What can Mercedes' misfortune teach advertisers about bot fraud?

Duncan Trigg, the chief executive of Project Sunblock, the content verification service, shares his thoughts on research that found a sample of Mercedes-Benz ad impressions were mostly created by bots.

Duncan Trigg: chief executive of Project Sunblock
Duncan Trigg: chief executive of Project Sunblock

Mercedes-Benz has become the latest big brand to fall victim to online advertising fraud, thanks to sophisticated malware that is infiltrating the ad industry.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that bots were responsible for 57 per cent of sample of 365,000 ad impressions purchased by Mercedes, via a programmatic buying platform.

The issue made a lot of headlines, but this is by no means an isolated case, and neither Mercedes nor RocketFuel, the programmatic buying platform involved, should be blamed in isolation for such an occurrence.

Brands, ad exchanges and agencies alike, are fighting an ongoing battle against an army of complex and sophisticated programmes whose creators are out to profit from advertisers' misfortunes.

Fraudsters have learnt that high-profile, high-turnover brands and big ad tech corporations can bring in big bucks incredibly quickly and they’re making the most of it.

Who is to blame for the false economy?

Highly intelligent computer programmes perpetrate bogus views and fake click-throughs.

Those responsible are intent on profiting from exploiting the ease and speed of buying advertising inventory through real-time bidding, and as such, are responsible for creating a false economy within digital marketplace.

Programmatically-traded ad inventory allows exceptionally high levels of targeting, with ads being bought and paid for in a matter of milliseconds, but this conversely makes it incredibly difficult for any party, brand or bidding platform, to track where ads are ultimately delivered.

The success of the botnets is nurtured by this real lack of visibility and transparency around where digital ads end up once they’re fed into ad exchanges.

As a result, around 1.6 billion ad impressions appear on illegal or highly inappropriate sites in the UK every year. With £7 billion spent on online ads in the UK alone, this dynamic and fast-growing market provides the perfect opportunity for fraud, and these bots are evolving all the time.

Time to fight back

There is no doubt that botnets employ surprisingly sophisticated, resilient and constantly evolving technology. To make matters worse, our recent research suggests that 78 per cent of UK advertisers have no insight into where their ads are appearing.

But despite the power of the botnets, there is hope for the ad industry.

Traditional methods such as IP blocking, timestamps and dwell time alone, can no longer compete with the rapid innovation in technologies that fraudsters are inventing to supersede them.

Only the combination of these methods with transparent, real-time viewability data and human analysis of the patterns this shows, can effectively arm advertisers in their fight against bot traffic. It will be a combination of real-time content tracking and other qualitative methods that will lead the legitimate display market to turn the tide in this war on fraud.