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A recent study, conducted in partnership with 16 leading programmatic publishers across 26 domains, found massive volumes of counterfeit inventory across display and video inventory globally. Looking at the total available inventory across all exchanges for the 26 domains, the study found video callouts were overstated by 57 times the available inventory, representing about 700 million counterfeit callouts per day; and display callouts were overstated by 4 times the available inventory, representing billions of counterfeit callouts per day.
The counterfeit inventory study was conducted by publishers [Business Insider, CafeMedia, The LA Times, Mail Online, Meredith, The New York Times, Turner, USA Today, The Washington Post, and Watson Advertising] with help from Demand Side Platforms [Amobee, Google’s DoubleClick Bid Manager, and Quantcast]. The DSPs provided anonymous data for a single day in August revealing the number of unique exchanges, unique publisher IDs, and number of impression callouts for 26 domains owned by the participating publishers. The publishers then compared the DSP data against their own advertising system data.
Counterfeit inventory was not concentrated to a small number of technology platforms but was spread out across the ecosystem. Publishers in the study reported using 12 exchanges with 28 accounts to sell display, and 2 exchanges with 6 accounts to sell video on average, but the DSPs found their inventory available across 22 exchanges and 129 accounts for display, and 26 exchanges across over 1,000 accounts for video, on average.
The scale of counterfeit inventory shown by this study should be a wake up call to every player in the advertising industry to adopt ads.txt. Advertisers should start demanding their agencies and Demand Side Platforms buy authentic inventory from authorized sellers. DSPs need to start filtering out unauthorized and counterfeit inventory to protect their advertisers from low-quality and potentially harmful inventory. Exchanges need to build filters that use published ads.txt files to stop counterfeit sellers from diverting spend from authorized sellers. And, most importantly, publishers must publish ads.txt files to let everyone in the ecosystem know where they can find authentic inventory and work only with partners that refuse to support counterfeit inventory.
Know what you’re buying: Counterfeit inventory puts brands at risk
Advertisers looking to execute efficient, brand-safe programmatic campaigns should start demanding that their campaigns run only on authorized inventory, as defined by publishers’ ads.txt files, or work directly with their preferred publisher brands. If they’re not buying authorized inventory, they risk having their ads appear on counterfeit, low-quality websites, when they think they’re appearing somewhere else.
Counterfeit impressions are created when a bad seller replaces the URL of a low-quality site with a premium publisher URL, or a fraudster creates fake impressions and labels them with a high-quality publisher’s URL. Then, the counterfeiters send their fake inventory to auction at multiple exchanges and SSPs, without the knowledge of the publishers they’re impersonating, to trick advertisers into thinking they are buying premium publisher inventory. By hiding in the digital supply chain, counterfeiters are robbing premium publishers of revenue they deserve, and tricking advertisers into buying mislabeled and potentially unsafe inventory.
Ads.txt: a simple, elegant solution to counterfeit inventory
“The results of this study confirm that ads.txt needs to be adopted as rapidly as possible to cut off the flow of counterfeit website inventory,” said Dennis Buchheim, Senior Vice President and General Manager, IAB Tech Lab, which helms the ads.txt initiative. “It is critical that the industry comes together to put a stop to criminal activity and secure the health of the supply chain.”
To solve the problem of counterfeit inventory, the IAB Tech Lab released the ads.txt standard, designed to give publishers and distributors a simple, flexible, and secure method to disclose the companies they authorize to sell their digital inventory. It increases transparency in the inventory supply chain, making it more difficult to sell counterfeit inventory or resell inventory without a publisher’s approval.
“If the industry is going to seriously take on counterfeit inventory, publishers need to immediately get behind ads.txt, otherwise this problem will linger and continue to hurt both brands and publishers.” Jana Meron, VP of Programmatic and Data Strategy at Business Insider
“Everyone in the digital advertising ecosystem must work to improve the health of the digital marketing supply chain – to make it increasingly clean, transparent and efficient – and Ads.txt is unquestionably a major, meaningful step towards this mutual goal of enabling advertisers to more confidently and effectively reach their desired audience on premium publishers in the Open Market.” Rich Caccappolo, Chief Operating Officer at MailOnline
“Results like these reaffirm our decision to filter unauthorized inventory across our advertising systems. But until ads.txt is adopted across the industry, domain spoofing will continue to divert advertiser spend away from legitimate publishers.” Pooja Kapoor, Head of Global Strategy, Programmatic and Ecosystem Health
“Ads.txt is an elegant solution to such a pervasive problem in the advertising ecosystem. As a simple text file, this is an easy solution for other publishers to implement, helping eliminate most all counterfeit inventory,” said Jason Tollestrup, Director of Programmatic Advertising and Business Intelligence at The Washington Post
“Ads.txt is a strong answer to the digital marketplace’s clarion call for greater transparency, ensuring marketers have verified access to high-quality video and display inventory. We’re hopeful on its wider adoption, as well as continued industry support of upstanding publishers and delivering greater results for advertisers.” Jason Baron, SVP of Direct Marketing and Programmatic for Turner Ad Sales
“We are committed to enabling our buyers with scalable access to authorized supply and working closely with our partners, including Google AdX, to actively promote a safe and transparent buying ecosystem. As an active proponent of the ads.txt initiative, Amobee will continue to invest in our technology and use insights gained to block sellers of unauthorized inventory.” Julius Ramirez, VP, Global Business Development for Amobee