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Is there any incentive to crack down on programmatic ad fraud?



Is there any incentive to crack down on programmatic ad fraud?

For nine months last year Gannett, publisher of USA TODAY and other news outlets, ran billions of ads in places that weren’t what the buyers wanted. Gannett and the buyers only found out about this after a March report in the Wall Street Journal. Earlier this week The Journal revealed that more than a dozen ad-tech companies failed to detect this, despite having all the information needed to do so.

We talked to cybersecurity and anti-ad fraud consultant Augustine Fou about this. He says the first instance was the result of a mistake. The second was intentional.

What happened at Gannett and why do you think it wasn’t intentional?

What happened was that the USA TODAY domain names were declared local. The reason I say it was a mistake and not deliberate is that the domains were misdeclared in both directions. If this were malicious, where the publisher is trying to make more money, they would always declare the local news sites to be the national one, not the other way around. 

The bigger issue is that none of the fraud detection companies called it. None of the exchanges caught it and stopped it, and no advertiser agencies knew it happened right until the Wall Street Journal article hit.

Why is that more important?

A real publisher like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, they have humans that go visit the site. OK? If you have a fake site, like, no human would have ever heard about it and there’s no humans visiting that site. So how does that site have a ton of traffic and therefore can sell a bunch of ad impressions? Basically the fake site would use fake traffic, It uses a bot that basically is a browser that causes the page to load. When that happens then all the ads get called. So that’s what the advertisers are paying for. But the ads are not being seen by humans. That’s why we call it fraud. 

But that’s not what happened here.

Right, this happens on fake sites, not necessarily on USA TODAY or quality journals. But the point is these fraud detection companies, it’s their job to detect the bots and detect other problems, like a fake site claiming to be a real one.. You know if the bad guys have fakes like, they’re not going to put their own domain in the bid request. They’re going to say they’re USA TODAY or whoever. They’re going to say this is my domain and the advertiser will submit their bids.

But the point is they didn’t catch any of the Gannett stuff. This is a legitimate publisher that made a mistake. So if they can’t catch that, how in the heck are they going to catch the cases where the bad guy deliberately misdeclared the domain?.

Why don’t they catch that? 

Because they’re not even looking at the right places. I’m going to tell you my hypothesis based on my experience. So they would need to run their JavaScript and detect the page USA TODAY and then cross reference it to the domain that was passed in the bid request. They clearly are not doing that right. It’s so trivial. It’s so easy. They have code on the page that should be doing that. Their whole point is that they would find these mistakes or deliberate fraud and all that kind of stuff, but they’re failing at even the most basic stuff. so you know the March article from Wall Street Journal. Was that OK? They missed it. Today’s article says they had code on the page. They shouldn’t have missed it.

And they didn’t detect it because they weren’t looking for the right thing.


Why aren’t they looking for the right thing? 

I build fraud detection technology. I have a developer to actually code, I don’t code it myself, but I’ve been tuning the algorithm for the past ten years myself. So I can tell you that what happened, it’s no fault of their engineers,. They live in the code. They would not have accounted for these scenarios [like page fraud]. Maybe their code is tuned for looking for bot traffic and not this is stuff that occurs on the page itself. [A situation] where they should have run the code to detect the page, where it came from and then compared it to the domain that was passed in the bid request. So they may simply not have known to do that because they’re coders, they’re not ad tech people. They don’t understand how ad tech works and they don’t understand what constitutes fraud or not. So it’s hard for them to proactively catch any of this stuff. 

Most of their work is reactive, like, oh, there’s been this huge botnet, huge amount of fraud that’s so obvious. For example, I’ll tell you something that came up yesterday. Twenty-eight million clicks were delivered on the same day to a particular publisher. OK, how is that possible. It didn’t even pass a gut check. Once they see that kind of stuff, then they go back and figure out what their detection missed, and then they try to catch up. It’s really like the arms race. Bad guys are always ahead and on occasion they mess up and we see something that we missed and then we try to update our algorithms. So, that’s why they’re missing a lot of this stuff. They simply didn’t even know to look for it.

