What every advertiser needs to know about the threat of URL masking

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Move over, bots. URL masking is climbing the ranks of common fraud in the digital advertising industry.

URL masking is used to trick advertisers into running their ads on sites with illicit or stolen content. Though these sites typically generate a lot of traffic, thereby boosting chargeable impressions to the advertiser, they often don’t generate much ad revenue.

Estimates of how many digital impressions land on these fraudulent, masked sites range anywhere from 23% to as high as 50%, urging industry experts to declare the trend an epidemic. With more and more advertiser dollars unknowingly going to these channels, the problem is only expected to increase — a concern which is substantiated by reports that this kind of fraud has begun to permeate video, and even mobile platforms.

“We see it as a major threat to the validity and the integrity of the exchanges out there,” said John Murphy of ad-tech company OpenX to AdvertisingAge.

Advertising to bots or dummy websites is a waste of marketing dollars, and unfortunately advertisers often don’t realize the fraud until it’s too late. This has left buyers wondering if real people are actually seeing their ads and, if so, where they’re being seen.

Not only small businesses are falling victim to URL masking. In October, well-known brands such as T-Mobile, Anheuser-Busch and BMW were conned as well. These industry giants thought their ads were running on a legitimate website, lavishcar.com. Instead they were actually running on thedarewall.com, a site which is reported to have received multiple copyright infringement allegations.

“While many URLs are sourced from torrent or adult content sites, domain masking can extend to legitimate sites who are trying to access higher CPM bids for better known sites,” Scott Meyer, CEO of anonymous data collection agency Ghostery, tells AdvertisingAge.

With the massive financial implications that URL masking poses to advertisers, the digital advertising industry has responded both swiftly and visibly. Exchange Wire reports that in 2014 the Interactive Advertising Bureau created a working group to focus on ad fraud, and 30 national advertisers and members of the Association of National Advertisers embarked on a joint study to examine the extent of the problem.

Many companies have developed their own solutions to root out bots, uncover fraudulent publishers and verify ad placement. Ad Exchanger reports that OpenX and Rubicon Project are two of the ad exchanges which have cleaned house recently by stepping up screening of nonhuman and otherwise false traffic. Platforms such as Google’s DoubleClick Ad Exchange and Casale Media have long focused on inventory hygiene, which has reduced their rate of fraud to less than 1 percent.

When it comes down to it, transparency is the only reliable way to restore the confidence of online advertisers and minimize the risk of wasted impressions. The best way to achieve this is to use exchanges which specialize in direct publisher relations like Rubicon and Google. If this is not possible for your advertising strategy, then look for publishers that have the ability to screen their traffic, and verify the sources of your digital impressions.

Flickr photo via user Descrier

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