Artificial Engagement and Ad Fraud Explained
Published: 15/02/2022

Artificial Engagement and Ad Fraud Explained

  • Alex McConnell, Cybersecurity Content Specialist

4 minutes read

Artificial engagement refers to fake clicks and impressions generated by bots on ad networks, costing marketers huge chunks of their digital advertising budgets and leading to skewed analytics.

What is artificial engagement?

Artificial engagement is the false inflation of analytics, generally on digital ad campaigns or social media platforms. Artificial engagement on social media is often deployed by account holders to boost visibility or appeal to advertisers, while artificial engagement on digital ads is often used against the advertiser to sabotage campaign success and create false analytics.

What is ad fraud?

Ad fraud is more specifically tied to digital advertising than artificial engagement and describes the practice of artificially inflating impressions, clicks and conversion data to waste the advertiser’s budget and restrict the success of paid online advertising campaigns.

Who are the winners and losers in ad fraud?

The losers in ad fraud are easy to define. In simple terms, anyone running digital advertising online can be a victim of ad fraud. Ad fraud and artificial engagement can encompass different activities, including fake clicks, fake impressions, programmatic ad fraud and more – essentially, any attempt to defraud digital advertisers for financial gain is considered ad fraud. In any scenario like this, it is the advertiser who loses out.

While it’s often less clear to distinguish, the obvious ‘winners’ in ad fraud are the perpetrators, usually those who build and operate the bots and botnets that carry out ad fraud. The reason for doing this in huge volumes is to build up realistic personas of people who engage with adverts, so that these bots can then go and click on adverts placed on a fake website. The publisher of this fake website nets a profit by bots clicking on real adverts, paid for by advertisers who believe the site to be legitimate based on the amount of realistic and seemingly valuable traffic it’s receiving.

This poses the question of where ad networks sit. Since they get paid per click or impression, regardless of whether it is performed by a human or a bot, do they care about ad fraud? Or do they need to act against ad fraud to keep their customers happy.

Whilst ad networks don’t want bots to click on their customers’ adverts, detecting such activity is hard. These sophisticated bots are constantly evolving to evade detection, looking ever-more human to ad networks and advertisers. It takes special focus to develop technology that can stand up to the challenge of detecting bots.

Building up fake consumer profiles

Part of the problem is that ad networks place higher value on clicks with stronger intent signals. Advertisers can target specific audiences, not just based on demographic but also based on behavior – for example, are they a returning visitor? How much money have they spent on the site previously? What products are they looking at?

Much of this information is collected using third party tracking cookies, which have become controversial with consumers and created privacy concerns due to the amount of information they collect, meaning they are now being largely phased out. Cookies can easily be manipulated by bots to create a valuable “persona” that ad networks will charge a premium to advertise to.

Another issue with artificial engagement is that, while some businesses (for example, within the job services industry) buy traffic to inflate their visitor numbers and make themselves more attractive to advertisers, there is no way to validate whether this traffic is ‘real’ or bot.

Why is ad fraud so rife across industries?

Aside from being highly profitable, operating ad fraud bots is now easier than ever. The rise of cloud computing has removed many of the technical barriers to creating highly distributed botnets, meaning it’s easier than ever for ad fraudsters to affect businesses of all kinds.

Artificial engagement and ad fraud prevention with Netacea

Ad fraud is undoubtedly a huge problem for any business using online advertising, with the cost amounting to 20-40% of overall ad budgets. In addition to the cost of serving the adverts, fraud bots are also taking the place of real customers and their potential sales. With this in mind, deploying effective ad fraud prevention is more important than ever before. Netacea are proud to offer an ad fraud solution that has already helped so many businesses to dramatically reduce the rate of bot traffic on digital ads. It’s near-impossible to block 100% of bots from clicking adverts, but for a business with 45% of their ad clicks coming from bots, being able to reduce this to below 10% could make a dramatic difference.

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