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So it’s like with computer security software. They can only look for what they know. They’ll miss anything new.

Exactly. So you know once one company sees a malware signature then they share it with everyone else. Everyone else can look for the malware signature,. 

Does malware play a part in this?

Yes. How does malware make money? Historically, they’ve just harvested people’s passwords and other private information. Because it sits on your mobile phone it can listen to everything and most humans don’t turn it off, and when people are at home they have constant Wi-Fi access. 

Now, the malware is loading ad impressions in the background. They’re making money through digital advertising because the advertisers don’t know that they’re paying for ad impressions that end up being loaded by malware. The advertisers want to buy 10 billion ad impressions,. There’s not enough humans to generate that much traffic. So then all of these fake sites will come in and will manufacture the quantities out of thin air and sell it to you. 

Is this a fundamental problem with ad verification or is this something that can be dealt with? 

From the fraud perspective it hasn’t been solved because people don’t want to solve it. Let me be a little more specific. The advertisers who are paying the money, they want to buy hundreds of billions of ad impressions. You can’t buy that much quantity without the fraud. Most humans visit a small quantity of sites repeatedly. That’s where you get the large quantities of human audiences.  When you get into the long tail, there’s just not enough humans to generate that many ad impressions. The only way to do that is by using bot activity to repeatedly load the web pages and cause ads to load. 

How does this work?

As a result, basically every middleman, every ad exchange, every publisher has incentives to use more fraud. So that’s why I said ad fraud has not been solved because nobody wants to solve it. Even the advertisers, even the middle men. Everyone wants it to continue because they’re making money. The main people that are harmed are the publishers. So the big publishers, newspapers, they now can’t compete against fake sites.

Maybe I’m naive, but I would think that as an advertiser, I’d want to get the actual views I’m paying for.

They don’t know. They think they’re getting it because they’re getting Excel spreadsheets that tell them how many ads they bought and how many clicks they got. They never asked the follow up question. “Are those real ads seen by real people? And are those clicks real?” 

I’ve been writing about it for 10 years. Among the ad purchasers, they know it exists, but basically they’ll say, “Oh well, I think it happens to somebody else because [our ad verification firm] tell us that the fraud is less than 1%.”

In fact, I’ll show you in my article from yesterday: “One way to tell obviously fake bid requests is to see if there’s a deviceID present — Identifier for Advertising (IDFA) or the Google Advertising ID (AAID). So what do bad guys do? They pass a deviceID in the bid request. If the fraud detection doesn’t check if the deviceID is a real one, all they have to do is generate a random deviceID that has the same format as real ones. The fraud detection only checked for the presence of the deviceID, not whether it was real or not. So defeating that kind of fraud detection is laughably simple.”

Is there any point to asking you what can be done or what should be done? 

We can’t incrementally solve this. We have to have the entire house of cards crash so that we can actually get back to real digital advertising and all that means is advertisers like CPG companies, financial services or whomever buying from real publishers like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Hearst, Condé. That’s where the humans are.

So we’ve had ten years worth of fake sites and all the ad exchanges in the middle, basically spewing false metrics to say you got this many ad impressions. You got such a high clickthrough rate, so everyone thought it was working really, really well when it was 100% fabricated. Still, the way to solve this is we have to make this whole thing crash and come down so that we can go back to advertisers buying ads from publishers.

Read this: Gannett ad fraud mishap highlights concerns about programmatic advertising

About The Author

Constantine von Hoffman is managing editor of MarTech. A veteran journalist, Con has covered business, finance, marketing and tech for, Brandweek, CMO, and Inc. He has been city editor of the Boston Herald, news producer at NPR, and has written for Harvard Business Review, Boston Magazine, Sierra, and many other publications. He has also been a professional stand-up comedian, given talks at anime and gaming conventions on everything from My Neighbor Totoro to the history of dice and boardgames, and is author of the magical realist novel John Henry the Revelator. He lives in Boston with his wife, Jennifer, and either too many or too few dogs.

