Tackling video ad fraud

Digital advertising has had its fair share of issues over the years, some of which have been overcome, some of which remain bugbears...

Digital advertising has had its fair share of issues over the years, some of which have been overcome, some of which remain bugbears and some of which are critically problematic in our industry today.  Ad fraud is without a doubt the latter. In 2015 we saw the rise of bots and in 2016 the advertising industry is set to attribute losses of approximately $7.2 billion globally to the nasty things.

Ad fraud covers a range of cunning practices and deceitful techniques administered by fraudsters with the object of making money. One of the reasons ad fraud is the plague of programmatic advertising is that it can appear in so many forms, making it difficult for a lot of the industry to identify, let alone deal with. Here are some of the types of desktop fraud we come across at Coull:

  • Automated traffic Finds botnet activity flagged on the user level through real-time traffic pattern analysis.
  • ProxyThe IP address is a known proxy.
  • SpoofingThe user’s device and browser were manipulated to resemble a different device or browser. This technique is commonly used to produce a real – life distribution of traffic and simulate traffic from multiple visitors.
  • Ad injection – The ad was locked by ad injection software, often bundled with other software like games and toolbars. This practice artificially inflates the number of ads on a page and can lead to negative user experience.
  • Cloaked domains – There is an imbalance between the domain where the ad appeared and the referring domain. This practice enables undesirable properties such as pirate and adult portals to sell inventory under a high-CPM category such as cars or travel.
  • Domain spoofing – The publisher reports an inaccurate domain to the exchange. The ad never appeared on the publisher- reported domain. This practice allows publishers to misrepresent low-quality inventory as coming from high quality sources. In some cases, ghost sites can use this technique.

What are bots?

Unfortunately, I’m not talking about R2-D2, the bots I am referring to represent non-human traffic, the most common form of ad fraud today. Fraud exists to make money illegally and as digital advertising grows, fraudsters are able to take advantage of the system. Bots can come from software applications which run automated tasks over the internet to simulate human activity. It has been estimated that 8%-23% of online video ad inventory is consumed by bot impressions which makes this a significant problem for video advertisers to contend with. (Videology)


At Coull we utilise industry leading cyber- security services to filter and detect inappropriate content coming through the system. Our Compliance team use strategies to identify and rate any invalid traffic.  This enables us to have a multi-level process targeting ad fraud and eliminating it from our platform, manual detection being a key part in removing certain types of domain fraud, including the aforementioned ghost sites, that haunt the web.

Who you gonna call?…

So what are they ‘ghost’ sites you say? Well, they’re spooks! Ghost sites may look like ordinary web sites at first glance, however if you dig a little deeper you will uncover their dark secrets. These sinister pages exist to bypass tech filters and because they look clean and safe, tech vendors let them off the hook.

We are doing everything we can to identify ghost sites and ensure the culprits don’t get past our compliance, but there are things you can do to, and they don’t involve bringing in an exorcist. Follow the simple tips below and you will be able to spot a ghost site a mile away.

How to spot a ghost (site)

  • WordPress templates

Ghost sites typically look very similar as their templates often originate from WordPress. The templates will all have the same layout with different skins for each.

  • No contact information/web hosting information

Ghost sites more often than not have links to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest however if you click on the link they will lead to nothing or non-updated accounts. If the Facebook page has thousands of likes, it’s legitimate. Something else to look out for is that they use cheap website solutions such as ‘Garden Pages’ and will hide their presence on the internet with services like DomainsByProxy. Want to try and contact the owner? No chance as they won’t have any contact information or the information will be false.

  • Strange growth patterns

Ghost sites do not pay for their traffic growth and will buy from Click Farms.

  • Hardcoded banner ads

Banner ads on a ghost site will have a URL destination which will lead straight back to the same Ghost site. The banner ads are mostly static images making them seem like genuine advertisement however they are most probably fake.

The future

Ad fraud detection and eradication is very tricky business. Every day is like living in the Wild West with fraudsters running wild and stealing impressions left, right and centre. There is no square jawed superhero to lock them up and put an end to their tyranny but we’re working hard to change that.

Our compliance team is leading the way, stepping up to guard our marketplace from fraudulent activity. Coull has a zero tolerance policy, taking all forms of ad fraud very seriously. We are raising awareness and working with leading fraud detection vendors because we want to make the industry a fraud free place for our partners. We can weed the industry garden of fraud, we just ask for your help replanting it.

Posted by simonholliday