Bribery. Shilling. Payola. Whatever you call it, advertisers have, for years, tried every technique to buy their way to a better impression count—but new research shows that this method might pay off less than they think.
That’s according to tech firm Integral Ad Science, which released research today showing that most of this paid traffic is, in many ways, less valuable to advertisers than their free counterparts. Browsers under the influence of bribery have less spending power overall, making conversions anywhere between 65% to 82% more expensive than other sites across web. Not only that, but it’s close to impossible to target these internet users behaviorally, causing headaches—and wasted money—for the advertisers on the other side.
“In the industry, it feels like everyone’s generally pretty wary of bots, but they’re not thinking outside of that,” explained Evgeny Shmelkov, an IAS senior data scientist who led the study. “You might be thinking everything’s fine so long as you’re ultimately advertising to a human, but we found that’s not actually true.”
Recent months have seen industry voices—including high profile players like Unilever—vehemently supporting the good fight against all forms of fraud. But for all cries against domain spoofing, clickjacking and ad stacking, “incentivized traffic,” as Shmelkov calls it, has yet to be addressed. This free pass, he explained, might be why we’ve seen a recent uptick in fraudsters switching from red zone of bot traffic to the more neutral, spammy-but-not-spammy tactics like these. Meanwhile, the audience clamoring for this kind of cash has never been bigger; forums like Reddit’s /r/beermoney boast more than 300,000 users united in the goal of scraping change by any means necessary. Sometimes, this means stomaching a two minute ad to get a few cents. Other times, it means writing a script to watch it for you.
“It’s a good way to justify your model to advertisers when they ask these sites where their traffic sources are coming from,” Shmelkov said. “These companies can say with almost complete accuracy that there’s real humans doing the work here.”
Though this traffic might be “real” in one sense, it’s worthless in almost every other. Targeting these browsers—either behaviorally or contextually—proves to be pretty much useless, since more than half of the internet surfing they typically do tends to revolve around the same sites offering up these pay-to-play opportunities. This, combined with the glut of time spent in their email browsers, means that three quarters of these users’ time online is virtually untargetable.
Meanwhile, Shmelkov found that these same browsers were only three-fourths as likely to reach the conversion rates of browsers on the news and social media sites he’d compared them to. For all of the impressions these paid browsers were offering up, they were found converting on less than 40% them overall. Even when taking the CPM of these pay-to-play sites—which, at $0.53 a pop, tended to be roughly half the cost of the other sites in the study—whatever conversions were squeezed out still had blown-out prices. Advertisers were spending roughly $1.65 on each of those turnarounds, according to Shmelkov’s estimates, when they could be spending $1.00 on a news site, or $0.91 on a social media site of comparable size.
In short: advertisers paying for disinterested eyeballs are better off spending that money on sites that browsers would naturally stumble onto.
“I’m pretty sure in many cases, these advertisers don’t care how media gets watched; they’re just looking for something that’s cheap to place,” he explained. “But ultimately, what we’re asking here is whether you can actually incentivize users.”
The answer, it turns out, is “probably not.”