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How to optimize your online forms and checkouts



How to optimize your online forms and checkouts

Forms are probably the most important part of your customer journey. They are the final step where the user entrusts you with their precious personal information in exchange for the goods or services you’ve promised.

And yet, too many companies spend minimal time on making sure their form experience is a good one for their users. They don’t use data to establish where the UX problems are on their forms, and they don’t run form-specific experiments to determine how to improve their conversion rate. As a result, too many forms are unnecessarily driving potential customers away, burning potential revenue and leads that could have been converted if they had only spent a little time and effort on optimization. Two-thirds of people who start a form don’t go on to complete it, meaning that a lot of money is being left on the table.

This article contains some of our top tips to help optimize your forms + checkouts with the goal of improving their conversion rate and delivering more customers and leads.

Use data to identify your problem fields

While user testing and session replay tools are useful in identifying possible form issues, you should also be using a specialist form analytics tool, as this will allow you to quantify the scale of the problem – where are most people dropping out – and prioritize improvements accordingly. A good form analytics tool will have advanced insights that will help work out what the problem is as well, giving you a head start on creating hypotheses for testing.

A/B test your forms

We’ve already mentioned how important it is to nurture your forms like any other part of your website. This also applies to experimentation. Your A/B testing tool such as Optimizely should allow you to easily put together a test to see if your hypothesis will improve your conversion rate. If there is also an integration with your form analytics tool you should then be able to push the test variants into it for further analysis.

Your analytics data and user testing should guide your test hypothesis, but some aspects you may want to look at are:

  • Changing the error validation timing (to trigger upon input rather than submission)
  • Breaking the form into multiple steps rather than a single page
  • Removing or simplifying problem fields
  • Manage user expectations by adding a progress bar and telling them how long the form will take upfront
  • Removing links to external sites so they are not distracted
  • Re-wording your error messages to make them more helpful

Focus on user behavior after a failed submission

Potential customers who work their way through their form, inputting their personal information, before clicking on the final ‘Submit’ button are your most valuable. They’ve committed time and effort to your form; they want what you are offering. If they click that button but can’t successfully complete the form, something has gone wrong, and you will be losing conversions that you could have made.

Fortunately, there are ways to use your form data to determine what has gone wrong so you can improve the issue.

Firstly, you should look at your error message data for this particular audience. Which messages are shown when they click ‘Submit? What do they do then? Do they immediately abandon, or do they try to fix the issue?

If you don’t have error message tracking (or even if you do), it is worth looking at a Sankey behavior flow for your user’s path after a failed submission. This audience will click the button then generally jump back to the field they are having a problem with. They’ll try to fix it, unsuccessfully, then perhaps bounce back and forth between the problem field a couple of times before abandoning in frustration. By looking at the flow data, you can determine the most problematic fields and focus your attention there.

Microcopy can make the checkout experience less stressful

If a user is confused, it makes their form/checkout experience much less smooth than it otherwise could be. Using microcopy – small pieces of explanatory information – can help reduce anxiety and make it more likely that they will complete the form.

Some good uses of microcopy on your forms could be:

  • Managing user expectations. Explain what information they need to enter in the form so they can have it on hand. For example, if they are going to need their driver’s licence, then tell them so.
  • Explain fields. Checkouts often ask for multiple addresses. Think “Current Address”, “Home Address” and “Delivery Address”. It’s always useful to make it clear exactly what you mean by these so there is no confusion.
  • Field conditions. If you have strict stipulations on password creation, make sure you tell the user. Don’t wait until they have submitted to tell them you need special characters, capital letters, etc.
  • You can often nudge the user in a certain direction with a well-placed line of copy.
  • Users are reluctant to give you personal information, so explaining why you need it and what you are going to do with it is a good idea.

