Thought Leadership

How Buyers Can Curb Invalid Traffic in Programmatic

February 18, 2020
By John Clyman

Programmatic ad spend was estimated to total nearly $60 billion in 2019, and it continues to grow. Unfortunately, fraud is estimated to consume almost 10 percent of that amount.

Invalid traffic (IVT) and bot fraud itself is nothing new, but fighting it is an arms race that requires continued vigilance. Most buyers already know that they need to run verification tools that can report on IVT, and to steer away from risky sites and apps. But that’s really only the beginning. Fortunately, recent (and ongoing) industry advances offer some new tactics that savvy buyers can apply to improve their chances in the new year. Here are three suggestions.

1.Buy on app-ads.txt-covered inventory.

In March of 2019, the IAB Tech Lab introduced app-ads.txt, a variant of ads.txt that’s designed to work with mobile-app inventory. Avoiding unauthorized inventory — that is, apps that have published app-ads.txt files, and are sold by intermediaries not listed in those files — is essential, of course. Rubicon Project automatically disqualifies such inventory from participating in its exchange, and you should ensure your DSP discards unauthorized bids from any supply source.

But what about inventory on apps that haven’t yet published app-ads.txt, so-called undeclared inventory? A recent study by Pixalate tallies fraud rates more than 60% higher on undeclared inventory than on apps that are affirmatively authorized by app-ads.txt. In other words, you can radically reduce your risk of IVT by buying only where app-ads.txt is present. And it might not restrict your reach as much as you’d think. For example, more than 85% of mobile app inventory on the Rubicon Project exchange is explicitly authorized as of January 2020.

2. Start thinking in terms of supply paths.

You might think that the IVT and fraud risk would be the same on any particular site or app no matter which path you choose to purchase the inventory. It turns out that’s not the case. A nefarious intermediary can manipulate inventory to make it look more valuable than it really is, or to whitewash fake traffic generated by bots. This can result in situations like buying video ads in apps that don’t actually have video placements, or in buying “connected TV” inventory that’s actually a mobile device masquerading as a Roku box.

The Supply Chain Object (also known as “schain”) standard that the industry has recently adopted can help, because schains show every intermediary who would be paid if you purchase a particular bid request. Combine an schain with sellers.json files, and you can trace the entire supply chain back to the originating publisher or app developer. As a DSP or buyer, you can use this information to filter out suspect, non-transparent, overly long, or even just low-performance supply paths, based on reputation and prior experience.

3. Work with trusted, transparent exchanges.

Programmatic advertising and RTB may contrast starkly with the Mad Men days, yet automation doesn’t remove the need for the critical human institution of trust. And trust is forged through transparency and long shared experience of successful collaboration. Fortunately, industry-wide emphasis on transparency is continuing to grow. But in specific practical terms, how do you determine which supply partners you can trust?

As you’re deciding where to direct your spend, take the time to dig into the details of how exchanges conduct diligence on inventory and protect against fraud. How do they vet new sellers, both as business entities and as individual sites or apps? How do they filter for invalid and unauthorized traffic, or for forged signals? How do they use third-party tools to monitor their efficacy, so they’re not grading their own homework? And how do they actively address abuse in their exchange, both through proactive detection and removal and reactively in response to complaints?

There’s no simple, infallible technique that can fully immunize your spend against fraud and IVT.  But with awareness and diligence, you can go a long way toward ensuring that your brand messages are seen by users with a pulse.To learn more about programmatic brand safety, email us: contact@rubiconproject.com


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