Bad as they are, bots are only part of the picture when it comes to digital advertising fraud. Perpetrated by unscrupulous publishers, display fraud encompasses a number of simpler—but still frustratingly commonplace—techniques used to serve your ads in a way that generates utterly worthless impressions and/or clicks.
Digital Advertising Fraud - Types of Display Fraud
- Pixel Stuffing
- Ad Stacking
- “Fat Finger” Fraud
Pixel Stuffing - The Incredible Shrinking Ad
Usually orchestrated by publishers who want to collect revenue from advertisers, but who also want to provide viewers with an “ad free” website experience. They do this by serving display ads not in standard IAB containers, but in a container that’s just 1 pixel x 1 pixel in size—invisible to the naked eye.
Ad Stacking - Hiding In Plain Sight
Publishers “re-sell” the same ad real-estate multiple times over, layering ad on top of ad. It's like selling the same billboard to three different brands—then re-painting over the image each time. Sure, there are technically three different ads up there, but only one of them is even viewable.
Off-Page - Out of Sight, Out of Mind
This is exactly what it sounds like: the ad is served—but it’s served on an area of the site or app that visitors cannot see.
“Fat Finger” Fraud - The Accidental Click
You've probably run across this phenomenon yourself more than a few times while navigating a site or app. You click to go onto the next page of an article—only some jerk has placed an ad so impossibly close to the "next" button that you accidentally click on that, instead.
This strategy takes advantage of the “fat finger” problem with mobile advertising (basically, how easy it is to accidentally click on a mobile ad due to the small screen size of smartphones) to generate an artificial boost to click through rates. The publisher serves the ad not in standard page locations, but right next to an on-screen navigation button—making it very difficult for the consumer to avoid clicking on the ad, whether he wants to or not.
Recognizing Display Fraud
A few weeks ago, I did a post on how to reduce online advertising fraud, and many of the same strategies apply. Because display fraud is used to artificially increase impressions and clicks, fraudulent publishers often report significantly skewed performance. Remember, average industry CTR (Click Through Rate) is about .4%, peaking at about .6% if everything goes well.
Anything astronomically higher or lower than that, and you’ll definitely want to take a closer look at the publisher. Unnaturally high CTR’s can imply Fat Finger Fraud, and unnaturally low CTR’s (Lots of impressions served that no one is clicking on) can imply pixel stuffing, stacking, or other viewability problems.
As with all fraud, the best defense is a combination of vigilance, transparency, and healthy skepticism. So choose an ad network offering premium inventory and transparent site lists, and make sure that your reporting solution is quick, thorough, and powerful.