A good example of reassuring microcopy

Be careful with discount codes

What is the first thing a customer does if they are presented with a discount code box on an ecommerce checkout? That’s right, they open a new browser tab and go searching for vouchers. Some of them never come back. If you are using discount codes, you could be driving customers away instead of converting them. Some studies show that users without a code are put off purchasing when they see the discount code box.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can continue to offer discount codes while mitigating the FOMO that users without one feel:

  • Use pre-discounted links. If you are offering a user a specific discount, email a link rather than giving them a code, which will only end up on a discount aggregator site.
  • Hide the coupon field. Make the user actively open the coupon box rather than presenting them with it smack in the middle of the flow.
  • Host your own offers. Let every user see all the offers that are live so they can be sure that they are not missing out.
  • Change the language. Follow Amazon’s lead and combine the Gift Card & Promotional Codes together to make it less obvious.

An example from Amazon on how to make the discount code field less prominent

Get error messages right

Error messages don’t have to be bad UX. If done right, they can help guide users through your form and get them to commit.

How do you make your error messages useful?

  • Be clear that they are errors. Make the messages standout from the form – there is a reason they are always in red.
  • Be helpful. Explain exactly what the issue is and tell the user how to fix it. Don’t be ambiguous.

Don’t do this!

  • Display the error next to the offending field. Don’t make the user have to jump back to the top of the form to find out what is wrong.
  • Use microcopy. As noted before, if you explain what they need to do early, they users are less likely to make mistakes.

Segment your data by user groups

Once you’ve identified an issue, you’ll want to check whether it affects all your users or just a specific group. Use your analytics tools to break down the audience and analyze this. Some of the segmentations you might want to look at are:

  • Device type. Do desktop and mobile users behave differently?
  • Operating system. Is there a problem with how a particular OS renders your form?
  • New vs. returning. Are returning users more or less likely to convert than first timers?
  • Do different product buyers have contrasting expectations of the checkout?
  • Traffic source. Do organic sources deliver users with higher intent than paid ones?


About the author

Alun Lucas is the Managing Director of Zuko Analytics. Zuko is an Optimizely partner that provides form optimization software that can identify when, where and why users are abandoning webforms and help get more customers successfully completing your forms.

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3 Smart Bidding Strategies To Help You Get the Most Out of Your Google Ads



3 Smart Bidding Strategies To Help You Get the Most Out of Your Google Ads

Now that we’ve officially settled into the new year, it’s important to reiterate that among the most effective ways to promote your business are Google Ads. Not only do Google Ads increase your brand visibility, but they also make it easier for you to sell your services and products while generating more traffic to your website.

The thing about Google Ads, though, is that setting up (and running) a Google Ads campaign isn’t easy – in fact, it’s pretty beginner-unfriendly and time-consuming. And yet, statistically speaking, no platform does what Google Ads can do when it comes to audience engagement and outreach. Therefore, it will be beneficial to learn about and adopt some smart bidding strategies that can help you get the most out of your Google Ads.

To that end, let’s check out a few different bidding strategies you can put behind your Google Ads campaigns, how these strategies can maximize the results of your Google Ads, and the biggest benefits of each strategy.

Smart bidding in Google Ads: what does it mean, anyway?

Before we cover the bidding strategies that can get the most out of your Google Ads, let’s define what smart bidding means. Basically, it lets Google Ads optimize your bids for you. That doesn’t mean that Google replaces you when you leverage smart bidding, but it does let you free up time otherwise spent on keeping track of the when, how, and how much when bidding on keywords.

The bidding market is simply too big – and changing too rapidly – for any one person to keep constant tabs on it. There are more than 5.5 billion searches that Google handles every day, and most of those searches are subject to behind-the-scenes auctions that determine which ads display based on certain searches, all in a particular order.

That’s where smart bidding strategies come in: they’re a type of automated bidding strategy to generate more conversions and bring in more money, increasing your profits and cash flow. Smart bidding is your way of letting Google Ads know what your goals are (a greater number of conversions, a goal cost per conversion, more revenue, or a better ROAS), after which Google checks what it’s got on file for your current conversion data and then applies that data to the signals it gets from its auctions.

