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Impression Frauds: Are you paying for those that do not matter?

Posted by Huzefa Hakim | March 8, 2023

Impression Frauds: Are you paying for those that do not matter?

An important metric that determines the performance of any ad is the number of impressions achieved. CPM advertisers are at the mercy of ad impressions as the overall budget is based on how many times an ad was displayed before users across the web.

But, what if out of 100k impressions, 20k were not unique in nature? 

This is where we would like to throw some light on impression fraud. These are false impressions generated by fraudsters through a fake website that displays genuine ads.  These are then sold to another ad exchange on which the fake website of the fraudster is registered, thereby leading to the generation of high-margin profits for the fraudsters.

Let us understand the process and how this type of fraud affects the advertiser.

What are Impression frauds?

As mentioned earlier, impression fraud involves an advertiser paying for an impression even when the ad is not viewable to the human eye. But, if it’s not viewable to users, how does it generate an impression? The answer to this question is through bots. This entire process is executed in the following way:

1. Fake website creation

The fraudster first creates a fake website. This is done to ensure that they have a medium to host the ads. This website may consist of all the features of a genuine website; right from the UI to the site's purpose and ad space availability to paint a rosy picture before the advertiser.

2. Joining Ad Exchange

Once the website is ready, the next step involves the fraudster joining an ad exchange. This step is crucial to ensure that the advertisers are attracted to display their ads in the spaces provided on the fake website.

3. Ad display on the website

Once they join the ad exchange, the website is then loaded with multiple ads. The fraudsters can bid unnecessarily high amounts and win the RTB auction to display ads by different advertisers on their websites. At this stage, the trap of it being a publisher has been successfully laid and the advertiser is tangled in this process.

4. Initiating bot activities to create fake impressions

Once the website is loaded with fake bots, the fraudster initiates bot activities through click farms and other techniques to generate fake web traffic. These bots leave fake impressions on these ads every time the website is loaded and an ad is displayed.

5. Selling fake impressions to an ad exchange

After repeated fake impressions have been generated on ads, the fraudster shares this information with the ad exchange for communicating the same to the advertiser. Once the number of impressions is furnished, the advertiser must pay for every thousand impressions. The larger the number of fake impressions, the larger the amount of profit generated for the fraudster

Types of Impression Fraud

1. Pixel Stuffing

Pixel stuffing is a subtle technique of generating fake impressions on an ad. The publisher (fraudster) inserts the ad in a 1x1 pixel on the webpage. This means that the ad is not viewable to the human eye given the minute size of the pixel but an impression is recorded every time the page is loaded. Thus, without being visible to the user, the ad is counted as served.

2. Ad stacking

Under this technique, the fraudster may stack multiple ads on top of each other. Post being stacked, only the top ad is visible to a user. However, a unique impression is recorded for every ad in the stack without being viewed in the real sense. This form of impression fraud is mainly common in mobile ads.

3. Auto impressions

Like ad stacking, this type of fraud is also common with mobile devices. The application is loaded with malware. Once these ads are inserted in the device, the malware displays these ads in the background even when the app is not in use thereby generating multiple impressions.

4. Ads parallel to controversial content 

This is a hooking technique wherein fraudsters display an advertiser’s ad very close to controversial content like vulgar videos, etc. As a result of the irrelevant and harmful placement of the ad, it receives an unusually high number of impressions.

Impact of Impression Frauds on Advertisers

Impression frauds can exhaust the marketing budget of the advertiser to a great extent. In the initial stages, a huge number of impressions may indicate a healthy campaign run. However, over time when such impressions do not result in further actions and subsequent conversions, the entire essence and the meaning of the ad campaign are washed away.

Moreover, in case an ad receives more impressions due to faulty placement against controversial content, it also damages the reputation of the advertiser and questions the brand's safety. Therefore, it is important to ensure that for a successful marketing campaign, more than the numbers and metrics, importance is given to the relevancy of the websites where the ads are published.