Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was preparing to offer refunds to advertisers whose ads had appeared on sites with no legitimate traffic but who were nonetheless charged as if there had been traffic. The problem with the refunds was that Google itself could only refund a small portion of the total because much of the money from the advertisers went to ad exchanges also involved in the transactions. Google has now announced the refund program publicly, and said that several major exchanges will also join in offering refunds, which should return a much more substantial part of the total payment. As also reported earlier by the Journal, Google is also going to be participating in a program called ads.txt, which makes it much easier to validate sites claiming to have large amounts of traffic and therefore cuts down on ad fraud, which should be a big help in this specific type of fraud, even as others persist.
Uber is suing ad agency Fetch over what it says is fraudulent reporting of ads placed and clicked on, and resulting downloads of its apps by those who never actually saw ads placed by Fetch. Uber is withholding some of the money it owes Fetch while pursuing the lawsuit for a rather larger sum of $40 million, a little over half of what it’s paid Fetch in total over the last three years. Presumably Uber feels it has decent evidence to support its claims, given that – as Bloomberg points out in the article linked below – it’s not a particularly litigious company despite being a target of others’ lawsuits frequently. Fetch, meanwhile, has spoken in the past about the issue of ad fraud and the challenge of identifying and reducing it, something that’s by no means unique to the company in the broader world of online advertising. Ad fraud continues to be one of several big issues facing ad-based companies and complicating their relationships with brands and buyers.
Update: On September 27, 2017, Phunware, one of the mobile ad firms Fetch used to place ads, is now suing Uber over non-payment, as the latter is withholding payment from Fetch during the lawsuit. Uber says it feels Phunware is one of the parties which engaged in the fraud and will present evidence of this in court.
Business Insider reports that Google has been working with a number of big publishers to detect and combat a form of ad fraud known as spoofing, where ad inventory purporting to be available on a major site is in fact merely offering space on little visited sites spoofing those domains. It’s apparently found that there’s lots of this activity going on, and at the same time is pushing an industry standard called ads.txt which aims to get each publisher to host a text file listing the ad exchanges with which it’s working and thereby make it easier to establish which inventory is legitimate and which isn’t. Ad fraud in various forms is one of several big issues which threaten to undermine the online ad industry, along with viewability and measurement issues, ads showing up against the wrong content, and so on. Cutting down on spoofing would go some way to reducing at least this one form of ad fraud.
via Business Insider
More Fraudulent Comments Submitted to FCC on Net Neutrality (May 29, 2017)
I had an earlier comment on a report that many fraudulent comments had been submitted to the FCC over its proposed net neutrality action, though the vast majority of those were against the policy proposals. Now, it’s emerged that there have also been some number of identical comments submitted in support of the proposals, at least some of which are being submitted in the names of individuals who have publicly opposed them. Those individuals have quite reasonably asked that those fraudulent comments be removed from the site, and also that the FCC investigate the fraud (something which, as far as I am aware, the FCC isn’t planning to do with the earlier comments either). There’s also an accusation – completely unsubstantiated as far as I can tell – that Comcast is somehow behind these comments. This FCC process has been dogged from the start by “astroturfing” – the process of either faking or at least dramatically magnifying apparent public comments on a controversial topic, through a combination of legitimate streamlining methods like form letters and online submission forms and illegitimate ones like these fake comments. That, in turn, seriously muddies the water in terms of what real people actually believe about all this – the only survey I’ve seen on this was sponsored by the industry and predictably showed that people broadly oppose regulation on the Internet but without being very specific about net neutrality. As I’ve said from the start, though, this FCC doesn’t seem particularly likely to bend even in the fact of significant (real) public opposition.
via Ars Technica
Twitter Opens Advertising Analytics to Third Parties (Apr 10, 2017)
As per the Marc Pritchard interview I covered earlier today, many advertisers are still concerned that they’re essentially being defrauded when placing ads online, because they don’t know which ads are really being seen by human beings as opposed to bots. One of the big requests these brands have had for ad platforms is increased outside auditing by independent firms which have standardized measures for things like viewability and can compare metrics across multiple platforms. We’ve already seen Facebook and Google open up both for outside auditing and for measurement by third parties, and Twitter is now joining them. Twitter’s analytics around advertising have been an area of weakness, so even nothing here directly improves Twitter’s own tools, open up to third parties should at least help some advertisers feel better about the data they’ll get back when advertising on Twitter.
Amazon’s Third-Party Sellers Hit By Hackers – WSJ (Apr 10, 2017)
The bigger you get in almost any technology business, the more hackers will try to find ways to infiltrate that business and skim off some of the money. That now appears to be happening at substantial scale with Amazon’s third party sellers, many of which are likely relatively unsophisticated from a computer security perspective. The hackers are engaging in at least two separate behaviors, in some cases merely redirecting sellers’ proceeds into different bank accounts, and in others taking over dormant seller accounts and posting fraudulent products. Though it sounds like Amazon is making both buyers and sellers whole, it could be doing more to prevent the issues from occurring in the first, place, not least by requiring two-factor authentication for seller accounts. Though there’s often reluctance to force 2FA on users in the consumer space, these aren’t consumers, and the amounts of money involved make that an entirely sensible precaution. Given how much of Amazon’s total sales goes through third party sellers at this point, this could become a massive issue if it doesn’t do more to lock things down.
YouTube Cracks Down on Fake Channels by Setting 10,000-View Minimum Before Serving Ads – Variety (Apr 6, 2017)
As I’ve said essentially from the beginning of the advertiser boycotts of YouTube, one easy way for the company to resolve at least some of the issues would be to raise thresholds on the channels and videos that could carry ads, and it looks like YouTube is now taking baby steps in this direction, albeit in the apparent context of impersonation rather than other content issues. Channels will now have to earn 10,000 views of their videos before they can fully join the YouTube Partner Program and begin serving ads, which should help weed out some troublesome channels before they get to the point of monetization. As of right now, that should have only a tiny effect on the ability of creators in general to monetize their YouTube activity – 10,000 views generate such a minimal amount of ad revenue that this isn’t going to hurt anyone’s ability to make money. As long as the threshold stays at this low level, then, this might be a relatively painless way to introduce at least a low bar to monetization on YouTube.
Almost 20% of digital ad spending could be wasted – Axios (Mar 22, 2017)
The first thing I thought of when I saw this headline was the famous quote from John Wanamaker about half his advertising dollars being wasted, but not knowing which half (and Sara Fischer told me she had included a reference to it, but removed it for brevity’s sake). The difference here is that the “waste” referred to isn’t poorly targeted advertising, but fraud and “invalid traffic” – in other words, ads that no-one sees at all but which are nonetheless recorded as having been seen and therefore paid for. Fraud – especially in programmatic, where 29% of dollars are apparently wasted – is one of several big issues for online advertising at the moment, and it isn’t going away soon, even though the authors of this report have a proposed solution.