Types of smart bidding strategies

Now that you know what smart bidding in Google Ads is and why it’s important, let’s cover the best smart bidding strategies you can use to your advantage.

Maximize your conversions

The goal of this strategy is pretty straightforward: maximize your conversions and get the most out of your budget’s allocation toward said conversions. Your conversions, be they a form submission, a customer transaction, or a simple phone call, are something valuable that you want to track and, of course, maximize.

The bottom line here is simply generating the greatest possible number of conversions for your budget. This strategy can potentially become costly, so remember to keep an eye on your cost-per-click and how well your spending is staying inside your budget.

If you want to be extra vigilant about keeping conversion costs in a comfy range, you can define a CPA goal for your maximize conversions strategy (assuming you’ve got this feature available).

Target cost per acquisition

The purpose behind this strategy is to meet or surpass your cost-per-acquisition objective that’s tied to your daily budget. When it comes to this strategy, it’s important to determine what your cost-per-acquisition goal is for the strategy you’re pursuing.

In most cases, your target cost per acquisition goal will be similar to the 30-day average you’ve set for your Google Ads campaign. Even if this isn’t going to be your end-all-be-all CPA goal, you’ll want to use this as a starting point.

You’ll have lots of success by simply leveraging target cost per acquisition on a campaign-by-campaign basis, but you can take this one step further by creating a single tCPA bid strategy that you share between every single one of your campaigns. This makes the most sense when running campaigns with identical CPA objectives. That’s because you’ll be engaging with a bidding strategy that’s fortified with a lot of aggregate data from which Google’s algorithm can draw, subsequently endowing all of your campaigns with some much-needed experience.

Maximize clicks

As its name implies, this strategy centers around ad optimization to gain as many clicks as possible based on your budget. We recommend using the maximize clicks strategy if you’re trying to drive more traffic to your website. The best part? Getting this strategy off the ground is about as easy as it gets.

All you need to do to get started with maximizing clicks is settle on a maximum cost-per-click that you then earmark. Once that’s done, you can decide how much money you want to shell out every time you pay for a bid. You don’t actually even need to specify an amount per bid since Google will modify your bids for you to maximize your clicks automatically.

Picture this: you’ve got a website you’re running and want to drive more traffic to it. You decide to set your maximum bid per click at $2.5. Google looks at your ad, adjusts it to $3, and automatically starts driving more clicks per ad (and more traffic to your site), all without ever going over the budget you set for your Google Ads campaign.


If you’ve been using manual bidding until now, you probably can’t help but admit that you spend way too much time wrangling with it. There are plenty of other things you’d rather be – and should be – spending your time on. Plus, bids change so quickly that trying to keep up with them manually isn’t even worth it anymore.

Thankfully, you’ve now got a better grasp on automated and smart bidding after having read through this article, and you’re aware of some important options you have when it comes to strategies for automated bidding. Now’s a good time to explore even more Google Ads bidding strategies and see which ones make the most sense when it comes to your unique and long-term business objectives. Settle on a strategy and then give it a whirl – you’ll only know whether a strategy is right for you after you’ve tested it time and time again. Good luck!

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Is Twitter Still a Thing for Content Marketers in 2023?



Is Twitter Still a Thing for Content Marketers in 2023?

The world survived the first three months of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover.

But what are marketers doing now? Did your brand follow the shift Dennis Shiao made for his personal brand? As he recently shared, he switched his primary platform from Twitter to LinkedIn after the 2022 ownership change. (He still uses Twitter but posts less frequently.)

Are those brands that altered their strategy after the new ownership maintaining that plan? What impact do Twitter’s service changes (think Twitter Blue subscriptions) have?

We took those questions to the marketing community. No big surprise? Most still use Twitter. But from there, their responses vary from doing nothing to moving away from the platform.

Lowest points

At the beginning of the Elon era, more than 500 big-name advertisers stopped buying from the platform. Some (like Amazon and Apple) resumed their buys before the end of 2022. Brand accounts’ organic activity seems similar.

