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The Amount of Questionable Online Traffic Will Blow Your Mind

The World Wide rip-off

AOL and Yahoo both operate in the network exchange realm. And experts consider them among the good guys—the companies that have billed themselves as safe havens in this lawless space wouldn’t be vulnerable to bogus traffic. But exchange buyers say that even these companies can be vulnerable to questionable traffic. Take AOL’s Advertising.com, which has long billed itself as a premium exchange. However, ad buyers reveal that AOL campaigns sometimes feature chunks of inventory going to unidentifiable sites, reported back as “dummy publisher” or “house account.” AOL will also deliver major swaths of inventory to companies like Swaave, which will return a 0.0 percent clickthrough rate. CTRs are low these days, but not that low. A look at Advertising.com’s inventory mix includes properties like the live video chat platforms ooVoo and Tinychat, the Web-browsing disguiser AnchorFree, as well as companies like Integri and JCarterMarketing—essentially other ad nets. Meaning that buyers who come to Advertising.com for transparency may not find it, leaving it open to all sorts of deception. “We see these [kinds of] companies selling ads on 20 to 30 ad networks,” says Carat’s Buescher. “The percentage of inventory on our blacklists is astounding.”

“Whenever you buy from someone who won’t tell you where your ads are running, there is a real danger they are ripping you off,” says Zach Coelius, CEO of the ad tech firm Triggit.

According to one ad buyer, Ad.com’s supply currently includes questionable inventory and “copyright-infringing sites.” An executive from a major agency trading desk confirmed that Ad.com runs ads “on suspect sites and reports back traffic from unnamed publishers.”

AOL’s svp publisher services Dave Jacobs declines to discuss specific partners but says the company employs an in-house quality-review team that is constantly monitoring these issues. Jacobs adds that Advertising.com only works with other ad networks on a site-by-site basis—and never buys blindly. He was unable to discuss why some clients receive reports with traffic from the likes of “dummy publisher,” while maintaining that such a practice was not common.

“We think we are at the leading edge of protecting our partners,” he says. “We are very much focused on maintaining blacklists. With Ad.com, our focus is the direct-supply area. There may be instances where we can identify opportunities to deliver subset audiences outside our network. It’s not unusual for any company in our position to evaluate multiple sources of supply ... but with our network, we’ve been focused on telling a story that is about premium.”

Similarly, Yahoo’s data-driven targeting platform, Genome, has billed itself as a tool that “allows you to benefit from direct access to Yahoo premium inventory, publisher partners such as MSN and AOL, and comScore top 1,000 through a simple, streamlined transaction point.” Yet Genome campaigns can also include unnamed sites or properties like the file-sharing site MediaFire and the ad networks eHealthcareSolutions and Blackboxmedia. Meaning Genome buyers may be flying blind, while the platform is vulnerable to abuse.

“Yahoo takes supply quality very seriously,” said the company in a statement. “We are committed to maintaining a healthy marketplace with our advertiser and publisher partners, and use technical and procedural safeguards to support that commitment. ... Genome uses a combination of internal tools and third-party services to help maintain the quality of the network. Our Genome network purchases inventory on specific sites based on quality and audience, and regularly provides advertisers with site lists before and after a campaign runs for increased transparency.”

“In the spectrum of networks out there from reputable to sketchy, I’d put AOL and Yahoo on the reputable side,” says Chris Paul, gm, svp at VivaKi. “The most common issue is when new sites join the networks without being fully vetted for advertisers’ content standards by the network administrators.”

Agency trading desks also deliver lots of inventory on networks into which buyers don’t have much insight. Often buyers will receive traffic reports listing buckets of inventory from something labeled “microsoftadvertisingexchange,” say insiders.

While the display market has seen dicey practices growing for a while now, the challenge of bad inventory is suddenly escalating in video, where CPMs can be 10 times greater than display. Take the BrightRoll Exchange. Besides housing loads of inventory from the aformentioned Freestreams, the company also delivers large volumes of inventory via sites like Fave.tv and Videoswag.tv. Plus, it delivers lots of ads via "opaque sources" or sites it doesn't report on, as well as a good amount of blacklisted inventory, per buyers. One buyer says his company blocks one in four impressions sold in the exchange.

BrightRoll CEO Tod Sacerdoti says that in the case of Fave.tv, that inventory wasn’t supposed to be available. The site was on a list of unapproved URLs from an Israeli company called HIRO. Sacerdoti notes that BrightRoll does provide an option for buyers called “tier 4,” adding, “We recommend people question it.”

But overall, Sacerdoti says, BrightRoll is an open platform that plugs into nearly everybody selling video, and is not something that the company can be expected to police. It’s not “BrightRoll’s inventory, after all. The BrightRoll exchange is the inventory in the entire industry,” he says. “Is there an inventory problem in the industry? Yes.”

Indeed, the ad exchange space is so fraught with danger that companies like the independent trading desk Digilant run massive reports every week tracking which companies are peddling the same ad inventory on different exchanges—with completely different labels. According to Digilant COO Nate Woodman, the situation is so ungovernable that the agency has found instances where it’s ended up buying impressions from itself. Digilant blocks one vendor, CPX Interactive, for this reason. Woodman says that companies can blacklist sites all they want, but that they are better off creating whitelists—i.e., lists of preapproved sites. “The problem there is, that will kill your performance,” he says. Why? Because when you’re just out for clicks, bot sites perform better.

And the bot guys are slick. “As soon as sites get on blacklists, there is little incentive to maintain them,” explains Kiril Tsemekhman, svp, chief data officer at Integral Ad Science. “Then a new site pops up.”

And so, the problems persist. John Snyder, CEO of the keyword-targeting firm Grapeshot, says he’s lost business because his company won’t sell bad inventory. “We’ll hear, ‘Your competitor got great clicks,’ but all on two sites and it was all fraud. But it’s these optimization algorithms that find those clicks.”

Says Woodman: “When we try to tighten things up, our measured performance goes down. There is an incentive among buyers to let the floodgates open. And publishers need more money, so they ignore.” So the bad traffic persists. “We need to fix this as an industry,” he adds. “Somebody needs to give a shit.”

The IAB seems to. Per Sullivan, the organization is working on devising a standard for publishers akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal. He’d like to see the biggest stakeholders get more aggressive about the problem, including brands and agencies. “If buyers came out and said, ‘I will only buy from certified vendors,’ that would change things,” he says.

Carat’s Buescher thinks bold steps are needed and urges more of her brethren to take big steps. “It’s a sad thing,” she says. “There is no single provider out there that can fix this. Until then, all brands should have a manager that handles brand safety.”

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