Ad Fraud Costs Companies Billions Every Year. Should African Brands Be Worried?

African ad buyers don’t like to discuss it. And there are good reasons why. The ad fraud rabbit hole is deep and...

In the global infinity pool of ad fraud, nobody is safe. At Focus PPC, we see instances of ad fraud every day.

Without proper monitoring and exclusions, our clients would be losing oodles of cash to fraudulent inventories every day.

Without proper monitoring and exclusions, our clients would be losing oodles of cash to fraudulent inventories daily.

Ad fraud is not exciting.

African ad buyers don’t like to discuss it. And there are good reasons why. The ad fraud rabbit hole is deep and confusing. Many categories of it will confuse the most astute marketer.

Moreso, to the mind of most brand managers, Africa is still shielded from the sophisticated categories of ad fraud that happens in more technologically advanced markets like China, Europe, and the Americas.

This perceived safety is standing on shaky legs, however.

In the global infinity pool of ad fraud, nobody is safe. At Focus PPC where I oversee ad buying for some of our key clients targeting consumers in West Africa and France, we see instances of ad fraud every day.

Without proper monitoring and exclusions, our clients would be losing oodles of cash to fraudulent inventories every day.

The consensus on the cost of ad fraud to businesses is tenuous at the moment, but different studies admit that it’s in the billions. In 2019, stated that between 2018 to 2022, the cost of global digital advertising fraud to brands would witness an exponential growth from $19bn to $44bn.

What is ad fraud?

Ad fraud is when impressions and clicks coming to your ad units originate from fraudulent, invalid/non-human sources to the extent that they inflate your online advertising cost while increasing the publisher’s earnings.

How this affects you directly is that a sizable chunk of your budget is going towards paying for impressions and clicks that haven’t been delivered by a human.

What forms of ad fraud can affect you?

There are different types of ad fraud happening on the internet every day. My friend; Oluwole Adeosun wrote about some of them recently (you can check out his treatise). I’ll touch on a few more of them briefly below in the order in which they affect the buyer’s journey:

Focus PPC - Ad Fraud types - Digital Marketing Agency

Awareness | CPM Attacks.

At the top of the marketing funnel is “awareness” — which a keen marketer would get through CPM (cost per mille) bidding — where publishers charge a predetermined price for every thousand times your ad is supposedly shown. The price for CPM differs from market to market. For example, an FMCG brand targeting consumers in Ghana might agree to pay $3 for every thousand views of your ad, but this bidding strategy is the more vulnerable to ad fraud attacks. Here are some of them:

#1. Rapidly Rotating Banner Ads.

On honest websites, CPM works great. You can access a huge inventory at a small cost. But sketchy publishers might increase the number of impressions on your ad (and their revenue) through the Rapidly Rotating Banner Ads fraud.

By rapidly rotating ads; showing your ads along with ads from other digital advertisers for only a few seconds, they increase how many times your ad is ‘viewed’ by a user as well as your marketing cost.

An ad seen for only three seconds offers no benefit to your brand. Your target audience has had no chance to notice the ad not to speak of clicking on it.

#2. Stacked Banners / Banner Farms.

In another type of CPM attack, fraudulent publishers inflate their impression figures by stacking many banner ads into a pile so that users are only able to see the corners of many ads including yours at the same time. This provides no real value to you.

#3. Invisible Ads.

In perhaps the most flagrant version of impression frauds; some publishers load many ads in invisible windows where users cannot see the ads at all.

In a case from 2009, created 41 extra invisible windows when users visit the website loading several banner ads that are not visible to the human eyes. Though users have not seen these ads, you still have to pay for them as an advertiser. Thankfully is out of business after they were outed several years ago, but there are many other publishers like them still running this scheme today.

