Combating Ad Fraud

Ad fraud concerns have become standard practice when buying and managing digital media.

Integral Ad Science (IAS), a leading brand safety and ad verification company, estimates that more than $4.6B in ad spending is fraudulent in the US alone — that number makes up 7.1% of display impressions and 8.9% of video impressions.

The most common form of fraud is known as “domain spoofing,” which involves disguising a domain’s URL as another higher-quality domain.

In many cases, the fraudulent domains contain no actual content at all and are only used to house advertising. Other forms of fraud include the following:

  • Bots posing as real human activity — driving fraudulent clicks, impressions and engagement
  • Serving ads on sites other than what is requested/purchased
  • Falsifying user characteristics (e.g., location, device, browser)
  • Delivering video placements in display/banner positions
  • Hiding ads in non-viewable locations (e.g., inside page elements)

While this problem is prevalent across the industry — and one that publishers and agencies are actively fighting — there are measures in place that allow advertisers to protect themselves against fraud and reduce risk within their initiatives. These concerns have led to a growing trend to favor quality (and potentially higher-cost inventory) over lower-cost placements. This eliminates the risk of ad fraud and gives more power (and control) to publishers.

The following sections will provide greater detail on the industry, as well as MeringCarson’s protocol for addressing ad fraud and minimizing risk for our clients. While it is not possible to eliminate 100% of fraudulent activity from any program of work, the measures in place ensure that clients are never paying for invalid activity, both in terms of clicks and impressions.

Biggest Ad Fraud Offenders

With hundreds of exchanges/networks, coverage of nearly the entire internet and a severe lack of transparency, programmatic media represents the biggest challenge within the ad fraud landscape.


According to IAS, programmatic media is four times more likely to be fraudulent than direct publisher buys. With programmatic video, the figure jumps to nearly 10%.

While there are significant concerns with programmatic media, not all programmatic buys are the same, and discontinuing this channel as a whole is not the ideal solution. Programmatic media offers many advantages, from efficiency and targeting to full control over media and KPIs (optimization). The media buying industry continues to migrate toward programmatic offerings/executions, so removing these from the media mix should be carefully considered.  

It is important to make sure that advertisers identify trusted partners within the digital space and monitor activity through third-party verification companies.

Understanding Implications Across Social Platforms

Fraud is also a significant problem on social platforms (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and represents a trickier problem for advertisers because fraudulent activity is largely unidentifiable for the platforms themselves. Additionally, third-party fraud tracking companies, such as IAS and DoubleVerify, are limited in their measurement of these platforms. However, that does not mean that Facebook or Google are ignoring the problem.

Google (including YouTube) and Facebook have made a significant investment in staff, resources and technology to track and combat fraud across their platforms. Additionally, part of their standard protocol is to issue refunds for all activity that has been flagged as fraudulent or suspicious.

YouTube estimates that less than 1% of its total views are fake, and they actively provide credits for all views that were paid for but later proven to be falsified. After executing a major audit of the platform in early 2018, YouTube significantly improved engagement rates and diminished the number of view botters and fraudulent channels. YouTube works (internally) with third-party ad verification services to ensure viewability and legitimacy with their view counts.

Facebook estimates that 2-3% of its 2-billion-plus accounts are potentially fake. Over the last few years, the platform has aggressively attempted to eradicate fake accounts and continues to eliminate suspicious accounts from their platform. Facebook uses a partnership with ad analytics company MOAT, an independent third party, to verify Facebook ads and ensure viewability standards are met.

Publishers Combating Ad Fraud

The fight to combat ad fraud in digital advertising is ongoing, with both publishers and agencies looking for solutions. Recently, the Guardian, Google and MightyHive (a Google DoubleClick platform expert and manager) teamed up to track and take down a large-scale fraud operation. The program found clear evidence of unauthorized sellers pretending to hold inventory on the Guardian. Of the video inventory purchased, 72% was fraudulent.

The Google/Guardian operation leveraged the IAB ‘ads.txt’ tag to distinguish authorized from fraudulent inventory. The mission of the ads.txt project is to increase transparency within the advertising ecosystem. ADS stands for Authorized Digital Sellers and is a simple method for publishers to show they are authorized to sell inventory.

This technology has proven effective, and increased adoption by vendors (programmatic, mobile, etc.) should continue to improve transparency and reduce ad fraud.

