Headless Web Traffic Threatens Internet Economy
Online advertising is in serious jeopardy due to the proliferation of bogus content sites serving ads and the armies of botnets that deliver fake traffic to them. It's challenging enough to get Web users interested enough to click on an ad, but now it seems a huge number of ads that supposedly are clicked on aren't even being viewed by human beings.
Bogus web traffic is creating a crisis for advertisers on the Web.
Advertisers pay for page views. They assume that those views are tied to living eyeballs. When those views aren't tied to eyeballs -- as when they're generated by automated means -- advertisers can get testy.
That's what's starting to happen, and a recent comScore estimate of the automated traffic on the Internet -- 36 percent -- isn't helping matters.
That number is astonishing, noted Ziff Davis CEO and Interactive Advertising Bureau Chairman Vivek Shah at the IAB's recent annual leadership conference.
"If you peel the onion one layer," he said in a keynote address, "you see that an overwhelming majority of suspected non-human traffic comes from small publishers -- not comScore 100 sites. The reason is simple. The ability to buy cheap bot traffic and arbitrage it via ad exchanges has created enormous financial incentive for bad-actors to engage in a deception that threatens the very integrity of our business."
Much of that non-human traffic is created by botnets -- armies of compromised computers used to inflate traffic to websites that, if left to their own merits, wouldn't draw any traffic at all.
Those ghost websites typically contain mock content that's not designed to attract people but just to serve as a container for advertising.
"There are some nefarious actors out there," comScore Vice President for Marketing and Insights Andrew Lipsman told the E-Commerce Times. "Some of these websites are created for the sole purpose of generating false ad impressions."
Most advertisers don't have the time to verify a website's traffic before including it in their ad mix, which opens the door for fraud.
"All they see is a listing that a site serves a million impressions," Lipsman said. "It could be that those million impressions were all served to bots."
Bogus traffic is growing problem for advertisers, noted Dan Kaminisky, chief scientist and cofounder of White Ops.
"We see huge amounts of fraud in the video space and growing fraud in the mobile space," he told the E-Commerce Times. "It's a real problem."
It's a problem that advertisers have begun to take more seriously.
"In previous years, ad sellers were afraid that if they did something about click fraud, their traffic would go to zero and they'd all go out of business," Kaminsky said.
"There's been a sea change in that attitude now. They're now afraid that if they don't fix this problem the buyers are going to go back to TV and magazine and print -- realms where it isn't as easy to gin up magic trafic," he added.
Headless Browser Farms
White Ops, comScore and others sell services to advertisers that identify how much of the traffic they're being charged for contains real eyeballs. However, the more sophisticated ad scammers have created "headless browser farms" to counter those efforts.
"They're built to simulate human activity," Anthony Rushton, CEO of Telemetry, told the E-Commerce Times.
"It's not that difficult. They're able to simulate their activity in a way that looks like it's from a sentient being," he added.
Those browser farms can be very successful operations for their masters. One gang of farmers were raking in US$1.5 million a month in advertising revenue before it was discovered, Rushton noted.
If the Internet's traffic problems can't be cleaned up, it could have a serious impact on the Net's advertising market.
"It's one more element that could alienate advertisers," said Boston University mass communications professor John Carroll.
"You've got an ad environment where the vast majority of the audience ignores Internet advertising entirely. That's discouraging," he told the E-Commerce Times.
"The other issue is that the click-through rates for people who do pay attention to the ads is pretty small. Then you throw this on top of it, which says that some of your advertising isn't even reaching real people," Carroll continued.
"These hurdles begin to add up, and as inviting and beneficial as the Internet ad market might be," he said, "people can be discouraged from it because there's too much of a downside."