Industry’s anti-fraud initiative, Ads.txt, slowly gains traction with publishers, helped by Google’s push
Out of 500 top sites, a MarTech Today analysis reveals that only 34 have uploaded Ads.txt files. But the number should swell with Google’s support and ad buyers’ enforcement.
Let’s say you want to pick up an authentic NFL jersey to rep your team right this season. You could buy it from the NFL’s official online store, but you see that ReelDeelNFLJerzees.net is offering one for less money.
You like the price, but not the idea of being played for a fool. Wouldn’t it be nice if the NFL published a list of authorized retailers so you could see if ReelDeelNFLJerzees.net is, in fact, the real deal?
Same goes for brands buying ads programmatically. And fortunately for them, in late June, the IAB Tech Lab rolled out a way for them to verify that a third-party company selling space on a publisher’s site is actually authorized to do so. It’s called Ads.txt.
As the name suggests, Ads.txt involves a simple text file uploaded to a publisher’s site that lists the programmatic supply-side platforms that are official sellers and/or resellers of a publisher’s inventory, complete with the publisher’s ID for buyers to match. According to publishers like The New York Times, Dotdash (née About.com), Forbes and Vox Media, creating and uploading an Ads.txt file is a quick and easy process.
Getting on board
“The hardest part for a publisher is ensuring that it has a complete list of the unique IDs its sellers and resellers use to identify its inventory,” a spokesperson for The New York Times told me.
Forbes added an Ads.txt file to its site in mid-August. “It took us about a week and a half or two weeks to prepare it because we had to reach out and make sure we had everybody’s seat number correctly listed and that we’re not missing anyone,” said Achir Kalra, senior VP of revenue operations at Forbes Media.
Dotdash was able to compile a list of its programmatic sales partners for all six of its sites in a single day. “Anybody who’s on the programmatic ad ops side would have that [information] on hand. And when we talked to Amazon and Google, they were actually able to provide us with the information that we needed if we were confused,” said Dotdash revenue product manager Jen Sun.
“It’s not so much a matter of timing as getting it prioritized into the workflow. It’s a relatively simple but elegant solution. I don’t see necessarily any reason why it would take too much time to get it implemented. It’s really straightforward,” said David Pond, director of programmatic operations at Vox Media, which implemented the standard across its portfolio of sites on August 7.
But then why are so many publishers slow to follow suit?
Slow adoption so far
Of the 500 most-trafficked sites in the US, according to Amazon-owned web analytics service Alexa, only 34 have uploaded an Ads.txt file, according to an analysis conducted by MarTech Today on Thursday.
That seems like a small number. Okay, it is a small number. But then consider the publishers included in that number: The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN, CBS, Vox Media, Dotdash, Forbes, Business Insider, Gizmodo Media Group, Wenner Media and Tronc. A majority of publishers have yet to upload Ads.txt files, but many major publishers have, and for good reason.
“This is going to take fraud out of the market in a relatively simple, elegant, easy way. Why would we not want to do this?” said Dotdash CEO Neil Vogel.
However, several major media companies have yet to upload Ads.txt files to their sites. As of this writing, those sites include Condé Nast’s GQ.com, NewYorker.com and Vogue.com; Hearst’s Elle.com, Esquire.com and MarieClaire.com (though Cosmopolitan.com does feature Ads.txt); Mic.com; Oath’s AOL.com, HuffingtonPost.com, TechCrunch.com and Yahoo.com; Time Inc.’s People.com, SI.com and Time.com; Turner’s CNN.com and BleacherReport.com; and Vice.com.
There are understandable reasons why publishers would take their time implementing Ads.txt. Their inventory could be available in so many places that it’s hard to keep track, and the publisher doesn’t want to leave off sellers or resellers and lose revenue as a result, although CBS was able to corral CBSNews.com’s list of 107 sellers and resellers and CNET.com’s list of 106.
Or they could fear the repercussions of disclosing relationships with ill-reputed programmatic sellers. Or, more likely for the aforementioned top-tier publishers, implementing Ads.txt isn’t yet urgent enough to justify overturning or accelerating their planned workflows.
“We believe this is an important industry standard and will help combat a major source of fraud in the marketplace. The scale at which Turner’s premium content brands operate requires careful implementation; we’re currently working with the IAB [Interactive Advertising Bureau] to compile the necessary data to create the Ads.txt files, and we plan on deploying them across Turner’s digital properties shortly after,” said a Turner spokesperson.
