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Click-Fraud and Phantom Clicks: The Digital Ad Industry’s Dirty Little Secret

The entire digital advertising world is predicated on the notion that page views and ad clicks translate into sales. Branded websites and digital media companies tout impressive numbers, promising targeted demographics and grand returns—and charging commensurate prices. But how can you be sure that these bold claims are true?bot net sign with skull and cross bones

Recent work by journalists, publishers, and clients themselves raises more than a few reasons for doubt. Casting light on the shady world of online advertising, investigations like the October 14, 2013 exposé published in the industry-leading magazine Adweek are putting the Internet ad world on the defensive, and for good reason.

The investigation found that while some online advertisers are undoubtedly scrupulous, many are not, and at times it can be all but impossible to tell the difference. Indeed, fraudulent practices in the field are far from a fringe problem. Adweek concluded that “according to numerous sources across the ecosystem, fake traffic is essentially systemic to online advertising—it’s part of how the business works.” In fact, the president of marketing advisory firm Medialink told the magazine, as much as a quarter of the market is simply fabricated.

One common form of Internet-advertising deception involves misleading clients about the nature and placement of ads purchased. Some digital media companies have been found to deliver ads of a different type from the ones promised—for example, interstitials instead of pre-rolls. Others place ads calibrated for a particular demographic—say, the young, predominantly male visitors to Vice.com—on sites that target a completely different slice of the population, like Parenting.com. Pop-unders, ads placed in unviewable spots, and multiple banners stacked one-atop-another are frequently used, as well. Even branded websites often tout visitor data that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny, with huge volumes of traffic directed from unrelated or even empty sites.

Yet, beyond these tried-and-true tricks, online-advertising companies are employing a range of more sophisticated bad-faith techniques in order to inflate their viewership numbers. The Adweek investigation honed in on four in particular. Companies now generate “invisible traffic”; when Internet-goers visit one site, another is loaded invisibly at the same time, generating view counts for both. They are also relying on bots, or machines that automatically visit web pages and click on ads, to inflate viewership and click numbers. Blind networks send ads to illegal or unsavory sites, sometimes hiding the links so that visitors click on them unwittingly. Finally, a growing number of “click farm” services simply sell clicks and click-fraud outright.

The online advertising world’s mounting problems stem from multiple sources. With ad volumes so large, automated placement formulas result in “judgment” calls so poor no human would make them. The lack of adequate oversight of eventual ad placement only compounds the issue.

Of course, at its most basic level, the online advertising world’s problems boil down to a lack of concern for the client’s needs. The desire to make the quickest buck combined with the Wild West ethics of the still largely unregulated Internet are a volatile combination that rarely tends toward the client’s best interest.

The contrast between these impersonal and often unethical practices and the approach that guides Vision Media couldn’t be starker. At Vision Media, we know the ins-and-outs of every market we operate in, guaranteeing that your digital, radio or TV advertising will run exactly as intended. Demographic targeting, traffic, viewership and listenership figures are based upon solid research, and our commitment to earning the greatest returns on each client dollar means you’ll never pay for phantom advertising.

As the extent of poor and even deceptive practices by online marketers becomes increasingly clear, and the broader advertising landscape grows more complex, the value of attentive and personalized ad buying services has never been higher. You need an industry insider to help you avoid the scams and illusions. Leave the bots, the click-fraud and the click farms behind, and let Vision Media do what we do best: successfully placing both your digital and traditional ads for maximum returns.

Stephen Reed is the CEO and founder of Vision Media. Based in Redmond, Washington and established in 2002, Vision Media specializes in local and national media buying, strategy and consulting.