Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Sep 27

Uncovering Ad Fraud at Financial Times: $1.3 Million PER MONTH

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising.

Investigation reveals “organized crime” at one paper – how many more are undiscovered?

I know that I sound like a broken record on this subject, but for God’s sake, it’s been 3 years now since pretty much everybody in the digital ad industry acknowledged that there was a problem with the online ad ecosystem. To whit: advertisers are buying ads that NOBODY IS SEEING. 

via GIPHY

The botnet clickfraud problems are well-known. Here’s how that works:

  1. Online crooks pretend to be honest news sites, but really scrape content.
  2. The crooks then contract with ad exchanges who apparently ask no questions and do no real verification
  3. Crooks get ads placed on their pages.
  4. Crooks unleash swarms of bots on hacked computers around the world to click on these ads. Over and over again.
  5. Free money rolls in
  6. Advertisers wonder why their ad campaigns aren’t performing

The “newest” wrinkle in online clickfraud: pretend to be an honest & respected publisher

According to DigiDay, an internal investigation by the Financial Times, one of the biggest, most high-value publishers in the world, revealed that crooks were impersonating them and stealing about $1.3 million per month. (I actually shouldn’t say that this is a new wrinkle, because the tech nerds have been sounding the alarm over this practice for years, but it’s “new” in that the advertising industry seems to finally be taking it seriously. Ok, Ok. There’s a lot of room in that qualifier “seems.” But still. It’s something.)

On at least 10 different ad exchanges, there were people/organizations claiming to be the Financial Times, selling ads on the FT.com site. The problem is, the sites that these ads were appearing on had nothing to do with the FT.

“The scale of the fraud we found is jaw-dropping,” said Anthony Hitchings, the FT’s digital advertising operations director. “The industry continues to waste marketing budgets on what is essentially organized crime.”

Let’s break this down just a little bit more, to make it explicit.

  1. Crooks don’t even bother building their own fake news site, but instead impersonate a “high value” publisher
  2. Crooks contract with ad-selling sites, pretending to be the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Sports Illustrated – whatever site you can name that has a lot of respect and that has an audience that advertisers covet 
  3. Advertisers rush to buy ads
  4. Free money rolls in

The tech that is uncovering this clickfraud is part of an effort by the IAB to crack down on the fraud, because duh. (var “duh” = utter destruction of online advertising business model unless addressed) 

It’s called Ads.txt, and it’s basically a “whitelist” of authorized ad sellers. Which is kind of a brilliant move … but also a little troubling, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit. They’ve got nifty little flowchart-esque graphics on the IAB site, which you can see below, that lay out how they think the flow of ad money should work:

how does ads.txt work for publishers and advertisers

This is simplistic to the point of being somewhat dense, but you get the idea.

This is their description of the problem, which again reads like a doctoral-level thesis on understatement:

The ads.txt project aims to prevent various types of counterfeit inventory across the ecosystem by improving transparency in the digital programmatic supply chain.

When a brand advertiser buys media programmatically, they rely on the fact that the URLs they purchase were legitimately sold by those publishers. The problem is, there is currently no way for a buyer to confirm who is responsible for selling those impressions across exchanges, and there are many different scenarios when the URL passed may not be an accurate representation of what the impression actually is or who is selling it. While every impression already includes publisher information from the OpenRTB protocol, including the page URL and Publisher.ID, there is no record or information confirming who owns each Publisher.ID, nor any way to confirm the validity of the information sent in the RTB bid request, leaving the door open to counterfeit inventory.

Fair enough. And their solution of creating a database where advertisers can check to see that what they are buying is what they are getting is a solid effort. However.

Here’s why I have some concerns: If you are going to flag a publisher as being suspect until such time as they get your “IAB Stamp Of Approval,” where does that leave the startups that we work with, who have not yet progressed to the level of, say, a Financial Times?

And what happens when a smaller publisher, who has been aggressively reporting on, say, the activities of a criminal gang that uses clickfraud as a cheap&easy revenue stream … is the target of a “smear” campaign by said criminals? One that then disqualifies said investigative journalists from participating in ad exchanges?