“We support industry-wide transparency and trust, and played a key role in advising the IAB on bringing ads.txt to market. We’ve been doing our due diligence on the back end and intend to have implementation of ads.txt across AOL and Yahoo properties complete before the end of Q3,” said a spokesperson for Oath, the division of Verizon that houses AOL and Yahoo.
Meanwhile, Vice plans to upload an Ads.txt file in the coming weeks, according to a company spokesperson.
A Mic spokesperson declined to comment. Spokespeople for Condé Nast and Hearst did not respond to requests for comment sent on Tuesday.
Enforcement is coming
While uploading Ads.txt files may not currently be an urgent priority for many publishers, it will be soon.
“I got confirmation, like maybe last month, that it’s actually going to start being enforced by the end of the quarter or early Q4 … meaning buyers will specifically stop buying from places not listed on this [Ads.txt] file,” said Forbes’ Kalra.
That enforcement is expected to happen in two phases. In phase one, media buyers seeking space on an Ads.txt-enabled site will stop buying from networks that don’t appear in the file, said Kalra. “In the second phase, once enough people have enforced it, they’ll probably stop buying from sources that have not disclosed this file. That’s a much later phase.”
Google accelerates support
One company not waiting for the later phase is Google. The company has been an active supporter of publishers’ adopting the standard, according to publishing execs.
“They have been more of a silent partner but, behind the scenes, quite big in this initiative. They reached out immediately, provided us the code [for Vox Media to add to its Ads.txt file for inventory sold through Google] and, as soon as we implemented that, we got the pat on the back. It was kind of like, ‘This is what we wanted all along,’” said Pond.
“Google reached out to us probably two or three weeks ago. They are running an experiment on their end to do the crawling, and I think they eventually want to come out with some findings as a way to push the marketplace,” said Sun.
Google’s involvement shouldn’t be so surprising. The company was part of the IAB Tech Lab’s OpenRTB Working Group that developed the Ads.txt specification. More to the point, Google’s ad exchange is a major source of programmatic inventory for advertisers and a significant revenue stream for the search giant. Of the 34 aforementioned top publishers to have uploaded Ads.txt files, 31 have Google on their lists.
“We can’t force people to adopt, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it easy in terms of providing information to publishers that they need to adopt,” said Pooja Kapoor, head of global strategy, programmatic and user trust at Google.
In addition to providing publishers with information for their Ads.txt files, Google has consulted with people on both the buy and sell sides to identify any barriers to adoption. On the sell side, the most common barrier is the concern that adoption and eventual enforcement by advertisers might negatively impact a publisher’s revenue if they start losing money from resellers they hadn’t known about. On the buy side, it’s the question of how enforcement might impact performance for advertisers who primarily care about clicks and costs.
“If you’re running ads that are going to shoddy sites but people are clicking on them or there’s automated clicking or bots and the reports look great, [then you might think] ‘Wait, I may have to pay more to get authorized inventory but that doesn’t help my performance metrics,’ so you’re kind of happy with the way things are,” Kapoor said.
But the way things are may not stay that way for much longer as more publishers get on board. Google has developed an internal crawler to check the sites that it works with for Ads.txt files as a way to gauge the level of adoption. It will also be able to identify the publishers that may need help getting set up and reach out to the publishers that have uploaded Ads.txt files to check in about how things are going. In July, Google’s crawler had found Ads.txt files on roughly 300 top-level domains; that number has since grown to roughly 1,400 top-level domains since then, according to Kapoor.
“Transparency in the supply chain is key to maintaining trust in the programmatic environment. If programmatic is going to be the preferred buying method going forward … and not just have the ‘remnant’ budgets go through and actually have the real brand dollars come through, then we need to build the trust. And I personally feel that Ads.txt is the best way to do that,” Kapoor said.
A rising tide lifts ad rates
As the number of publishers adopting Ads.txt grows, so may their revenues “because that’s going to make rates go up and flush a lot of garbage out of the ecosystem,” said Vogel.
If advertisers begin to only buy publishers’ inventory either from the publisher directly or from the programmatic sellers and resellers included in a publisher’s Ads.txt file, that will eliminate the companies trying to arbitrage publishers’ inventory by buying the space and flipping it for a profit. Those unauthorized resellers end up short-changing publishers because they can package inventory in a way that makes advertisers think they’re getting a company like Forbes’ inventory for much cheaper than market value.
“My long-term vision with this is to see it increase the programmatic CPM,” said Kalra, explaining that the site hopes to convert the people who think they are buying Forbes inventory, but find that they’re not using an authorized reseller.
Because these buyers want to buy Forbes, said Kalra, “they will come to Forbes, have direct conversations with us and increase our demand and hence raise our prices.”