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Google took down 1.7bn ‘bad ads’ in 2016 but why has ad fraud become so hard to stop?

Google took down 1.7bn ‘bad ads’ in 2016.

Google purged itself of 1.7 billion bad ads last year - more than double the number it axed in 2015 - a fact which belies a problem set to swell unless more advertisers refuse to turn a blind eye to inflated numbers caused by ad fraud.

The online behemoth’s latest update on its own efforts to curb ad fraud highlights the scale of a problem; for all Google’s efforts last year, is blocking a greater volume of ads just a consequence of there being more bad ads in the first place?

Expanded policies, better detection and sharper internal expertise investments in 2016 suggest it’s a conundrum not lost on the advertising business as the industry starts to understand its own involvement in ad fraud.

No surprise then that Scott Spencer, director of product management, Sustainable Ads, couched its achievements with the revelation that it saw a “dramatic increase in scamming activity in 2016”. Last year alone, he and his team removed almost seven million bad ads for intentionally attempting to fool its detection systems.

“While we took down more bad ads in 2016 than ever before, the battle doesn’t end here,” continued Spencer. “As we invest in better detection, the scammers invest in more elaborate attempts to trick our systems. Continuing to find and fight them is essential for creating a sustainable, open web from which we all enjoy.”

Despite the challenge, it removed almost seven million ads for intentionally attempting to trick its detection systems, proof that is “ready” to spot the tricks of fraudsters. As systems improve, scammers become more advanced, and the battle continues as seen by recent uncovering of Methbot, the largest ad fraud scam to date.

To stress the point, Google pointed out that over 1,300 accounts were suspended last year for attempting to game its system by pretending to be news, a trick known as “tabloid cloaking”. Such is the problem that during a single sweep for tabloid cloaking in December 2016, it took down 22 culprits responsible for ads seen over 20 million times by people online in a single week.

Any quality ad tech platform will have multiple layers of defence in place in the form of both human and technology review systems that work to eliminate bad ads. However, no system is 100% fool proof, argued Andrew Buckman, managing director for OpenX’s EMEA business.

There is massive transaction volume and a very low tolerance for error by publishers, and it is a never ending battle as the bad actors are continually developing more sophisticated and advanced ways of evading the controls in place.

“When we find ads that violate our policies, we’ll block the ad and sometimes the advertiser, depending on the violation,” explained Spencer. “But sometimes we also need to suspend the website promoted in the ad the site users see after they click on it. So, for example, while we disabled more than 5 million payday loan ads last year, we also took action on 8,000 sites promoting payday loans.”

But it’s not just ads behind bad experiences, there’s also the publishers and website owners that would make money from them too.

Bad ads are disguising themselves as topical news stories for click bait, threatening the integrity of the media industry at a time when fake news is a legitimate concern. Between November and December last year, Google reviewed 550 sites it suspected of “misrepresenting content to users”, including impersonating news organisations, it took action against 340 of them for violating its revamped AdSense misrepresentative content policy. Of that number, nearly 200 publishers were booted out of its network permanently.

"The topic of truth online has come to the foreground over recent months with huge force, and alongside it the issue of ‘bad ads’,” said Andre Baden-Semper, vice president of sales and marketing for Europe at online media group Purch

“Never has it been more important to identify and eliminate advertising that doesn't comply with worldwide standards. As a global publisher of premium content, any measures undertaken to remove the purveyors of bad ads are hugely welcomed at Purch. If high quality content is produced that offers real benefit to its audience, the advertising that surrounds it should support and enhance that content, not belittle it, relegating its worth and authenticity to the trash can of bad ads. We applaud Sustainable Ads for the detailed work that's being done behind the scenes to combat those seeking to slip through the net, which ultimately reflects poorly on the entire publishing ecosystem.”

However, Google can only do so much to tackle a problem as entrenched as ad fraud. The online behemoth may have disabled more than 68 million bad ads for healthcare violations (up from 12.5 million the year prior) and taken down more than 17 million for illegal gambling violations in 2016, but the issue continues to grow when there is little in incentive for ad networks to offer an alternative if clients continue to press them for lower rates.

It’s a contentious point many advertisers have been unwilling to tackle for some time, though their stance is shifting now ad fraud is becoming more widely debated. As recently as the World Economic Forum last week, Publicis Groupe boss Maurice Levy voiced his concern that fraudsters are rife on Facebook.

“It’s down to us to as clients to be taking back control of that ecosystem and to understand how are money is working for us,” said the Stephan Loerke, the chief executive of the World Federation of Advertisers.

“The reason for ad fraud is ultimately complacency by clients. We have delegated responsibility of the purchase process without properly resourcing in-house. We have accepted tech stacks which aren’t transparent and can lead to conflict of interest and we have relied on KPIs which have turned out not be right.”

Every player in the ad tech industry – publishers, agencies, marketers, and ad tech providers – must be held accountable and take appropriate steps to eradicate fraud and improve ad quality, said Marc Rouanet, co-founder and president at Sublime Skinz.

While smaller ad providers may argue that eradicating fraud is easier said than done, Marc Rouanet, co-founder and president at Sublime Skinz said the solution lies in partnering with companies that can help prevent fraud infiltrating their systems.

Elsewhere, Google also acknowledged the spread of ad fraud on mobile, revealing that it had disabled over 23,0000 self-clicking ads on its platforms last year, compared to only a “few thousand” in 2015.

One thing that perhaps doesn’t get enough visibility is in-app fraud. Whereas desktop is significantly more established, fraud in-app poses a number of different issues unique to mobile. In particular, viewability checks are needed to guard against ads being served when an app is running in the background.

“In the mobile app inventory space, Google – despite having, arguably, the biggest mobile app exchange in admob – could end up relying on 3rd party tracking technologies such as AppsFlyer, Tune and Adjust to provide a greater barrier to avoiding fraudulent ads, suggested James Shaw, mobile director at Roast.

“The advantage of these partners is that they have a network of verified users who have – at some point – passed key data points such as device ID and IP address back to 3rd party tracking provider through various events (such as a click or download) which has deemed them fraudulent, or not, based on previous activity. It’s in the hands of 3rd party mobile tracking providers to support Google’s efforts in beating in-app ad fraud.”

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Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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