Combating fraud and poor quality must be on the front burner at Advertising Week

by John Murphy, Head of Marketplace Quality, OpenX

When advertising leaders gather in New York City for Advertising Week later this month, the one issue topping every publisher and brand priority list must be the need for a transparent conversation about the technology challenges threatening the long-term health of their advertising businesses.

The need for this conversation has never been more apparent. Advertisers and publishers alike are facing a virtual arms race in their efforts to combat fraud and improve ad quality on a massively expanding global scale. While many in the industry have made good strides in recent years to catch up on quality and fraud, the era of header bidding and containers has ushered in another immense wave of change that many are simply ill-prepared to manage. The result is a near-perfect storm enabling bad actors to profit at the expense of digital advertising.

As a company that has invested significantly to help our partners combat the ongoing quality arms race, we have identified three critical and rapidly accelerating challenges that our industry needs to move to the forefront of our collective agenda:

1. Death by a thousand cuts: Excessive third-party tags are killing the user experience, but publishers might not even know that they exist.

One of the consequences of the proliferation of header bidding is that every time a publisher adds a new partner, they’re also adding new tags that will run in the background of their web pages. This can rapidly get out of control as the header bidding partners bring additional tags to the page to call their own partners, who may then add even more tags to call their partners.

Through one of our proprietary technologies, we help publishers gain a total view of what is happening on their site. We recently looked under the hood of a major publishing partner and found that they had a whopping 35,000 third-party tags running across its website with more than 1,000 tags found on a single page. The publisher was completely unaware of the vast majority of these tags.

These excessive tags have a number of concerning implications for media companies.For starters, the more tags on a web page, the longer it will take to load, driving up latency that can cause visitors to give up and go somewhere else. Perhaps a bigger problem is that publishers largely have no idea what these tags are actually doing. In many cases, they’re scraping data about the user without the publisher’s knowledge. Since user data is one of a publisher’s most valuable resources, they’re essentially giving away a precious asset. Even worse, data leakage exposes publishers to privacy concerns that could ultimately drive away their audience and invite unwanted regulatory scrutiny.

The mass proliferation of tags – many providing little to no value to the publisher – has occurred under the nose of the industry because we lack both an independent tool that provides a 360-degree view of site performance and because we have not had a uniform approach to managing overall site performance. This must change going forward. Publishers should be empowered with total transparency into what is happening on their site, and they must also have the right tools to measure and manage tag proliferation.

2. Bad experiences are on the rise: Publishers are struggling to identify and prevent terrible ads

Publishers working with multiple header bidding partners might be serving creative coming from eight, 10 or 15 different sources. This makes it extremely difficult to diagnose and address issues related to ad quality quickly and effectively, leading to a poor experience that drives users away from a publisher’s content.

Just think, in a world where publishers are delivering hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of impressions each day, there are always going to be ads that damage the user experience, either because they contain malware, take too long to load, or conflict with the publisher’s brand image. The problem right now is that with so many different partners, publishers are unable to determine which exchange partner delivered the bad ad. As a result, finding the responsible partner to fix the problem right away is time-consuming and error-prone, exposing users to a poor ad experience for hours at a time. Developing a universal approach to real-time advertising quality analysis – and management – must be a priority going forward.

3. Countering Counterfeit Inventory: Fraudsters are misrepresenting publisher inventory and damaging their reputations in the process.

As programmatic advertising has evolved, publishers are putting more and more technology partners between themselves and the advertisers who purchase their ads. In recent years, fraudsters have been using this distance as cover to misrepresent publisher inventory on the programmatic market without the publisher’s knowledge.

This distance has led to a serious and growing threat known as domain spoofing. Domain spoofing occurs when a malicious seller lists an impression as belonging to a premium site, even though the ad will actually appear on a less reputable publication. This tactic not only robs publishers of ad spend that was meant for them, but it hurts the value of their inventory moving forward. If inventory marked as belonging to the top-tier publisher (but actually directs to a counterfeit site) performs poorly, advertisers will lower their bids the next time they try to purchase legitimate impressions from that publisher. Domain spoofing further depresses the value of authentic inventory by flooding the market with counterfeit inventory.

Counterfeiting is not the only challenge in this space. Another big problem is the unauthorized resale of a publisher’s inventory. Publishers typically agree to sell their impression through a select group of ad exchanges, all of whom promise to uphold certain brand safety standards. However, this promise is thwarted when multiple third-party exchanges basically “wash” an impression through multiple resellers, only to re-sell the impression at a markup behind the publisher’s back. Because the unauthorized seller has no contract with the publisher, they’re free to sell the impression to brands that the publisher might not want on their site. This kind of unauthorized use can also harm advertisers, as resellers will frequently stuff a more expensive video ad into an ad slot meant for a display unit for example. For publishers, these two tactics threaten to not only harm their own reputations, but they also undermine advertiser trust in the digital marketplace at large.

As media companies prepare to meet with their partners over the coming days, it’s important to remember that advertising is in a technology arms race that demands collaborative and innovative technology solutions. After all, when you’re working with trillions of impressions,  thousands of tags, and dozens of exchanges, a manual patchwork process simply isn’t going to provide the protection and security publishers need. Only by working closely with their technology partners can publishers develop the powerful tools they need to confront the sizeable challenges that stand before them.

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