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Andrew Goode: why botnets are becoming the biggest thorn in the side of digital advertising

On the face of it, advertisers are enjoying the cost and performance benefits of programmatic buying, but botnets are strategically syphoning off advertising budget left, right and centre. Having been dazzled by programmatic buying’s ability to generate mass brand awareness for less, advertisers have inadvertently left themselves vulnerable to botnet attack. With advertisers investing ever-increasing amounts of money into digital, fraud is becoming a thorn in the side of the digital advertising community.

By 2015, it’s been predicted that digital ad spend will account for half of all paid media advertisement in the UK. With such huge investments being made online, advertisers need to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their campaigns. But currently, the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimates that 36 per cent of all web traffic is fraudulent, with some commentators claiming as much as 61 per cent being non-human traffic. If ads continue to be unknowingly served to botnets, advertisers will never know whether their content is cutting through and reaching the consumer.

350px-Botnet.svgThe bot masters behind the activity are very tactical in how they play the system. They infect unwitting users’ computers with malware, or bots, which in turn allows them to use otherwise reputable IP addresses to rack up fake page views on websites and fake click-throughs on adverts.

Bots will build user profiles by visiting legitimate sites, and then generate page views on websites that have been created specifically for the function of hosting ads. By artificially increasing traffic to their own sites they can tap into the proliferation of ad revenue coming from RTB platforms by providing low cost, and user profiled inventory by the truck load, and the creators can reap the financial rewards.

Despite the significance of the issue, according to Project Sunblock’s research, 78 per cent of UK advertisers remain in the dark as to how many of their digital ad impressions are seen at all. Subsequently, they have no prevention method in place to stop it from happening, and estimates suggest that ad fraud costs advertisers millions of pounds each year, and it is increasing, meaning the cost of not knowing is mounting.

With botnets putting advertisers’ ROI at risk, the first step in the fight against this escalating issue is to secure defences against known offenders. By arming themselves with real-time visibility and insight into where their adverts are being displayed, advertisers will be in the best position to ensure their ads aren’t fuelling online fraud. So when it comes to botnets, defence is the best form of attack because cutting off ad revenue to fraudulent sites is the only way of hitting fraudsters where it hurts.

But this is an ongoing battle and there’s no quick fix. Like parasites, botnets are feeding off advertisers and are growing ever smarter and more virulent. The returns available to bot masters make it worthwhile, making their activities harder and harder to detect. If measures aren’t taken in order to mitigate against the risks of bot traffic, money-making botnets have the potential to sabotage the future business value of the entire digital ad space.

unnamedAndrew Goode is COO of Project Sunblock which specialises in helping advertisers to protect their brands online and providing real-time analytics on viewability.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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