The real problem isn't online ad fraud -- it's viewability

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New offerings based on eye-tracking methodologies might be the long-sought answer to this issue.

Online ad fraud has been a heated topic of debate in the industry over the years, for obvious reasons: after all, if buyers of such ad impressions suspect that they are mostly being viewed by bots or other non-human entities, they will take their marketing dollars elsewhere. And suspect these executives do, as studies have shown this to be the case.

One oft-cited statistic is that 36% of ad impressions are seen only by bots. A study released last month by the Association of National Advertisers and anti-fraud firm White Ops found that almost a quarter of video ad impressions and more than half of third-party sourced traffic is fraudulent.

All of this is outrageous stuff to be sure, but another issue is coming to the forefront that could upend even the discussion about fraud—and possibly even help to address it. That is issue is viewability, meaning online ads that are actually viewable by a human when served. For instance, an ad could be legitimately served by a publisher, but the consumer might have scrolled by it before it rendered on the screen due to latency issues.

When asked recently by The 614 Group and AdMonsters which issues are expected to be "digital publishing's biggest challenge" in 2015, interactive media and advertising executives said viewability would be the top issue, by 63%. In addition, seven out of 10 of those polled said they do not believe a majority of digital publishers will achieve high viewability delivery by the end of 2015. Online ad fraud, meanwhile, came in a distant second with 26% calling it a chief concern.

The survey organizers, it seemed, were somewhat taken aback by the finding.

"We disagree with this poll’s outcome and lack of confidence in the operational outcomes but let’s stay tuned and see what actually happens," it said in its commentary on the survey results.

Granted there might be other reasons than just personal observations that viewability is on the forefront of ad execs' minds these days. Last December, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released its "State of Viewability Transaction 2015," report with the discouraging position – at least to buyers – that 100% viewability is not yet possible. Instead, it said, 70% is recommended as the best threshold for the moment.

Another eye-opening moment for the industry came when Google said, also last December, that it had come to realize that many display ads are not actually seen by a user. It found that 56.1% of all ads served were not measured viewable, while the average publisher's viewability is 50.2%.

"This means a small number of publishers are serving the majority of non-viewable impressions and dragging down the served impression viewability average by almost 6%," it said.

Can Ad Tech Solve This?

A genre of ad tech companies are entering the market claiming to have a solution to at least this problem, if not the question of online ad fraud as well. They are bringing to the table such methodologies as eye-tracking and other techniques to record and track viewability.

Earlier this month, for instance, Meetrics, a German ad tech company, was granted accreditation by the U.S.-based Media Rating Council for its Viewable Ad Impression measurement product.

Meetrics, for the record, believes that anywhere from 40-60% of programmatic ads served are not visible, according to Philipp von Hilgers, Meetrics’ managing director.

Its technology is based on measurements made by JavaScript and delivered via the ad server.

It compiles the content and layout of a website and then records the interaction of the user—when, for example, he scrolls or pauses. From that data, it is able to calculate visibility reports.

Meetrics is hardly the only company operating in this space. Another company with origins in Europe, Sticky uses eye tracking technology to monitor consumers' eye movements via their webcams to verify which ads are actually seen and for how long. The service is opt-in, meaning consumers have to give their permission, and it only operates when the consumer is viewing a designated page.

Case studies – admittedly conducted by the vendors – suggest that these various approaches to the problem of viewability actually work. According to a profile of Sticky that ran in AdExchanger:

In one recent case, Sticky worked with L’Oreal Canada, the brand’s digital engagement platform, Oboxmedia, and rich-media ad-targeting platform GumGum to test the creative in the summer campaign for L’Oreal’s Vichy anti-aging products. About 73% of the campaign's display ads, which were placed within images on publisher sites based on the hair color of the women who appeared in the photos, were considered viewable, 100% of which were seen, generating a 2.27% click-through rate.

Those are generous metrics, although it is interesting to note that 73% of the display ads were viewable (looks like IAB might be right about its benchmark goal).

There are technical reasons for that, Meetrics' von Hilgers tells me. "These are very complex systems speaking to each other, or trying to at least. There are a number of tech reasons why an ad might fail to be served to the browser when it is supposed to."

Indeed, as recently as 2013 cross-domain iFrames still presented challenges with viewability. IAB addressed that with its SafeFrame specification, but other hindrances still exist.

"More is known today about those impediments to viewability measurement apart from cross domain iFrames, and this knowledge is informing the development of viewability measurement standards," IAB said when it released its specification.

For all the tech issues that remain between ad buyers and the holy grail of 100% viewability, the subject is far more pleasant that the one about online ad fraud. That, like spam and malware, is proving frustratingly difficult to root out because of the human element involved.

Ad agencies, on the other hand, want to solve viewability. That at least was part of The 614 Group's thoughts on the matter. "There are no reputable publishers that wish to sell ads that aren’t seen," it said in its rebuttal to the industry's concern about viewability.

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