Thursday 26 April 2018

Steve Dempsey: The joy of .txt in fighting bad ads

'One area that needs to be tackled in particular is unauthorised reselling of ads, also known as spoofing.' (stock image)
'One area that needs to be tackled in particular is unauthorised reselling of ads, also known as spoofing.' (stock image)
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Earlier this year a study commissioned by WPP ad agencies The&Partnership estimated that ad fraud cost the online advertising industry $12.5bn in 2016. This eye-watering figure is more than double the $7.2bn the Association of National Advertisers estimated would be lost to fraudulent traffic and clicks manufactured by bots.

What's worse, the study predicted the number could rise to $16.4bn this year.

Programmatic ads are often seen as the culprit. According to Integral Ad Science, nearly 9pc of digital ads delivered via programmatic channels are fraudulent. The number for direct deals is closer to 2pc. Why is programmatic the fall guy? Because detecting ad fraud has proved problematic across the programmatic supply chain due to the number of intermediaries and limited transparency. P&G's Marc Pritchard has referred to this supply chain as "murky at best, and fraudulent at worst".

One area that needs to be tackled in particular is unauthorised reselling of ads, also known as spoofing. This is where buyers pay for ads on premium sites, but their ads appear elsewhere. It's online equivalent of paying for 48 sheets in prime locations, and getting a handful of leaflets.

Google has reportedly been running tests to gauge the size of the problem with a handful of US media outlets like CBS, and The New York Times. The tests involve pausing the sale of all programmatic ad inventory for up to 15 minutes at a time. During that window they then see if any of their inventory is available on programmatic ad exchanges. Shock horror, Google and co found that video and display advertising on the sites that were closed for business still seemed to be available on multiple ad exchanges.

So what's to be done? Well, the IAB Technology Laboratory, an independent research and development consortium has an answer. It's called ads.txt. Ads stands for Authorized Digital Sellers, because everything's got to be an acronym in modern marketing. Here's how it works. Publishers use a text file to specify all the companies that can sell ads on their site. Alanna Gombert, SVP, Technology & Ad Operations, IAB, and General Manager, IAB Tech Lab, says ads.txt is the advertising equivalent of Robots.txt. This is a file that tells search engines how to make sense of webpages.

"We thought 'let's create a crawler for the buyers to pull the right inventory side destinations down'," she says. "So in the case of Business Insider who have been very vocal about this, we'll say to them that buyers can pull the text file and can only buy Business Insider inventory from those people. If they see it elsewhere, they know it's not authorised by the publisher.

"Ads.txt really is meant to ensure that all inventory suppliers that are in the market for a particular publisher are declared. But the macro problem we're trying to solve is supply chain; how do you have a robust and transparent supply chain, how do you think about the lines of fraud that enter the supply chain, how do you track it how do you catch it how do you stop it."

Gombert gives Google's recent experiment the thumbs up. "It proves the point that if someone turns off their ad server and there's ad inventory still serving, then that's a problem," she says. "They took it upon themselves to test the efficacy and the health of their marketplace. All of the exchanges have come to us to talk about inventory quality and fraud metrics and all of them have taken very serious measures - even before ads.txt. But spoofing right now really is top of mind."

Ads.txt was launched in May and has got the seal of approval from advertisers, agencies and exchanges according to the IAB. AppNexus has said it's looking forward to the widespread adoption of ads.txt. Amnet's Co-CEO Art Muldoon has called it a "valuable enhancement to the programmatic media ecosystem". RocketFuel has said ads.txt represents a step forward in buyers' and sellers' ability to verify inventory. And Google is also on board. "We believe it's crucial to provide buyers and publishers with a clear and safe method to benefit from programmatic channels, and we'll be working with publishers to help them create their Ads.txt files as soon as possible," said Scott Spencer, Google's Director of Sustainable Ads.

Publishers have also been positive, according to Gombert. "Publishers I've spoken to love it," she says. "It gives them control over their supply chain. It's super simple. They can say: 'OK here's where we're selling our inventory, if you're buying from elsewhere, caveat emptor. This is not us. We didn't do these deals, so don't come back to us and complain'."

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