Putting a stop to click fraud
Where do we stand in the battle against invalid clicks that plagues online advertising? Columnist Mary Wallace sets the scene and outlines steps being taken.
When advertisers purchase placements on programmatic platforms or with advertising engines like Google and Bing, they expect that investment to yield results.
They don’t necessarily expect every engagement (click) to generate a new client. But they do expect that the clicks are coming from potential customers who are honestly interested in their product or service — not from bots or people hired solely to click ads.
The subject of controversy and increasing litigation, click fraud drives misbegotten revenue into advertising networks and publishers, as well as to the perpetrator behind the click. At the same time, click fraud creates a myriad of problems for the businesses that expect relevant human audience members to be the only ones clicking.
The global click fraud problem is growing. A study conducted by ad The&Partnership, m/SIX and ad verification company Adloox estimates advertisers wasted $16.4 billion to fraudulent traffic and clicks in 2017. Other research shows sourced traffic — such as that from PPC or other ad campaigns — is three times as likely to result in fraud, as compared with non-sourced traffic.
The impact of ad fraud
Wasted media spend is just the start of the damage. Strong, well-thought-out campaigns can be canceled when the conversion rate is reduced to dismal through fraudulent clicks that don’t result in a viable conversion percentage. Optimizing campaigns becomes an exercise in futility when conversion metrics become useless.
Daily budgets waste away, as fraudulent clicks drain daily limit settings. When this happens, your competitor’s advertisements, with keyword bids that may be lower than yours, suddenly start surfacing.
Useless leads enter campaigns and CRMs. Companies then apply additional wasted resources to tracking down and serving more ad impressions to sham prospects and cleaning databases with invalid records.
At its worst, click fraud impacts businesses’ revenue streams and new customer acquisition programs based off of PPC or retargeting campaigns. In recent years, though, increased focus has thankfully raised awareness as new proactive measures make it possible to combat the issue.
“Good work is already being done by many, including the ANA, IAB, ISBA and the IPA, as well as the recent combined efforts of TAG (Trustworthy Accountability Group) in the US and JICWEB (the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards) in the UK – but these new figures show that we need to move further, much faster. And there are concrete steps we should all be taking to make that happen,” said Johnny Hornby, founder of The&Partnership, in a press release.
Pressure mounting on advertisers
As the big ad platforms attempt to maintain pace in a virtual arms race with the fraudsters, the onus falls squarely on advertisers to proactively impede click fraud. “Clients…need to be willing to get themselves off the drug of cheap digital media and invest in proper brand protection,” said Hornby, noting that his own agency and various others refuse to buy media for clients that don’t commit to “robust pre-bid ad verification.”
These ad verification services — there are many — add a “click fraud firewall” to your marketing technology stack. Integrating directly with your Google AdWords and Bing Ads accounts to monitor clicks and collect trending data, they use smart algorithms to block fraudulent clicks and hide ads from “click farms,” bots, competitors and ex-employees who are clicking for deceitful reasons.
Beyond contracting with ad verification services, there are a few other tech-based solutions that can help. Internal reporting on the IP address, click timestamp, action timestamp, and user agent can be used to develop a dashboard and process for finding IP addresses that drive a high volume of click timestamps but no onsite action. While the concept of monitoring website traffic is a standard best practice, this twist on analyzing the reports provides the mechanism for spotting malicious visits.
Excluding locations with poorer countries and their respective languages from target audience is another option, as oftentimes “click farms” are based in developing nations. In the same way, competitors’ ZIP code or city can also be excluded from the target audience.
Another option — target strictly high-value sites for display ads. Some low-quality sites are hotbeds of click fraud, as unscrupulous webmasters have been known to manipulate their own ad engagements in the name of larger payouts. Bigger players with publisher networks like Google and Facebook provide the ability to set up ad campaigns or block ad campaigns on the sites you specify, thereby allowing you to avoid sites where unethical revenue generating may occur.
An industry fighting the good fight
In June, three Chinese men arrested in Bangkok acknowledged that they were operating a “click farm,” using hundreds of cellphones and several hundred thousand SIM cards to run up “likes” and views using fake accounts on WeChat, the Chinese mobile, social application.
There have been other attempts to clean up shop with arrests and even virtual sting operations in recent years. Microsoft Corporation and Symantec Corporation disabled a two-year-old network of 1.8 million remotely controlled PCs — a botnet — in 2013 that was behind click fraud valued at least $1 million per year.
Today, both Google and Yahoo accept and investigate electronic traffic quality reports. Any time malicious clicks are detected, they are labeled as “invalid” and credits are issued to the account.
And Google has created a sophisticated detection system that starts with automated filters. Advanced algorithms detect and filter out invalid clicks in real time, before advertisers are even charged.
Unfortunately, legal means aren’t sufficient to stop click fraud, in part because it’s perpetrated from jurisdictions all around the world. Even scarier is that many marketers from small companies are unaware of the issue, but players in the space hope that increased awareness leads to technological and other solutions being employed.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.