Advertisers waste over $180 million a year to reach robots


Robots don’t wear clothes, eat food, drink beer, color their hair or use any other consumer products. Yet, according to an August 9 Advertising Age report, online advertisers may be wasting tens of millions of dollars a year to reach them.

At 4:30 PM Wednesday, August 14, University of Wisconsin professor Paul Barford will tell a seminar audience at the USENIX Security ’13 Summit in Washington, DC, that the problem’s even worse.

Each month, he’ll say, ten traffic networks deliver more than 500 million invalid advertising impressions. “We estimate the cost to advertisers for this fraudulent traffic to be on the order of $180 million annually,” an advance statement claims.

How big is it?

Barford bases this claim on a study in which he scammed the scammers. “[P]osing as a web publisher…[he signed] up for several different traffic generation services, also called PPV [pay per view] networks,” then filtered the traffic through proprietary anomaly detection software to identify and count fake traffic.

Timur Yarnall, his partner in a new company called MdotLabs, says as much as half of all web traffic is fake.

But while not everyone buys into those estimates, publishers, advertisers and traffic-checking services agree that fake traffic (and the money advertisers waste on it) is a huge and growing problem.

Digital analytics company ComScore, for example, says that more than a third of all PPV traffic – 36 percent – is non-human. And that’s not even counting Google bots, which don’t inflate ad impression numbers. This is a sixfold increase from just two years ago, when it was 6 percent.

“We see bots playing games that we didn’t see a few years ago,” SVP of audience analytics Brian Pugh told Ad Age.

One of these games is the Chameleon botnet, which London-based caught infecting more than 120,000 computers and using them to flood websites with fake traffic.

Bigger is better

But the bigger the site, the smaller the problem may be. Though almost 25 percent of visitors to “long-tail” sites are fake traffic, these sites reach fewer than 1.5 percent of total internet users, Pugh explained, the percentage of fake ad impressions on large sites is much lower.


Mdot is the latest member of a group of companies – more established ones include Double Verify, Internet Ad Science and – that help advertisers, media agencies and publishers quantify phony traffic. Some do it in house, while others let customers do it themselves, with software they can install on their sites.

It’s a win all around.

Advertisers and media agencies win because they have a basis for disputing charges for robot traffic. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll save all that wasted $180 million or so.

Because publishers, knowing how many real views they deliver, will be in a position to charge more for each and every one.

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