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Jun 21

Whither Digital Advertising, Mid-2017 Edition: NYTimes Take; Analytics to the Rescue!

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Are we about to see advertisers “flee to quality”?

And would a complete overhaul of digital advertising be good for journalists and netizens who produce honest, high-quality content (and more importantly, bad for Fake News)? Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times (a publication that now is the poster child for abandoning advertising in favor of subscription revenue), unloaded on the complex ad-delivery technology that’s arisen in the past 10 years, pointing out all the flaws that have been glaringly evident to anyone who has paid attention to the space. Do a quick search for “clickfraud” and count backwards to when the articles started appearing – hell, I’ve been yammering about it on this blog for at least 5 years myself.

ad clickfraud search results june 2017 digital advertising

Not just the sheer number of results – check out the related searches as well. Right out there in the open: tools for you to launch your very own online fraud business.

Read More

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Dec 01

Solutions to Fake News 1: Deny Lie Merchants Access to Premium Ad Revenue

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?

There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.

journalist taking notes rather than creating fake news stories

Actual journalists take notes and try to verify information before publishing. Fake News sites just make stuff up.

The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).

A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:

  1. Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
  2. Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
  3. Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.

A history of fake news reporting here on Sips

I’ve written about these kinds of scams here on Sips.

I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.

All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.

Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:

Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.

The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.

Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.

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Dec 16

How the Online Trojan/Virus Hackers Make Money

Posted: under adsense clickfraud.
Tags: , , , , ,

This is a great flow chart, explaining how the Dark Side of the internet uses your unwary clicks to generate real money. (h/t ComputerSchool.org)

It’s interesting to see the actual breakdown of how stealing your passwords and compromising your bank accounts can pay off for fraudsters. I was surprised to see that bank account passwords are not as valuable as I thought – only a 1% return, because of “risks for withdrawing the money.” Woulda thought the scammers were better than that – a couple years ago, my accounts were drained using withdrawals from ATMs at casinos out in the No-Man’s-Land between LA and Vegas. Guess they must’ve patched that particular security hole.

Anyway, this is one of the more interesting (and frequently alarming) flow charts I’ve run across in a while.

Malware.

Infographic by Computer School

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Jan 19

APT on Shaky Ground: Yahoo’s Ad Sales Partnership with Newspapers

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, Digital Migration, Newspaper Deathwatch.
Tags: , , , , ,

Three quick hits:

1. Here’s an interesting article about the one bit of bright news the newspaper industry had in the past year or so – the APT partnership with Yahoo that allowed newspapers to use Yahoo’s user-targeting technology to serve up ads. Here’s CNBC’s description:

It’s an online marketplace for display ads.

It allows publishers of display ads (like newspapers) and buyers of those ads to connect in this web platform that’s intended to be an efficient, transparent system.

Apparently the business of selling display ads is incredibly time intensive and complex- it even involves old fashioned technology like -gasp- fax machines to demonstrate what an ad would look like. This new technology aims to make the process of selecting and targeting display ads fast and easy.

Well, unfortunately, there’s a new CEO in town, and the APT partnership with newspapers is one of the things that Carol Bartz will be taking a look at. And with the sad & sorry shape of newspapers these days, having Yahoo get all “what have you done for me lately, baby?” is not optimal.

Or maybe it’s part ROI and part gut instinct. Maybe Bartz reads the (thinning) newspapers and decides that there’s not a lot of upside in her company investing its resources heavily in association with what looks like a dying industry.

2. Meanwhile, over at BrassTacks Design, the whole form & appearance of online display ads is being questioned.

CPC works for Google. It works for Google’s advertisers. It will work for newspaper Web sites.

Uh, no. Sorry, but no. Make that, “Hell, no.”  CPC would be a disaster for a newspaper that has to pay to produce content, and therefore, the ad space is limited and costly.  Google’s ad space is created via spiders & algorithms – far cheaper than a pavement-pounding reporter or stogie-chomping city editor.

Google’s ad spaces are created by users typing in search strings.  So a craptastic ad for Lizard potty-training manuals written in Urdu really doesn’t mean all that much.

That same CPC ad crammed onto the front page of a newspaper is a disaster.  Why? Because nobody but drive-by curious will click on it.

