Verification Firms Bring Accountability to Web Ads

For years, Web media planners have lived in fear of The Screenshot. That’s the e-mailed evidence from a client that shows its ads running where they shouldn’t, such as a porn site.

More brand advertisers are now seeking to solve this problem via verification tools and services that alert them when their ads run on sites they deem unacceptable.

Misplaced ads aren’t a problem unique to the Internet, but the digital medium, with its millions of sites, magnifies the risk. Ad placement systems are often also automated; many ad networks don’t even show clients where their ads ran. “There’s more opacity in the system than there’s ever been before,” said Joe Mehe, managing director of media and marketing at Razorfish. “There’s less visibility into what’s going on. For some clients, that’s just not OK.”

Service providers in the ad-verification space, including DoubleVerify, Adsafe and AdXpose, use tracking pixels and human analysis to identify misplaced ads and give advertisers the ability to get them taken down—not to mention get refunds from publishers and networks.

The scope of the problem is a matter of some debate. Verification companies, with a bias toward overstating a problem, throw around big numbers. Netzer said DoubleVerify can find campaigns in which 80 percent of the ad impressions are in violation of the terms of the insertion order. AdSafe estimates up to 15 percent of campaign impressions are noncompliant. It sponsored a study completed by the Winterberry Group that estimates brand safety concerns cost the display advertising industry $2 billion in spending from wary brands who choose not to advertise online.

The Internet has historically appealed more to direct response advertisers that frequently chalk up the risks as a cost of doing business. As branding efforts move online, the need to keep tabs on ads could become even more acute. “The use of verification is growing exponentially,” said Kent Wakeford, chief revenue officer of AdSafe, who predicts that their use will soon become standard.


Ad verification does more than look for ads on porn sites. An advertiser running a campaign only on U.S. sites can have its ads shown to visitors from abroad. Ads that are only to run above the fold can appear on the bottom of the page, outside the initial view of visitors. In some instances, a publisher runs stacked ads, hiding an ad behind another placement, again unseen by users. Ads may also end up next to user-generated content, outside the control of even the publisher.

All this has been further exacerbated with the rise of data-fueled ad exchanges that identify discrete audiences for ad placements. In theory, this cuts out wasted impressions by only showing messages to those fitting targeting criteria. It also adds another layer of opacity to the system.

Some ad networks themselves have signed up for verification services as a way of allaying advertisers’ fears. And Michael Cassidy, CEO of Undertone Networks, which does offer ad verification, said ideally the services shouldn’t be needed as a check on ad networks. “Verification is effective when you don’t trust your ad network partner,” he said. “At some point you have to rely on your partner.”

But how effective are these verification services? In fact, many are unable to do what agencies most want: prevent the ads from showing up in the first place, according to Marta Martinez, svp of operations at Media Math and a former digital media executive with Havas. “The reporting approach is exposing the problem but making it difficult to provide the solution,” she said. “The future is in the prevention technologies.”