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Fake Web Traffic Costs Advertisers Billions

Lynette Rambo | April 1, 2016 

We’ve all succumbed to it. That great new product promising dramatic results. For me, it’s anything promising more youthful skin or an easy way to shed cellulite. And, the promises are generally accompanied by dozens of positive reviews and glowing testimonials.

BUT …

Sound too good to be true? It probably is. There’s usually big BUT to it all (and, I’m not referring to mine). I, like many others on the WWW, have been duped by click fraud, shady metrics and biased reviews. It’s very big business.

In her Wall Street Journal article, Suzanne Vranica reported that, “About 36% of all Web traffic is considered fake.”  Imperva Incapsula, a cloud-based security service, reported in 2013 that web robots (bots) accounted for as much as 61.5% of all website traffic. Could this possibly be true?

Thanks to an article on govtech.com by Dan Lohrmann, Chief Security Officer & Chief Strategist at Security Mentor, Inc., I was on my way to finding out. Lohrmann shared a YouTube video by science channel Veritasium about legitimate and illegitimate ways for businesses to buy Facebook Likes very eye opening. I’m sharing it, too, and recommend you take the nine minutes to watch it.

TERMINOLOGY

Bots (Web Robots)

A software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Bots can be good or bad. “Bad” bots are often used to generate invalid traffic or impersonate a human under the cover of a browser-like identity.

Online fraud

Affects every stage of online business, including false clicks or page impressions for ads, websites, or even Facebook “Likes” in order to make an advertiser pay for traffic they believe is legit.

Click Fraud

When a person or program imitates a real user by clicking a link or ad for the purpose of generating a charge per click.

Impression fraud

The retrieval of an ad or page is one “impression”. Each impression supposedly represents a human seeing the ad when, in fact, it may have been invisible, hidden, or displayed on a dormant device.

Ghost Publishers

Web publishers that look authentic with some legitimate content, but their sites often use bots to trump up impressions and clicks, then jump to another site to generate retargeting ads. Sometimes an entire web page is embedded in an ad slot, causing all the links on that page to register as clicked or seen.

Lost Revenue in the Billions

For advertisers, the monetary loss realized through fake web traffic numbers in the billions. In 2014 and 2015, White Ops and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) partnered to release the Bot Baseline Study. Their study included 49 participants, which included large corporations like Bank of America, Home Depot, J.P. Morgan Chase, McDonald’s, and Walmart. The financial impact experienced by participants averaged $10 million per, with $7.2 billion in estimated global losses expected for 2016.

How is this possible, you ask? “Bad bots” can consume ads at any stage within the online advertising cycle by exploiting a user’s cookies to make it look like a human has visited a site or seen an ad. Desktop bots may impersonate mobile devices, showing increased clicks or views coming from mobile and convincing advertisers to pay more in mobile ads.

Skewed audience impressions can cause advertisers to sink more money into targeting certain ethnic groups. For example, the White Ops study found that Hispanic-targeted programmatic media had 70% more bots than non-Hispanic media. Higher-dollar display media saw an increase in bad bots. For instance, video media with CPMs (cost per thousand clicks) greater than $15 had 173% higher bot activity than did lower CPM media. Fraudsters make their money by showing advertisers false returns for premium ad spots.

Humans Are Taking Back the Web

The good news is that Imperva Incapsula’s 2015 Report shows that humans are taking back the web and now represent 51.5% of all website traffic. Unfortunately, “bad bot” traffic still accounted for 30%.

2015 Global Bot Traffic Report by Imperva Incapsula
2015 Global Bot Traffic Report courtesy of Imperva Incapsula. Click here for high res view.

Fighting Back

Google dramatically changed the online world in 2012 when it stepped up its war against spam. Through the first of its Penguin updates, they changed their algorithm to start penalizing all websites and hosts involved in spam distribution. Having turned spam into a high risk/low reward activity, website operators became more motivated to clean up their sites to avoid being penalized for allowing spam links on their websites.

In 2015, the White House began to express concerns over botnet activity, and we have even seen the prosecution of some high-profile operators. The online community needs to band together in promoting a zero-tolerance approach. Awareness building campaigns targeting businesses who buy online ad space are also important.

Michael Tiffany, CEO of White Ops Inc., says, “To close the profit window and stop funding bot traffic as much as possible, advertisers must take a stand against ad fraud by implementing the recommendations of this report and of groups such as the ANA and TAG [Trustworthy Accountability Group].”

CPM and CPC Metrics Aren’t Enough

Much of the ad industry still relies on CPM and CPC (cost per click) as a measure of an ad’s or website’s reach and effectiveness. Both CPM and CPC are important metrics in helping gauge the popularity of a page, effectiveness of a Call to Action, or of an email, but they are also susceptible to fraud. So, they shouldn’t be the main measure.

To get a more holistic view of how effective online marketing campaigns are, advertisers should focus on metrics that impact the bottom line — such as revenue. Anto Chittilappilly, Op-Ed Contributor for mediapost.com’s Online Metrics Insider says that, “Fraudsters can generate bots that simulate a human viewing a page, clicking on an ad, and even filling out a lead form requesting more information about a product or service. But a bot can’t generate real conversions like completing a purchase with a payment, buying a subscription, or taking other actions that can only be generated by real humans.”

Increase Human Traffic to Your Website

Statista, an online statistics portal, estimates that there will be around 2.13 billion social network users around the globe in 2016 — a 52% increase since 2012. And, according to UK-based Ofcom, the time we spend online has doubled in the past decade.

In order to attract the human traffic needed, you must increase the popularity of your website by providing great, timely content that is relevant to users. Give them a reason to repeatedly return to your site. Promote it across channels — social sites, blogs, news sites, email campaigns, and mobile messaging, to name a few. Humans love to share, so encourage sharing!

CPM and CPC Metrics Aren’t Enough

Much of the ad industry still relies on CPM and CPC (cost per click) as a measure of an ad’s or website’s reach and effectiveness. Both CPM and CPC are important metrics in helping gauge the popularity of a page, effectiveness of a Call to Action, or of an email, but they are also susceptible to fraud. So, they shouldn’t be the main measure.

To get a more holistic view of how effective online marketing campaigns are, advertisers should focus on metrics that impact the bottom line — such as revenue. Anto Chittilappilly, Op-Ed Contributor for mediapost.com’s Online Metrics Insider says that, “Fraudsters can generate bots that simulate a human viewing a page, clicking on an ad, and even filling out a lead form requesting more information about a product or service. But a bot can’t generate real conversions like completing a purchase with a payment, buying a subscription, or taking other actions that can only be generated by real humans.”

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Lynette Rambo

Lynette Rambo | Marketing Consultant

Lynette Rambo is a Certified Email Marketing Specialist and a Marketing Consultant for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. She has over 20 years of marketing, communications, design, and public relations experience for both small businesses and larger corporations. As a Marketing Consultant for ListEngage, Lynette consults clients on email marketing best practices, strategic planning, content creation, campaign management, and provides training and demos on the Marketing Cloud. She also works with the Salesforce CRM and connecting Sales and Marketing initiatives. You can contact Lynette at lrambo@listengage.com.