To counter the prevalence of counterfeit ads, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) recently launched “ads.txt,” a tool (text file) that helps ad buyers prevent unauthorized inventory sales by allowing publishers to declare a list of businesses authorized to sell their digital ad inventory. This lets the demand-side platforms (DSP), where buyers find inventory, verify that the inventory for sale in their ad exchanges comes from authorized sellers.
How counterfeit digital inventory frauds the ad industry:
Typically, ads and media bought programmatically are assumed to be accurate and from a legitimate publisher. However, it can be difficult for a buyer to confirm if the sellers are authorized. Though every ad space sold includes publisher information in the form of URL and Publisher.ID, there is no standard for the buyer to confirm the authenticity of the bid request. This creates a conducive environment for wrongdoers to inject and blend counterfeit inventory among legitimate ones.
Counterfeit digital inventory can come in many forms – including relabeled URLs and domains, misrepresented apps, or changed formats, resulting in ad spend not reaching legitimate and deserving publishers.
How ads.txt helps to fight against counterfeit inventory:
Publishers place a text file on their web servers that includes a list of all entities authorized to sell their inventory along with all the exchanges they work with. Similarly, ads.txt files are also integrated by the programmatic platforms confirming the list of publishers whose inventory they are authorized to sell. Buyers send web crawlers to scour publishers’ sites and collect the lists. Once the lists are collected, DSPs then filter the inventory so buyers go through only those listed exchanges, thus helping buyers check the validity of the inventory they purchase.
Adoption of ads.txt:
It is still in the early adoption phase for ads.txt. A handful of publishers, like Business Insider have placed ads.txt files; however, the majority of the publishers are only creating ads.txt files and running tests with DSPs to ensure everything is working correctly and to bring their sites into compliance.
The main way to encourage publishers to adopt ads.txt would be to mandate buyers into opting for ads.txt, but the response from the DSP community are varied. For example, Google’s DoubleClick Bid Manager and The Trade Desk will require buyers to actively choose to implement the use of ads.txt in their ad campaign. Media Math, on the other hand, said the ads.txt will become part of its inventory quality and brand safety practice, while AppNexus said it expects ads.txt to be the default standard over time.
Challenges in adoption:
While the technical implementation is simple, requiring the publishers and exchanges to allocate a web developer to integrate these text files and monitor them whenever publishers alter their lists, the real challenge lies in its complete adoption.
Publishers may feel uncomfortable while adopting ads.txt as it could allow inventory buyers to see what the publisher is selling the ad inventory for elsewhere. As a standard practice, publishers sell their inventory through a wide array of channels, including their direct sales teams, DSPs and SSPs (supply side platform). Adopting ads.txt would allow marketers to figure out what others are paying for the same inventory.
Another challenge is that, as of now, ads.txt does not cover the entire range of advertising platforms. Ads.txt doesn’t work for mobile apps, anonymous inventory or syndicated content.
The primary challenge in adoption can be overcome as programmatic buyers begin to compel publishers to implement the ads.txt tool. As this tool continues to evolve, its usability with mobile aps, anonymous inventory or syndicated content will improve, thus furthering the effectiveness of ads.txt to fight against counterfeit inventory.
As the advertising industry continues to strive toward ensuring quality in all aspects of advertising, the vision of achieving a clean digital advertising ecosystem free from fraudulent practices is not far away. However, in order to realize this vision effectively, every participant in the digital advertising supply chain should be single-mindedly fighting against ad fraud and lack of transparency.