CPC only works in a blog or newspaper space when the products being sold are good.  It’s basically like an affiliate program.  You have shitty products that don’t sell – and the advertiser doesn’t really pay for the ad placement, but the content creator loses the valuable ad space on the page. 

And yeah, you can somewhat mitigate this by being choosy with your ads.  But there’s this thing called “Clickfraud,” see, and it’s one of the dirty little secrets that Google tries to keep a lid on. And that’s not even talking about “distribution fraud” – and if you don’t think that that is a risk in a desperate industry, look to the recent past, where circulation managers are doing stretches in the calaboose for cooking the numbers.  Viz:

So, even a Google executive is aware that this network needs to be cleaned up. Think about that. Even at the top level, Google knows it has a click fraud problem on its hands.

3. Meanwhile, over at Ethan Zuckerman’s blog, he raises some very pertinent questions about newspaper survivability, based on the increased efficiency and accountability that the web brings to advertising.

Here’s my concern. If I’m right and print advertising costs are fundamentally irrational, then it’s possible that the way we’ve built media in the United States can’t survive a transition to a more rational market. That would be bad. Newspapers aren’t just businesses – they serve a critical function in a democratic society, informing citizens so they can make intelligent voting decisions, lobby their elected representatives on issues of their concern and hold political and business powers accountable.

What if the idea that commercial enterprises should carry out the public interest function of journalism is built on a fundamentally broken model? What if advertising worked pretty well as a way of subsidizing public interest journalism only so long as advertisers didn’t understand the effectiveness of their ads? Putting aside all the other reasons why commercial journalism may be flawed – the tendency of newspapers and television channels to seek readers by publishing “edutainment” rather than investigation, the worry that papers will hesitate to publish stories that might embarrass advertisers – what if ad supported journalism is only viable in a world where we radically overvalue the worth of ads?

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Jul 07

NBC Throws Audience Measurement Methodologies at Olympics to See What Sticks

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, google, journalism, new media, Newspapers, Online Video, television.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Meanwhile, Google whistles nervously, hoping nobody thinks to raise the issue of AdSense clickfraud again…

There’s a yawning gulf in New Media. It stretches from the pittance that most media creators get for their ad space to the other side, where the results of those ads sit, filing their nails. In between are the bleached bones of media tracking companies that have tried to draw a connection between the two.

From the LA Times story:

NBC has created TAMI — the Total Audience Measurement Index — to better understand how viewers are consuming Olympic content. The system, which Wurtzel has spent the last year assembling, will use technology and old-fashioned focus groups to closely monitor this.

For example, Wurtzel will be able to tell with greater certainty whether viewers are surfing the Web in search of Olympic content. He will be able to determine whether live alerts delivered via cellphones drive fans to television sets or computer screens to catch a record-breaking performance. And he will see how fans use online and VOD replays.

The system also will attempt for the first time to track Olympic watching outside the home via mobile devices created by San Mateo, Calif.-based Integrated Media Measurement Inc. A limited number of people will have the cellphone-like devices designed to monitor every bit of media consumed — whether in a bar, a movie theater or someone else’s house.

NBC Universal also is assembling focus groups to find out how consumers are interacting with what Wurtzel described as “the first 360-degrees Olympics.”

This is refreshing. I’d like to see more major media outlets doing this. Why? Because it’s pretty much the only way to break Google’s stranglehold on ad dollars. See, the problem is that everybody has fallen in love with search advertising, because it seems to offer such great results. Someone clicks on the link, they come to your site, and then it’s up to you to get them to convert to sales, right?

But see, that kinda ignores one little point: howinhell did the user know what to search for in the first place? Clairvoyance? Come on.

I think if NBC can start connecting the two sides of the results gulf, they can start showing that ads on TV (and display ads in newspapers, and morning drive-time shout-athons) have a lot bigger effect than what Google has claimed. And that will mean that advertisers will start realizing that buying search ads is not the end-all, be-all of advertising.

Which could be a very, very good thing for all the Old Media giants who are stuck in midair over that yawning gulf, their feet doing the Wile E. Coyote mid-air invisible bicycle pedal…

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