The digital advertising space is incredibly powerful filled with attention-grabbing “billboards” on a digital superhighway. It is a fast-paced and rapidly changing environment, with Google and Facebook as its main power players for advertisers. Just as new words and phrases like click fraud, white ops, bots, bot traffic, BuzzFeed news are popping up everywhere, so are new ways of advertising in the digital world. While the digital age has been seen in some ways to represent the demise of small, local businesses, even “mom and pop” shops can take advantage of digital advertising (and social media) in creative and low-cost ways to benefit their bottom line. It is a powerful tool with proven effects—great digital marketing campaigns can turn a small brand into a big one overnight. And established brands with a large digital footprint already know the importance of keeping it fresh and up-to-date: staying relevant in the digital world means staying on your toes. This can be seen in the specific ads a company pays for in platforms such as Facebook or even just the way in which they interact with users online. (Think Wendy’s on twitter!)


There is a great deal of upside when it comes to digital advertising, but there are a few downsides as well. All of us who participate in the digital world in any way, whether we scroll through Facebook daily or we work in a high-tech corporate environment, are exposed to the possibility of advertising fraud.


A favorite punch line of cynics is: “If you read it on the Internet, it must be true.” This stems from the sad but true fact that the digital age has in many ways played on naivety and vulnerability of web surfers—whether through the spread of fabricated “news” stories or the promotion of business scams in advertising. Ad fraud runs rampant, and in an effort to act as responsible corporate citizens, many companies are cracking down on it.


Understanding Ad Fraud Online


Advertising fraud in the digital sphere comes in many forms: there are “bot” clicks and impressions, ads that are actually never seen by real users, and agencies who misrepresent data or performance figures. This is all incredibly frustrating for anyone who has paid any amount to advertise their goods or services, be it a $100 or $10,000 ad spend. Advertising costs are a significant expense for any business and ad fraud can make businesses feel they have just burned the company’s cash over a bonfire.


A phenomenon known as “click farming” plays into this fraud and it often takes place in developing regions where wages are significantly lower than Western standards. Workers will click as instructed to artificially boost a client’s product or the status of their site. Then they continue to click on other ad links so it is harder to track these “purchased” likes. This kind of activity may violate certain user policies in social media platforms; however, it is not illegal by any government order so it continues to run rampant.


Another fraudulent technique is known as impression stacking, where multiple ads are placed on top of one another and only one of the ads is seen—but a “click” registers for all of them. As quickly as tech gurus on the side of fraud are working to find new methods, tech gurus on the side of a fair advertising marketplace are working on programs to detect fraud. While the bad news is that ad fraud exists, the good news is there are ways to detect it and ultimately try to avoid it.


Confronting Ad Fraud Head On: What You Can Do to Detect and Avoid It


A general rule of thumb to remember in digital advertising is to focus more on measuring conversions rather than clicks! The bottom line is that a click goal could be easily generated by “bot traffic” and what matters most for you is the conversion goal. If you are working with an ad agency, this should be an important topic for discussion, and you will want to know exactly what kind of metrics they can provide for conversions.


Have your ads verified by a third-party provider or even multiple providers! These companies can audit private platforms to ensure you are getting real KPIs and real results and they can also help you filter out the fraudulent ads as soon as they pop up.


Lastly, no matter how many third-party providers you work with, or how reputable the ad agency, there is no reason you shouldn’t establish and maintain your own system of internal (and manual) review. Keeping a close eye on ad campaigns and their effectiveness should be a priority for every business. No one cares more about your marketing spend than you!


Even the Good Guys Get Taken: A Word on Domain Spoofing


Domain spoofing will mimic legitimate URLs and then even reputable publishers advertise assuming they are placing an ad with the legitimate business/URL. Picture this: you think you are going to be advertising on the storefront windows of the upmarket chain Anthropologie only to later discover your ads are on the storefront windows of Anthony’s Exotic Dance Apparel. Clearly, you are not reaching the target market intended and this is ultimately what happens to those who fall victim to fraud in the form of domain spoofing.


Online advertising fraud, in the methods described above as well as many others, is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. This is a real concern for anyone advertising in the digital sphere, and it affects every last one of us, down to the individual consumer. Some companies have drastically reduced their ad spend because of the billions of dollars lost to ad fraud each year. Others are taking proactive steps to mitigate it and, of course, tech developments are always evolving to find ways to weed out the fraud. The bottom line is to avoid it (or to recover from it) vigilance is key!