Interest / Consideration | PPC Attacks

PPC (Pay per click) ads do two things in the context of this piece. They (a) drive your prospects further down your marketing funnel and (b) since no user will click on invisible ads or stacked ads, PPC naturally deters fraudulent publishers from siphoning your marketing budget through schemes such as the ones listed above. Sadly, clicks can be faked with surprising ease. Here are some ways your PPC strategy are targeted by bad actors:

#4. Click Farms

Imagine a dark warehouse packed with computers and phones, with low-paid employees spending days and nights clicking ads. Each worker gets paid a few dollars per thousand clicks. That’s click farms. Click farms, like the ones featured here, here, and here, click on ads on a publisher’s site — increasing impressions and ad revenue for the publisher while inflating your ad cost without a corresponding business benefit. In deathly competitive markets, some competitors hire these click spamming farms to click on their competitor’s ads to drive up their marketing ad spend.

#5. Botnets / Adware

It’s also surprisingly easy to write software to make a user’s computer click a paid ad when indeed the user had not done any such thing. These botnets fake-click ads and inflate your ad budget.

Millions of computers around the world are infected with botnets. According to some estimates, over 150 million computers are infected. After eight years of tracking and planning, Microsoft and its partners across 35 countries just made headway in their efforts to disrupt one of the world’s most prolific botnets called Necurs.

Conversion | CPA Attacks.

I know what you are thinking; “if clicks and impressions are compromised I can safeguard my budget against click fraud by focusing only on sales. Essentially, focus on CPA (cost per acquisition) bidding. Enter syndication fraud.


#6. Syndication Fraud

Syndication fraud works by charging you for the fraudulent traffic you would have gotten for free anyway. This is something you may have experienced yourself when a browser extension adds a search bar in the place your address bar would normally be present. In this switch and bait, when a user enters a URL, the extension runs a search as opposed to being taken straight to the homepage requested.

On the now-rigged results page, chances are all the links will be a sponsored links disguised as normal ones. The advertiser (you) will then pay Google for the ads who in turn pays the dubious publisher. The report from your ad agency will show that your conversion rates are up and to the right, but without this syndication fraud, these are clicks you would have gotten for free anyway.

These are a lot of ways I could be defrauded, how can I protect my budget from ad fraud?

Yes, there are many ad fraud schemes and we are barely scratching the surface with the ones we’ve listed here.

Some schemes would force you to throw up your hands in frustration at the devilish ingenuity of the people behind them. Domain spoofing, SDK spoofing, Ghost Sites, pixel stuffing, ad injection, etc are some more to look out for.

The bad news is that for some of these fraud schemes, it’s hard to defend against them. At least, you probably are unable to do it by yourself. The good news is that accountability-focused agencies like Focus PPC employ all ad-fraud avoidance measures to make sure instances of fraud are limited significantly with your campaigns.

But I know you are curious to peek under the hood. How can you have an effective ad fraud prevention strategy if you want to do-it-yourself? We use a combination of these tactics at Focus PPC:

  • Install ad verification code on your ads to identify and blacklist unsafe inventory.
  • Employ technology-assisted human vetting weekly to identify fraudulent publishers. Look out for ghost sites and low-quality sites who are the biggest harbingers of banner farm frauds.
  • Look out for exchanges offering a suspiciously low price for cost per mille. Odd are these impressions are from banner farms and won’t offer you any meaningful business outcome.
  • Use exclusion lists to ensure that websites suspected of suspicious high clicks are removed.
  • Use blacklists to ensure that previously suspected bad IPs are blocked from your campaigns.
  • Work directly with publishers to install your HTML5 ad/upload your banner directly to their website without using an exchange. This is called managed placement and is a bright idea because reputable publishers have a higher percentage of fraud-free inventory.

Final thoughts:

Ad fraud is a big problem for brands. Whether you see it or not, it’s happening. If you haven’t already, you must start building out your ad-fraud avoidance measures or ask your agency to do so. That way you get what your ad budget pays for.

I hope this article provided you with some practical ideas to improve your efforts to limit ad fraud and improve your ad performance.

If you want more ideas or want to discuss how ad fraud schemes I have shared here are affecting you specifically, leave a comment or send me a message. I’d be happy to grab a cup of coffee to chop it up.

To your success.

Content marketing and digital strategy are his jam. Gbenga oversees quality delivery across accounts