In November, Emplifi research found a 26% dip in organic posting behavior by U.S. and Canadian brands the week following a significant spike in the negative sentiment of an Elon tweet. But that drop in posting wasn’t a one-time thing.

Kyle Wong, chief strategy officer at Emplifi, shares a longer analysis of well-known fast-food brands. When comparing December 2021 to December 2022 activity, the brands posted 74% less, and December was the least active month of 2022.

Fast-food brands posted 74% less on @Twitter in December 2022 than they did in December 2021, according to @emplifi_io analysis via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When Emplifi analyzed brand accounts across industries (2,330 from U.S. and Canada and 6,991 elsewhere in the world), their weekly Twitter activity also fell to low points in November and December. But by the end of the year, their activity was inching up.

“While the percentage of brands posting weekly is on the rise once again, the number is still lower than the consistent posting seen in earlier months,” Kyle says.

Quiet-quitting Twitter

Lacey Reichwald, marketing manager at Aha Media Group, says the company has been quiet-quitting Twitter for two months, simply monitoring and posting the occasional link. “It seems like the turmoil has settled down, but the overall impact of Twitter for brands has not recovered,” she says.

@ahamediagroup quietly quit @Twitter for two months and saw their follower count go up, says Lacey Reichwald via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

She points to their firm’s experience as a potential explanation. Though they haven’t been posting, their follower count has gone up, and many of those new follower accounts don’t seem relevant to their topic or botty. At the same time, Aha Media saw engagement and follows from active accounts in the customer segment drop.

Blue bonus

One change at Twitter has piqued some brands’ interest in the platform, says Dan Gray, CEO of Vendry, a platform for helping companies find agency partners to help them scale.

“Now that getting a blue checkmark is as easy as paying a monthly fee, brands are seeing this as an opportunity to build thought leadership quickly,” he says.

Though it remains to be seen if that strategy is viable in the long term, some companies, particularly those in the SaaS and tech space, are reallocating resources to energize their previously dormant accounts.

Automatic verification for @TwitterBlue subscribers led some brands to renew their interest in the platform, says Dan Gray of Vendry via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

These reenergized accounts also are seeing an increase in followers, though Dan says it’s difficult to tell if it’s an effect of the blue checkmark or their renewed emphasis on content. “Engagement is definitely up, and clients and agencies have both noted the algorithm seems to be favoring their content more,” he says.

New horizon

Faizan Fahim, marketing manager at Breeze, is focused on the future. They’re producing videos for small screens as part of their Twitter strategy. “We are guessing soon Elon Musk is going to turn Twitter into TikTok/YouTube to create more buzz,” he says. “We would get the first moving advantage in our niche.”

He’s not the only one who thinks video is Twitter’s next bet. Bradley Thompson, director of marketing at DigiHype Media and marketing professor at Conestoga College, thinks video content will be the next big thing. Until then, text remains king.

“The approach is the same, which is a focus on creating and sharing high-quality content relevant to the industry,” Bradley says. “Until Twitter comes out with drastically new features, then marketing and managing brands on Twitter will remain the same.

James Coulter, digital marketing director at Sole Strategies, says, “Twitter definitely still has a space in the game. The question is can they keep it, or will they be phased out in favor of a more reliable platform.”

Interestingly given the thoughts of Faizan and Bradley, James sees businesses turning to video as they limit their reliance on Twitter and diversify their social media platforms. They are now willing to invest in the resource-intensive format given the exploding popularity of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and other short-form video content.

“We’ve seen a really big push on getting vendors to help curate video content with the help of staff. Requesting so much media requires building a new (social media) infrastructure, but once the expectations and deliverables are in place, it quickly becomes engrained in the weekly workflow,” James says.

What now

“We are waiting to see what happens before making any strong decisions,” says Baruch Labunski, CEO at Rank Secure. But they aren’t sitting idly by. “We’ve moved a lot of our social media efforts to other platforms while some of these things iron themselves out.”

What is your brand doing with Twitter? Are you stepping up, stepping out, or standing still? I’d love to know. Please share in the comments.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.


Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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