Facebook’s Role In The Ad Fraud Battle

Ad fraud and suspicious behavior have kept Facebook in the news in recent years. The platform’s massive reach and accumulation of user data, coupled with the rise of influencer marketing, have put them front and center in the ad fraud battle. Compared to programmatic networks, Facebook (and other social platforms) are being challenged in different ways, with the biggest issues being fake follower accounts and fake (bot-generated) engagement. These fraudulent activities have a huge impact on the quality of the data Facebook collects, while impacting their ability to verify human activity.

Facebook recognizes this issue and has continued to invest in fraud-fighting technologies and resources, dedicating 1,000 engineers, reviewers and content managers to a team focused on validating activity and protecting user experience on its platform.

Facebook, like Google, are proactive in pulling down fraudulent activity and issuing refunds to clients impacted by suspicious activity. But the primary way advertisers can combat and avoid ad fraud on social media is through thorough data analysis and monitoring of trends over time. The number-one indicator of fraudulent activity is big (and unexpected) changes in performance.

How MeringCarson Combats Ad Fraud

The ad fraud problem is pervasive across the digital buy landscape, and is something that media organizations have to address head-on. While no tactics can completely eliminate this problem, a focused approach and evaluation of the issues can dramatically reduce risk.

MeringCarson deploys the following strategies for all digital media programs. These are foundational to all media recommendations across all digital channels (programmatic, social, etc.).

  1. Balance Quality with Quantity

    1. A recent trend in media is to favor direct partnerships that provide control, transparency and, in most cases, reliable performance. As noted earlier, direct partnerships are less likely to receive fraudulent activity, and typically produce more reliable results.

    2. MeringCarson has always believed in a balanced approach to media buying, ensuring that direct (premium) partnerships are the foundation of each program, and balancing buys with lower-cost social and programmatic layers to help achieve goals. All buys are about balance and projected results.

  2. Emphasize Actions (KPIs) over Impressions

    1. When buying programmatic or social inventory, reduce the value of the impression received, and instead emphasize the action. Actions, such as social engagement, content views, etc., are much harder for bots to imitate, while impressions are more easily faked. Pay for meaningful performance whenever possible.

    2. Sharpening digital programs around actions/engagement yields a stronger response. This is especially true with programmatic and social media, where because of platform noise, the impression is less valuable and less meaningful than the activity that can be created from the platform.

    3. Additionally, placing value on the action reduces the risk of relying on fraudulent impressions that are significantly easier to fake than actual behavior.

    4. When buying media, MeringCarson projects KPIs and results by tactic, favoring engagement over sheer reach.

  3. Deploy Third-Party Tracking

    1. Third-party vendors act as a double (and triple) check for invalid activity. In many cases, these partners (IAS, Moat, etc.) will be paid for by media partners looking to prove value. Additionally, more advanced ad servers, such as DCM and SizMek, have invested in their own ad verification tools, making them a low-cost option for validation.

    2. MeringCarson uses DoubleClick and MightyHive as baseline fraud monitoring and ad-serving solutions.

    3. Additional opportunities lie in partnerships with specialized fraud companies such as IAS, Moat and DoubleVerify, which have been deployed during programs with increased reliance on programmatic vendors.

  4. Continuous Campaign Monitoring & Oversight

    1. Understanding campaign metrics and performance trends is critical to spotting invalid activity. Spikes (or dips) in performance, expanded delivery and/or click drop-off may all be strong indicators of fraud. Establishing a reliable tracking and reporting cadence helps to combat fraud.

    2. MeringCarson uses two tactics when monitoring campaigns:

      1. Manual monitoring of results across DoubleClick Campaign Manager, where our planning team actively reviews sites and activity for fraud. When fraud is discovered, our teams find resolution — and often added value — with media partners.

      2. Our proprietary analytics solution, DNA, which delivers real-time campaign results metrics. Our analysts use this platform to spot trends or suspicious patterns of behavior. If these events are triggered, planning (media) teams are brought into the equation to resolve the problem with media vendors.

  5. Closely Monitor Social Activity

    1. The primary issues are fake followers (which leads to overstated influencer/account value) and fake engagement.

    2. To identify potential issues, MeringCarson uses its proprietary data technology, DNA, to track activity over time and spot unusual changes. This, paired with years of social data, allows us to better understand performance benchmarks and expected results within each platform.

    3. MeringCarson has also increased social resources within our Performance Marketing division. This team is trained in campaign deployment, optimization and data analysis — all critical to identifying fraudulent activity.