Online video advertising’s bot problem

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Alongside death and taxes, you can add one more certainty in life: bots.

Like germs, they are everywhere and to some degree, unavoidable. You can only protect yourself so much.

But if you’re investing in online video advertising, new research suggests that you may be paying for a lot of bots.

According to a new report by White Ops Inc., which specializes in botnet detection and prevention, global advertisers are on track to lose $6.3 billion (U.S.) to bots in 2015 — and a disproportionate amount will be lost to video ads.

In the White Ops study The Bot Baseline: Fraud in Digital Advertising, which was sponsored by the Association National Advertisers, bots accounted for 23% of all video impressions observed, more than double the rates in display ads. To arrive at the potential cost of the problem, White Ops applied the bot levels it observed to the estimated $8.3 billion spent globally on video ads, plus the $40 billion spent globally on display ads.

Essentially, online video advertisers should assume they’re paying on average 23% of their campaign budgets to fraud.

An unequal tax

Although that’s a steep price, it could be even worse. White Ops details that across the study participants — a diverse selection of brands from 36 companies in nine verticals — bot traffic ranged from 2% to 100% in video placements.

One CPG participant that bought video advertising on a publicly traded video supply-side platform (SSP) experienced bot levels of 62%.

But premium placement is no protection, either. For one video ad campaign, a direct buy at a premium publisher resulted in 98% bots: fewer than 100 humans viewed the video ad out of a total of almost 4,000 total video impressions.

In addition to bot traffic, video ads are also vulnerable to ad fraud in the form of surreptitious video autoplay adware. “Some of the highest impression-volume video ad campaigns took huge hits from bot traffic as well as from video autoplay adware,” the report notes. In one example, video autoplay adware was triggered via a pop-under window visible to the user — when the user closed it, the adware continued to run in the background without the user’s knowledge:

“The adware changed the volume for itself to zero while playing audio, leaving volume controls for other software untouched. After the user closed the pop-up, the adware continued playing ads with silenced audio. After restart and login of the user’s computer, the adware software autoplayed video ads regardless of whether the user reopened the adware site or application. The adware’s autoplay functionality was unsanctioned and uncontrollable by the user.”

One video ad campaign was delivered via 10 million adware impressions from a single adware trafficker within the first week of the study. Of the campaign‘s nearly 90 million total impressions, only 7% could be ascribed to actual humans.

In all, 181 campaigns were observed over 60 days, measuring a total of 5.5 billion impressions on 3 million domains.

Protecting your budget

How can an online video advertiser protect itself? The tax analogy is apt: savvy accountants can find loopholes and ways to reduce the tax bill.

White Ops notes that media sellers are often the victim of the botnet operators, not the cause: “Some links in the bot supply chain are unaware of the bots in their traffic and do not intend to profit illicitly, while others actively encourage and concentrate bot traffic to increase profits.…Bot impressions originate from malicious bot suppliers and pass through both legitimate and phantom layer elements of the digital advertising ecosystem.”

White Ops recommends four steps:

  1. Continuous fraud monitoring
  2. Implementing bot detection to ensure sites are not sourcing traffic
  3. Monitoring for all types of ad fraud, including adware and bot traffic
  4. Include contracts terms and conditions about non-human traffic, and requiring publishers to identify all third-party sources of traffic

Unfortunately, some bot traffic is inevitable. But online video advertisers need to be extra vigilant to ensure that their campaign budgets are primarily spent on real people.

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Andrew Wahl

Andrew Wahl

Senior Content Strategist at Dash Digital Group
Toronto-area writer, editor and digital marketer who creates content with Dash Digital Group. Former senior writer and columnist with Canadian Business magazine.
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