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False Advertising: When Lazy Headlines Undermine Great Research

Let's not confuse clicks with respect.


Ad fraud is a big problem. I’m not just talking about the cost to marketers who invest budgets to create and deliver ads that may not be viewable or are measured on questionable metrics. There are also fundamental problems in the way we are discussing the ad fraud itself, which shifts the focus away from the important issues, and from finding solutions for the trust problems in the digital advertising marketplace.

On Tuesday, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and ad-fraud-detection company White Ops, Inc. released the results of their two-month analysis of billions of ad impressions on 36 sites. Research like this is both ambitious and important, and I applaud the effort.

What frustrated me (evident in my Tuesday Twitter rant) was that in less than 24 hours, some of the report findings were irresponsibly presented. An Ad Age headline was so misleading that it nearly undermines the ANA’s significant efforts: “ANA Bot Report Reveals Unsettling Truth About Premium Publisher Inventory: Respected Sites Deliver 25% of Bots.”

False. Starting with their ridiculous definition of “respected sites.”

Unfortunately, both the report and the Ad Age article include another false and patently offensive statement: “The reputation of the publisher is no longer a reliable benchmark to predict bot traffic level.” Working with trusted partners always reduces risk. Yes, this absolutely offends the work of people who show up each day and maximize the trust of their brand with both consumers and marketers.

Ad Age states that 25 percent of the fraud occurred on Alexa’s 1,000 most-visited websites. If you take even a quick look down that Alexa list of 1,000 you’ll quickly understand that calling many of those sites “respected” couldn’t be further from the truth; it includes,, … well, you get the idea. Notably absent from the “respected sites” list were many of the most important voices on the digital media industry, such as Digiday, Re/code, Adweek and, yes, even Ad Age.

Let’s not confuse clicks with respect. Simply getting a lot of traffic is in no way indicative of respectability. Certainly, there are respected sites among Alexa’s top-trafficked sites, but they aren’t respected solely because they get traffic. The reputations of sites that are actually respected are hard-won and well-deserved because they are exactly the types of organizations that you can rely upon to act in good faith regarding ad-fraud issues and concerns.

There is a lot to learn from the report, for agencies, marketers and publishers. Sites that rely on advertising as the basis of their revenue model do need to drive traffic. And “premium” publishers must maintain the quality of their traffic to justify the value of advertising on their sites. The ANA report found that bots are surprisingly adept at faking engagement, and that buying traffic increases a site’s exposure to fraud as high as 52 percent. Point taken. Publishers must monitor sourced traffic and maintain transparency about traffic sources.

The ANA report also pointed out that limiting the use of sourced traffic can help prevent ad injection, a less-understood, but very important component of the ad-fraud problem. In contrast to the Ad Age article, the ANA report refers to premium publishers as “victims” of ad fraud with regard to ad injection.

The ANA report found significant evidence of ads running on sites that are well known as user-funded or subscription-based — in other words, sites such as Wikipedia that don’t run ads at all. Advertisers and publishers do not choose to inject ads on a site, because ad injection devalues the value of a site’s legitimate advertising and undermines the consumer experience.

Despite what you might have read in some irresponsible headlines, truly respected publishers are far from the principal culprits in the murky world of ad fraud that the ANA explores in its research. While the ANA research accurately states that “well-known publishers and premium publishers were not immune to high bot levels in sourced traffic,” this hardly qualifies as a basis on which to deride the value of working with trustworthy partners to deliver marketing messages.

Jason Kint is the CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association that exclusively serves the diverse needs of digital content companies that manage direct, trusted relationships with consumers and marketers. A 20-year veteran of the digital media industry, he previously led the evolution of CBS Sports into a multi-platform brand offering premier broadcast, online and mobile sports content as SVP and General Manager of CBS Interactive’s Sports Division. Reach him @jason_kint.

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