Following the industry headlines reporting on the percentage of ad fraud in the real-time bidding (RTB) programmatic space, the market can seem like a pretty scary place to be for ad dollars. However, there is good news. Our industry for the most part is reputable and focused on providing clean ad traffic, but we’ve been infected with a small amount of fraudulent publishers. Getting to the root of the problem means looking at these sources of ad fraud, and a majority of fake impressions are originating from a very small percentage of publishers.
Fraudlogix recently analyzed a random sample of over 1.3 billion ad impressions from a 30-day period for our "Sources of Fraudulent Impressions in the Programmatic RTB Market" report. Of the impressions, 19 percent of them were fake/bot-generated. So does this mean that if an advertiser spends $100 in the RTB marketplace, $19 of it automatically goes to ad fraud? No. Fraudulent activity is not evenly distributed in the ecosystem - fake impressions are concentrated in a few areas of the marketplace, and these areas account for most of the ad fraud in the system.
From the entire group of over 59,000 publishers where the data set was extracted, 52 percent of the fraudulent impressions originated from just 514 sources (or publishers). In other words, 0.9 percent of publishers generated 52 percent of the ad fraud in the market. Expanding from the “bottom of the barrel”, 3 percent of the publishers generated 68.2 percent of the ad fraud in the market. And being that fake traffic can be generated quickly, these publishers are flooding the market with fraudulent impressions: Even though they accounted for only 3 percent of traffic sources, they generated 16 percent of the total impressions.
The Bottom 3 Percent
So who are the nefarious publishers polluting the ecosystem and making the other 97 percent of publishers look bad? Some are outright criminal organizations who set up ghost sites (fake websites) with the sole purpose of monetizing with bot traffic –humans never visit these pages. They set up several websites and then operate a bot net to drive traffic to those sites. If caught, they simply regenerate under new domains. Others are legitimate publishers to some degree but try to supplement their site’s traffic by buying very cheap click traffic with the hope that it’s real. It should be noted that any click traffic offered for a fraction of a cent will likely to be fake.
What Ghost Sites Look Like
When it comes to the ghost sites, our analysis indicates some common threads. Commonalities that we saw between them that can be spotted with minimal research. Here are a few “low-tech” ways to identify a ghost site:
- It’s categorized as news. In many cases, fake sites are news driven. Having fresh content on a site can help to create a mask of legitimacy if a real human should ever check it. News feeds, which are readily available online, are often used because they automatically update and can make a site seem fresh without a publisher having to touch it.
- They’re generating millions of impressions a day but their global Alexa rank is in the millions. A website with that much real volume will be ranked as a more popular site on Alexa.
- Private domain registration. While there are legitimate reasons to hide the registration information of a domain, many ghost sites that we’ve seen have used generic information in their domain registries or register through a company to hide their information.
- Cookie-cutter templates. We’ve seen several domains that all use the same template with different content injected into them. The faster fraudsters can set up a website, the more money they can make.
The RTB Marketplace
This is not meant to downplay the risk of ad fraud or delegitimize marketers’ concerns. This is about getting to the root of the problem and painting a clearer picture of the marketplace and the state of ad fraud. Too many good publishers are getting blamed for the actions of a few fraudulent players. The high percentages of fake impressions often reported do not accurately represent the market as a whole.