Alexx Cass

Protect Your Online Ad Spend From These Traps

This article shines the light on some of the common media buying pitfalls and measurement mistakes that have been uncovered as a result of the online media industry's Web Audit Initiative and Digital Watchdog Committee. Media buyers and advertisers should be aware of these traps so that they can protect their ad spend and have more confidence in their media buying decisions.

1. Auto-refreshing pages. The most publicised risk to advertisers [The Australian, mUmBRELLA, SMH] has been the use of auto-refreshing pages by some websites. Auto-refreshing refers to the practice of automatically reloading web pages at regular intervals (as short as every four minutes), regardless of whether that page is actively being viewed by the user or simply running on their computer in the background. The practice can artificially inflate the number of ads being served and has been found to significantly inflate key audience metrics, such as doubling page impressions and quadrupling session times

The main risk for media buyers is that money can be wasted on display ads left unseen, served continually in background browser tabs or on unattended PCs. All of these potentially unseen ads can lead to low campaign performance in addition to the wasted time and ad investment. Another effect is that auto-refreshing can cause website rankings to be unreliable, with some websites over-reporting their figures and gaining an unfair advantage in the rankings over websites that do not use auto-refresh. 

Some publishers may argue that auto-refresh is required to keep the content up to date, but with newer web technologies such as AJAX, page content can be updated without refreshing the full page and all the ads. Although more than 200 sites have verified they are not using auto-refresh, there are still some websites that continue the practise, putting media buyers at risk. The ongoing failure from some publishers to cease this practise has led to agencies such as Maxus to boycott auto-refreshing sites and major advertisers  to place auto-refresh as the #1 issue on the AANA's wish list for improvement in the industry.

2. Websites using the measurement system to inflate their audience figures

This refers to any circumstance where a publisher breaches industry measurement rules by manipulating their measurement software to inflate the web traffic figures being reported to the market. There are numerous ways to do this, which makes it very difficult for media buyers or competitors to detect when this is occurring.  This lack of transparency is one reason why media buyers shouldn't trust any internal report generated by a publisher, because it can be manipulated to generate a more favourable figure. With this in mind, it's no surprise that a website's figures are often corrected to a reduced level once a site is independently audited.

There are countless ways to cheat the system and boost traffic but the following examples are the most common. Note that all of the following tricks are in breach of industry measurement rules.

Double counting: In Australia, the most common method to measure website traffic is to use tracking tags that are installed on each web page. By simply placing an extra tracking tag on each page, a publisher can count their page impressions (views) twice. Publishers with an inflated number of page views will have an unfair advantage of over competitors and be misleading media buyers by over-representing the depth of user engagement within a site. The second tracking tag can be hidden within rich media applications so it's sometimes difficult to detect without some deep investigation. This issue is more common than you may think and has been found to occur among publishers of all sizes and sophistication, although the industry is largely unaware of this.

Counting pages before they load: By placing the tracking tag at the top of the page instead of the bottom, a website can count a piece of content before it has finished loading. This breaches measurement rules because the webpage is being counted even though the page may never finish loading due to network issues or the user may shut down the browser before it the page is complete. Although this seems like a minor point, this common tactic has been found to boost traffic by as much as 50% on certain sites so it's important that tag placement is standardised across all sites.

Counting Pop-ups: Pop-ups may seem like a thing of the past, but there is still the occasional breach that is caused by invalid measurement of pop-up elements. An obvious trick is to count a website after it automatically pops up after a user visits a different site, even though the user did not request it and therefore may have closed it instantly without viewing it. A less obvious example is when automatic pop-up elements (such as popup video players, games, tools, or polls) belonging to the same site are counted even though the user never requested them and they are not full pages. This is a fairly common breach because the web developers tend to place a tracking tag on everything, without really understanding that only user-requested full pages should be counted as a page impression.

3. Counting invalid traffic that doesn't belong

A method for a website to report more favourable figures without tinkering with the tracking tags is to include traffic from invalid sources. In this case it's not a question of whether the measurement method is accurate; it's a question of exactly what is being counted towards the figures being reported. Media buyers should be aware that any non-independent figures such as internal Google Analytics reports may include traffic to any number of irrelevant web properties, potentially making these figures misleading.

Some frequent ways that internal figures can be misreported include:

  • Reporting International traffic as Australian traffic (very common)
  • Counting syndicated content on external sites when this is not applicable
  • Aggregating sites that do not share the same brand/masthead
  • Including non-human traffic such as spiders and bots
  • Misreporting ‘server hits' as page impressions, leading to vast overcounting

4. Displaying Australian Ads to International Visitors

Although this is not strictly a measurement issue, it's an important issue to highlight because it is more common right now in the Australian market than most people realise. Media buyers should be aware that many local ads are being served to overseas audiences, even when the implicit intent is for these ads to be geo-targeted to Australian users only. This can be difficult to detect because it requires an overseas IP Address to verify in the browser if any local ads are being served and not every advertiser has access to detailed ad server reports.

To avoid wasting ads on the wrong audience, media buyers should ensure any commercial agreements and insertion orders specify that the ads be targeted to Australian users only.

Why does it matter?

All of these traps impact the media evaluation process, impeding media buyers' ability to fairly assess where to place their ad investment and have confidence in the figures being used. These traps also put trustworthy publishers at an unfair disadvantage because they will be competing with inflated or even fabricated figures. In order to protect their ad investment, media buyers should seek independent verification if these issues are present in the websites they choose to deal with.


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Alexx Cass Audit Bureaux of Australia Alexx Cass
Company: Audit Bureaux of Australia
Position: Digital Watchdog

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    Audit Bureaux of Australia

    The Audit Bureaux of Australia (ABA) is a non-profit media auditing body that has existed for over 75 years. The ABA incorporates the ABC and CAB auditing bodies.  More info & Contact Details



     

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