-page measurements.

Purchasing Illegitimate Traffic + Relying on Ad Fraud Measurement = No ROI for Marketers

When you layer technical limitations of fraud measurement and proprietary methods from multiple vendors with the practice of purchasing bot traffic that is engineered to pass fraud detection, it is clear why there is frustration at all sides of the market. The measurements the industry relies on for transaction purposes deliver a false sense of security.

Illegitimate sourced bot traffic can pass through fraud detection and produce misleading metrics. The marketer pays the publisher for ads exposed to this traffic. The agency’s and publisher’s fraud metrics appear to be accurate. The marketer pays the agency. In this case, everyone in the system is making money at the expense of the marketer. But there’s no return on investment for robotic exposures. Marketers are beginning to understand this and want to fix the system.

By looking deeper into each of these topics and the business of fraud – how the money is made and how it leaves the ecosystem – it’s clear that ad fraud is conquerable. The war on fraud is winnable. Learn how by downloading the full white paper: Three Truths That Help Confront the Digital Ad Fraud Crisis.


Tom Drouillard oversees the Alliance for Audited Media, a media assurance organization located in the U.S. and Canada. Under his leadership, AAM has developed new digital auditing services, introduced streamlined media-reporting tools, and implemented a strategic focus on product development and client solutions.

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