Fake Traffic Is Causing a Crisis for Advertisers | Adweek Fake Traffic Is Causing a Crisis for Advertisers | Adweek
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The Amount of Questionable Online Traffic Will Blow Your Mind

The World Wide rip-off

But a deeper examination is revealing. According to an analysis conducted by a Web-traffic expert who did not want to be identified citing confidentiality agreements, all these sites, whether wittingly or not, have some level of “bogus traffic.” Research companies regularly discount traffic from Web publishers before reporting data like unique users or impressions because such traffic looks questionable. And even they don’t catch everything. In this case, an Internet security expert suspects these sites (Break, College Humor, etc.) might all be purchasing traffic from the same vendor, which is likely employing bots.

Adweek reached out to Ben Edelman, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard, who has done extensive research on Internet architecture, advertising, traffic patterns and fraud detection, and who has built a proprietary Web crawler he uses to detect curious activity. Edelman says via his proprietary tracking tools, he’s gathered evidence that Crackle, College Humor, Break and others regularly employ “invisible traffic”—i.e., these companies deliver their entire sites via iframes or tiny pixels on other sites that no one else can see.

Consider the guy-oriented Break (which last week was reported to be merging with Alloy Digital). Edelman found that Break.com loads invisibly through a variety of complex methods. In one instance, a company called Ptp22 redirects Break traffic through a variety of middlemen before it is loaded invisibly via iframe. (The list of go-betweens includes Marketwithmogul and TooShocking.)

Another company, Deplayer, conducts the same kind of operation. Adweek was unable to find contact information for the company.

Analytics firm SimilarWeb would seem to provide more supporting evidence. Some 25 percent of Break’s traffic comes via referrals, much of it from the adult category. The top referring site isn’t Facebook or Twitter but a firm called ClickSure, which sells Web traffic. In Edelman’s opinion, Break knows it’s buying such traffic. “But [this traffic doesn’t deliver actual] users who can see the site or any ads on the site. But there are indeed ads on the landing page. I saw ads for AT&T,” he says.

“We occasionally use the common practice of trade link sharing, which accounts for a small percentage of traffic,” says a Break representative. “We consistently work in the interests of our partners and have created high standards to vet traffic for quality issues. We have immediately suspended suspicious providers in question for further exploration.”

(UPDATE: Carat's Buescher says her agency has found that a campaign purchased through Break is running on three piracy sites: allmyvideos.net, divxstage.eu, and movreel.com. They admitted to it," she said. Adweek has reached out to Break to respond).

Edelman says he has been tracking Crackle for years. That site, which is owned by Sony and features a series starring Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, exhibits signs of invisible traffic, says Edelman. According to SimilarWeb, 18 percent of Crackle’s traffic comes from referrals. Among the site’s top referrers are Inttrax, Lnksdata, Redirect.ad-feeds and Contenko. Some of these companies are known for selling pop unders, adware and the like, per Edelman.

A source close to Crackle says the site cleaned up some of its traffic sources from years past but still occasionally encounters suspect traffic when marketing the site via various ad nets. The problem is described as “minor and the firm takes measures to address it.” Also, per sources, College Humor has noticed suspect traffic patterns from traffic purchased from outside vendors and has taken steps to eliminate it.

“Complex typically shares visitors with quality sites such as GQ.com and Vulture.com,” adds a Complex spokesperson. “In August we conducted a small, one-off traffic vendor test that delivered impressions that fell far below our standards, and we quickly terminated the relationship. We take seriously the matter of bogus traffic and we support any and all industry measures to address the problem.”

Beyond direct publishers with invisible traffic, what about the assessment from Moxie’s Silverberg that the Facebooks, Yahoos and AOLs of the world could be touched by the questionable traffic issue?

In Facebook’s case, the company has wrestled with scammers creating fake profiles and selling artificial likes. It’s a problem that’s mostly under control, according to a Facebook spokesperson: “As part of our ongoing site integrity efforts, we have recently updated our automated systems to remove ‘likes’ on pages that may have been gained by means that violate Facebook’s terms. On average, less than 1 percent of likes on any given page will be removed.”

Facebook is generally a closed environment. But it’s the wide-open, murky world of ad networks, ad exchanges and real-time bidding that experts say is rife with fraudulent activity. That’s because clients continue to look for huge quarterly CPM decreases and expect the Web to deliver cheap, efficient results. Meanwhile, agencies benefit from marking up ad inventory through their trading desks. Every vendor is plugged into every other vendor and platform, and sellers are incented to drive the most clicks at the cheapest rates possible. Thus, this ecosystem is practically begging for scammers.

“A certain set of conditions has led to a proliferation and explosion of this, and everyone will be touched by this problem to different degrees,” says Steve Sullivan, the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s vp, ad technology. “Add in retargeting and audience buying, it really represents a challenge in differentiating quality impressions vs. non quality.”

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