And also for the real publishers, who both have their names dragged through the mud and lose out on advertising dollars in the process.
The good news is that solutions are being developed. Both the ads.txt initiative and its new-and-improved successor, ads.cert, address the issue of transparency in the digital ad supply chain in smart and effective ways.
How to Fix It
Just to recap: ads.txt involves adding a text file to publisher web servers, which lists all the middlemen who are authorized to sell ad space on their behalf. When inventory is placed on exchanges, buyers can then quickly and easily scan through to check they’re buying from a legitimate, authorized seller.
The system has a few problems, though. It isn’t totally immune to ad fraud – an authorized seller could, for example, repackage display content as video to sell at a higher price – and human errors like spelling mistakes penalize legitimate publishers and exchanges. For this reason, IAB came along with an improved version: ads.cert.
This uses cryptographically signed bid requests that allow you to track and authenticate the journey that ad inventory has taken. Unlike ads.txt, which only goes back as far as authenticating the person selling you the ad space right now, ads.cert stretches right back to the initial owner. In other words, you can trace that inventory all the way back through the digital supply chain to the publisher platform it will be on. No one can tamper with the records, so you know it’s legit.
Whose Job Is It, Though?
Here’s where things get tricky.
While it’s great that there’s a (relatively) straightforward solution at hand, putting it into practice isn’t so simple – at least not for the publishers who get lumbered with all the responsibility.
Ads.txt was one thing: while it did take a little bit of technical know-how to implement, most publishers could figure out how to install it with a little assistance. While many publishers may initially have been hesitant to figure out how it all worked, the latest Adtelligent Inc. research figures show that 67% of domains that use programmatic advertising have now got on board. Great stuff.
Ads.cert, though, is a different matter entirely. To use it, you have to upgrade your entire system from OpenRTB 2.5 to 3.0 (if you don’t happen to have done this already). If you’re not familiar with it, OpenRTB 3.0 is a type of tech infrastructure that the IAB developed for programmatic ad buyers and sellers to manage inventory sales, header bidding and so on.
Worse, you can’t actually use OpenRTB 3.0 with older legacy technology systems! This puts tremendous pressure on SSPs and DSPs to pay a fortune in engineering costs, just to get their systems compatible enough to work with the technology. No wonder many publishers are putting up a fight.
Backed Into a Corner
All of this, too, makes it feel pretty darn harsh that publishers, who are only one of the stakeholders that stand to gain from cleaning up the industry, are being expected to shoulder the full burden of implementing the solution.
Google and TAG have already announced that they will only work with publishers who implement ads.txt. Many other exchanges and buyers are piling on the pressure, too. And sure, when we were just talking about ads.txt, perhaps it wasn’t so crazy to ask publishers to do it – although, at the same time, no one was exactly jumping to help them out when problems arose with the system that ended up hitting their profits, and no one else’s.
But as the technological demands get more and more onerous, is it really fair to expect publishers to take on all the costs, time investment and upskilling to deal with these issues? Shouldn’t those making the demands – often, much larger and better resourced companies – be expected to extend some assistance or training to their publishing partners?
Everyone wants to see the end of ad spoofing. It’s a humongous problem that has seen millions of dollars effectively stolen from advertisers and the publishers they were trying to work with. It’s totally right that the Googles of the world are saying: no more, let’s find a way to make this whole thing transparent and traceable. We can all get behind that.
The problem comes when you start asking way too much of just one cog in the machine – a cog that, oftentimes, wasn’t really cut out for this particular problem. It is much like you are suddenly finding out that your job is on the line because you’ve been unfairly chosen to fix the whole company’s woes, so publishers are drawing the short straw when it comes to cleaning up the programmatic ad industry.
It’s time for all the cogs to start working together to make sure the entire engine is ticking along nicely.
By all means, publishers should make vital changes to ensure they’re doing their bit to prevent fraud, but they can’t do it alone. They need support and collaborative, industry-wide efforts to implement fair, effective, long-lasting solutions that will make all our jobs easier and to stamp out Ad tech fraud for good.