Marketers Lose Money When Publishers Buy Traffic. Here’s How.

October 24th, 2017 | Joan Brehl, Vice President and General Manager, AAM

traffic on highway
Digital advertising fraud is a problem for everyone in the industry. With fraud estimates ranging from U.S. $6 billion to U.S. $16 billion annually, marketers, publishers, and technology suppliers are frustrated. Trust is at an all-time low.

But how do you fix a supply chain structure that makes it easy and attractive to commit ad fraud with little chance of retribution? As an independent auditor, the Alliance for Audited Media sees the underbelly of the media supply chain where little transparency exists. AAM often gets asked, why does ad fraud continue to persist? That’s an easy answer: illegitimate traffic sourcing.

Legitimate marketing activity versus illegitimate traffic sourcing

What is traffic sourcing? It’s any method by which digital media sellers acquire visitors through third parties, typically through two primary methods:

  1. Legitimate marketing activity: This is when a publisher engages in audience acquisition methods that drive people to their site such as running sponsored posts on social media or sending an email newsletter. This is a legitimate marketing tactic to bring more humans to the site.
  2. Illegitimate traffic sourcing: This type of activity occurs when a publisher pays a traffic supplier for a fixed number of visits to a site. Publishers might buy traffic at the end of the month or quarter to “make their numbers.” Traffic sellers may promise the publisher that the traffic is human and will pass through ad fraud detection filters.

Examples of Activities to Drive Site Traffic: 1. Legitimate Marketing Activities - Posting articles on social media / Buying sponsored social media posts / Sending an email newsletter / Running a contest || 2. Illegitimate Traffic Sourcing - Paying a traffic supplier for a fixed number of visits to a website, often at the end of the month or quarter to fulfill a campaign.

The visits purchased from traffic suppliers is likely robotic. Millions of people don’t wait until the last day of the month to visit certain websites in specific quantities. The publisher might not know the traffic is robotic because many bots are designed to fool fraud detection reports by appearing human. It can also trick advertisers’ fraud detection reports; making both parties unaware that traffic numbers are being driven by illegitimate activity.

The fraudsters selling this fake traffic know publishers and advertisers use ad fraud detection software so they program the bots to pass the software. It’s so common that a quick search engine query for “buy website traffic” shows numerous suppliers selling traffic designed to best major fraud detection vendors.

It’s a practice the whole advertising community relies on and, according to a 2017 ad fraud study by the ANA/WhiteOps, it’s the main form of ad fraud. Why aren’t more marketers aware and monitoring this situation? Unfortunately, many marketers do not know just how often publishers use illegitimate traffic sourcing to fulfill demand.

How money leaves the ecosystem at marketers’ expense

Illegitimately sourced bot traffic passes through fraud detection software and into measurement software as legitimate traffic, producing misleading metrics. Marketers pay the publisher for ads exposed to this fraudulent traffic. The marketer also pays the agency. If you’re keeping count, the fraudster who created the bot got paid, the publisher got paid and the agency got paid. Everyone in the system is making money at the expense of the marketer. Marketers are beginning to understand how they are losing and want to fix the system.

Every industry professional — buyer or seller — has a responsibility to contribute to the fix. Learn about the steps buyers and sellers can take to fight ad fraud by downloading our white paper, “3 Truths That Help Confront the Digital Ad Fraud Crisis.”

Joan Brehl
Joan Brehl is vice president and general manager for AAM’s Canadian services. As such, she develops new strategic business opportunities in print, digital, mobile and other media channels to promote AAM Canada and its clients. You can reach her at

Hear from Joan Nov. 7 at ACA’s Executive Forum – Digital Redemption: Regaining Faith In Digital Media.