Hate those auto-play videos all over news websites? Disgusted by those “you won’t believe what happened next!” links on the bottom of articles? Digital publishers are trying to sell your eyeballs to advertisers — and they’re pulling as many sneaky tricks as possible to cheat the system.

Only half of marketing works, but who knows which half? That’s been the rule of advertising for decades. But digital, the thinking goes, turned this on its head.

While consumers reading a newspaper retain the privacy of their own heads — no one can tell what they notice and what they think of it — the web was understood to be perfectly quantifiable. Page impressions, and impressions on the ads on those pages, can be calculated in real time with absolute precision, in demographic detail unimaginable a few years ago.

You’d think this would make digital advertising more valuable. But that’s not what’s happened. Online ad rates plummet every few months — and the publishers who rely on web traffic to fund their journalism are abandoning display advertising, which is weeded out by ad blockers anyway. New publishers have arisen who’ve built products around content marketing — articles that look like journalism but exist to sell a product, and are impervious to ad blockers. But even there, not all is as it seems.

Advertisers and publishers barely understand digital — it’s too hard to gauge. “They’ve jumped into it, because that’s where the market is,” says a digital media insider. “But they’re as much in the dark as we are. The whole industry is struggling to understand how to judge it. It’s not like print at all.”

In the absence of clear metrics, certain tactics have arisen to boost the figures publishers can report. Here are some of the most common.

All your views are belong to us: auto-play, auto-refresh, and other things you can’t avoid

No one who reads the media online can escape the auto-play video. By embedding videos that automatically play when a reader opens an article, websites can count that video as having been played, even if the viewer immediately presses pause.

Immediately playing the video without giving users a chance to decide if they actually want to see it, known in the ad industry as “outstream” video, is popular with publishers because it gives them the inventory necessary to offer programmatic video advertising, according to a 2015 study by Forrester Consulting. It interviewed 86 publishing and media companies across different countries, and programmatic sales were given as a reason to have auto-play videos by 67% of those surveyed.

Even if a video isn’t played to the end, it still counts as a view, a fact recently lamented by Melbourne University marketing professor Mark Ritson in The Australian. He noted that TV ratings are an average of viewers at all points of a broadcast, while online video ratings are cumulative — the metrics are entirely different. Furthermore, a video on Facebook counts as “watched” after three seconds. While individual publishers have their own video platforms and rules, it’s hard to imagine it differing much from that standard.

That’s just video — views can be inflated in a few other ways as well. Pop-ups, auto-refresh, and ads that load under content but cannot be seen by the reader can all boost the cumulative view count on a publishers’ website. While many of these cruder methods are less common now on reputable websites, they haven’t been completely eradicated.

Outbrain, Taboola and other ways to buy traffic

The above covers the traffic you boost through double-counting. But there’s other ways you can boost the numbers — and that’s by paying money for traffic, boosting unique audiences as well as total figures.

In recent months, Australian publishers (Crikey included) have begun including widgets from companies like Taboola or Outbrain on the bottom of their articles. The way Outbrain works was described in a 2014 Financial Times profile. Essentially, every time a reader on say, CNN, clicks on a “From around the web” headline, he or she is redirected to that website.

That website then pays Outbrain a small fee for the link — and Outbrain gives half of it to CNN. Outbrain also serves up CNN links on other websites. At the time of the 2014 Financial Times piece, Outbrain was generating 14 billion page views a month — “you can see why many publishers are addicted,” the FT noted.

There are other ways one can use third parties to boost traffic. Perhaps one of the most common is through social media.

One of the issues with content marketing — articles promoting a product — is it’s often not interesting enough to garner the attention publishers contractually promise. When a sponsored post isn’t getting the traffic it needs, publishers will boost it on social media, ensuring it reaches the required audience.

There is an issue with this. When a marketer purchases a bit of content marketing on a website, they’ve made a judgement that they want to reach that website’s audience. If you boost a post on Facebook, the categories get looser — you can target based on people’s ages, or based on a location. The post is no longer organically reaching the site’s readers; an artificial audience has been created for it through a third-party platform.

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a bot 

Outbrain, Taboola and the major social media networks are among the more reputable ways to buy traffic. Hundreds of other online firms can also guarantee publishers’ traffic, for a price. But anytime a publisher buys traffic, it exposes itself to the risk that traffic it has paid for isn’t generated by a human being.

For a few years now, many in the ad industry have been aware that a lot of the impressions being garnered on their ads are not the result of humans looking at them. They come from bots — programs that run on compromised web browsers that browse the web without the user realising, all the while loading pages and ads the user can’t see.

Since 2014, the US Association of National Advertisers has been tracking what it calls fraud in digital advertising. Its initial study revealed how it tracked an ad from a major advertiser (reportedly Chrysler) and found it was only watched by humans 2% of the time on a travel lifestyle magazine — bots made up the rest of the viewership.

That’s well above average — the 2016 report (released in January) suggested a range of 3% to 37% bot impressions for major advertisers. It estimated advertisers lost US$7.2 billion on ads served to bots in 2015. The more a publisher charges advertisers, the report found, the more likely the ads served on that publication were being viewed by bots. And the more a publisher used third-party platforms to source traffic, the more bots there were.

“Sourcing traffic (any method by which publishers acquire more visitors through third parties) results in greater fraud,” the study noted. “Sourced traffic has more than three times the bot average than the study average.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey