Deception. Attacked. Robbery. Hijacking. It sounds more like we’re talking about a major motion picture or an episode of COPS as opposed to discussing digital marketing.

But it’s the reality. Every day advertisers are being robbed; victimized by cyber criminals. There is a threat among us that has emerged over the past decade and it is no small amount to be overlooked.

In 2015, an estimated $6.3 billion dollars will be lost to “Bots.”

Just recently, in December of 2014, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and technology company, White Ops, delivered results from a much-anticipated study that evaluated the impact of Advertising bots on global marketing. Using newly developed technologies, WhiteOps evaluated 5.5 billion impressions and determined Bot activity by evaluating the true domain source of ad impressions.

The study, which took place over two months (September and October 2014) revealed some shocking information and statistics about the validity of the ever-growing supply of digital ad inventory that supports the multi-billion dollar industry.

Before we dive in, let’s just take a step back and look at who the perpetrators are.

What exactly is a “Bot”?

“Bots are software scripts in networks of computers that are controlled by a single entity as part of a botnet. When executing ad fraud, the botnet controller causes the computers in its botnet to render or click on ads, requiring advertisers to pay for a click-through or an ad impression that was never served to a real human.” [1]

Why you ask? Well it’s simple. Inventory equals dollars and a seemingly unlimited and diverse supply means major cash-out for aggregators or middlemen and publishers alike.

Contrary to popular belief, most bot traffic is actually coming from residential computers that have been hacked (over 67%). Now, I had heard of “click farms” before and even been made aware of some sketchy sites that rendered pages completely full of ads, assuming they were built for this type of deception and monopolization. However, of the nearly 3 million websites covered in this particular study, only a few thousand were completely built for bots. Instead bots “Hijack browsers to masquerade as real users, blend in with human traffic and generate more revenue. Sophisticated bots moved the mouse…put items in shopping carts, and visited many sites to generate histories and cookies to appear more demographically appealing to advertisers and publishers.”[2]

This is terrifying stuff!

But, have no fear; there are steps that advertisers (and their agencies) can take to at the very least minimize the impact of this seeming epidemic.

7 things you can do to stay vigilant in the war against Bots:

It’s important to be able to know the signs of ad fraud, and the basic, preventative steps you can take …

  1. Evaluate Performance Metrics:

With DR (direct response) campaigns, it is typically much easier to spot fraudulent click activity. Evaluate the quality of the leads or conversion rates from lead to sale to help gauge what is expected from the target audience. Historically, click fraud could be easily spotted by high click-rates with minimal if any, conversions. Unfortunately, this may not be easy to detect these days. As these newer bots clone real people and fake engagement, it is likely they will make more bottom-funnel actions.

With branding campaigns, this may be even more difficult since back-end conversion metrics are often not tracked. In this case, brands typically look at CTRs to gauge success. A high CTR could initially indicate a top performer, however, uniquely high CTRs should include additional investigation. Also, if you are using multiple creative concepts, especially those with diverse targets or products, make sure that you are seeing a variance between CTR performance. How likely is it that all 5 concepts would get the same exact CTR when historical brand performance or all other sites across the campaign might indicate differently? This should raise a red flag.

  1. Check your Site Analytics

Another indication of the value and quality of a click through to the brands pages would be website analytics. Lower than average time on site or uniquely high bounce rates for example, could indicate that the person who clicked had no interest in the site content or is not a real person at all.

  1. Frequency Capping

A lot of bots often act as repeat offenders, “clicking” several times on a particular ad to generate the most amount of revenue possible. Because these bots are still identified with a single cookie or IP address, setting a frequency cap of a certain number of times “per person” per day, can help to eliminate the risk for being vulnerable to this fraudulent activity.

  1. Dayparting

According to the study, about half of the bots caught were not sophisticated enough to be active during the day. Setting dayparting restrictions on serving ads only during daylight hours (provided this aligns with your typical window of prime activity) may ensure a greater likelihood that you would not be exposed to Bot traffic.

  1. Request Transparency

Knowing where your publishers are sourcing traffic from can also help to deter bot activity. Sometimes publishers use third parties to source additional traffic in order to acquire more unique visitors for their advertisers. In the study, sourced traffic had on average 52% of Bot traffic vs. human traffic. Build language in your insertion order Ts & Cs that requires publisher identification of all sources of traffic.

  1. Avoid Older Browsers

If it is an option, eliminate older browsers such as IE6 (2001) or IE7 (2007) from your media buy. “There are more bots claiming to be IE6 or IE7 than there are real humans still using those browsers.”[3]

  1. Use 3rd party fraud detection

There are several monitoring tools out there that brands and advertisers can deploy to help track and detect fraudulent activity.

Although programmatic and retargeted inventory produced higher than average bot activity, this isn’t just about those shady networks anymore. Premium placements are just as susceptible and often targeted by these money hungry bots that “know” to seek a premium placement just for that reason. More bang for the buck!

In addition, video inventory contained twice as high of a percentage of bot traffic in the study, at 23%. And while the popular topic of “viewability” might lead some advertisers to believe that the technical measures would ensure humanity, bots have been upgraded to fake viewability and actually skewed slightly higher invasion rates with viewable impressions.

Be fearless, and take action against these destructive Bots!

Who said working in advertising wasn’t a fulfilling, philanthropic career? Look mom; I’m practically a superhero here protecting my clients against evil robbers and hijacking!