Ad fraud should no longer be thought of as a buzzword and instead be seen more as the virus that could do significant damage to the digital marketing industry. Dr Augustine Fou, an independent ad fraud researcher, stated that in certain cases 60-100% of ads are fraudulent with an astonishing industry average of 90%. Although he says this is mitigated by an uneven spread across the industry, even so-called “good publishers” are said to have just 75% of traffic coming from humans.
Safeguards such as lawsuits and attribution have been suggested and summarily shot down as a means to combat ad fraud, and in October 2017, a new declaration from the UK’s largest publishers looked to tackle ad fraud once and for all. Google and Facebook – among others – renewed their collective commitment to tackling ad fraud and protecting the brands who use their services. The Gold Standard programme launched by the 23 IAB UK board members declared that it would take on three main issues:
- Reduce ad fraud by implementing the ads.txt initiative on all sites carrying ads.
- Improve the digital advertising experience by adhering to the LEAN principles, the Coalition for Better Advertising standards and never using the 12 “bad” ads.
- Increase brand safety by working with JICWEBS with a view to becoming certified or maintaining certification.
However, given the fact that these issues have been allowed to run rampant throughout the digital advertising industry unchecked for years, it seems wise to exercise caution.
Do The Gold Standard Rules Say Anything New?
The first of the Gold Standard rules indicates that publishers and distributors will be required to divulge information on whom is allowed to sell their inventory. However, the IAB’s Lead Generation Addendum to its Standard Terms and Conditions for Interactive Advertising, which was released in November 2011, stated that each insertion order (i.e. deployment of an ad) must specify “the identity of and contact information for any Third Party Ad Server”.
As for the second point, Google already announced in June 2017 that it was looking to tackle intrusive ads as outlined by the Coalition For Better Advertising. So whilst this may be a positive step for the other publishers committing to these guidelines, Google shouldn’t earn any kudos for doubling down on a commitment it has yet to fulfill.
Regarding the third measure, Google itself has already stated in March of this year that it was looking to improve its brand safety controls, again doubling down in this latest press release on a promise that it had already pledged. Furthermore, the IAB’s guidelines from November 2011 also allude to this point stating that:
“[Each] Media Company acknowledges that certain Advertisers may not want their
Ads placed adjacent to content that promotes pornography, violence, or the use of firearms,
contains obscene language, or falls within another category stated on the IO (“Editorial
Adjacency Guidelines”). Media Company will use commercially reasonable efforts to comply
with the Editorial Adjacency Guidelines with respect to Ads that appear on Media Company
Properties, although Media Company will at all times retain editorial control over the Media
The fact that this clause exists and has done for the best part of six years shows that the likes of Google either hold no regard for brand safety, or that the latter part of this statement protects them from repercussions. “Commercially reasonable efforts” appears to be an ill-defined means of tackling an issue as serious as ad-fraud. Law firm Fieldfisher has criticised the regulations for being too “advertiser friendly” and the fact that these terms have existed for so long with so little action being taken shows that a renewing of such vows should be viewed as worthless without concrete action.
Will Google Act On This Commitment?
Shortly before the Gold Standard announcement, Google came under fire from the New York Times for supplying fake news stories as a part of its ad model. Each story could be identified as fake to even the most wide-eyed editor as they peddled logos of familiar publications such as Vogue as a means of drawing in the clicks. The irony of this is that the ads appeared on the websites of Snopes and Politifact, sites both dedicated to fact-checking and the dispulsion of fake news. Whilst employing certain filters is possible, ultimately the buck lies with Google to do a better job of extinguishing such ads from its catalogue.
The main problem for Google – and Facebook while we’re on the topic – is that the pair’s models rely on ubiquity. Both stand to make such enormous profits because of the widespread adoption of both services. This means that whilst they are keen to dispel the notion that they spread fake news or contribute towards ad fraud, they are not willing to do so to the extent that the user base decreases. Taking a hard stance on such actions could push users towards a second party who perhaps take a softer attitude towards these issues, and losing users is not a risk either has so far been willing to take.
Psychological research has shown that humans are ingrained to take the path of least resistance and it shouldn’t be scandalous to suggest that Google and Facebook are aware that users would rather have their views unchallenged via another platform or service than continue to use such a service that will actively challenge their worldviews. One suggestion could be that the tech giants have a closer eye on the upcoming GDPR regulations which will change the way it collects data drastically.
The latest declaration from the publishing elite appears fairly thin on the ground when the points are analysed in terms of its largest player, Google, and it remains to be seen how these changes will come to fruition. Google in particular has made similar promises in the past and it may not be cynical to suggest this latest promise is nothing more than a PR move.
Whilst it would be egregious to suggest that all issues within the ad fraud realm lie with the likes of Google, a large proportion of the blame for this problem can be levelled at them (as a Buzzfeed News article on “zombie websites” suggests). What we can be sure of is that something needs to be done to combat ad fraud. If nothing else, the Gold Standard initiative suggests that there’s at least a desire to do so.
How has ad fraud affected your brand? Do you think the Gold Standard programme will make a difference? Let us know on social media @mporiumgroup.