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Attack Prevention

How Invalid Traffic is Damaging Your Marketing Operations

July 14, 2022

Invalid traffic (IVT) is artificially inflated traffic and activity on a website that doesn’t come from users with a genuine interest in the site’s content, products, or services.

The majority of IVT stems from malicious bots, though there is often a sprinkling of human activity from accidental or fraudulent clicks on advertisements. This kind of traffic significantly disrupts the activities of many business units, including marketing and sales.

IVT is projected to cost advertisers more than $100 billion by 2023. Given the high cost of invalid traffic, solutions have been introduced to the market to help businesses discern between genuine user activity and bot-like activity. This is part of a broader trend of increased investment in cybersecurity tools over the past decade. These investments reflect a growing online threat landscape, with increased malicious activity targeting businesses of all sizes.

Why Invalid Traffic is A Problem

Independent ad fraud researchers estimate between 40% and 70% of all ad views are fraudulent, and on some sites nearly 9 out of 10 visitors are fraudulent. That’s an enormous chunk of activity that makes it easy to spend a marketing budget with little to show for it.

Skewed Marketing Data

Data informs many important marketing decisions for businesses today, and website traffic is one of the most important marketing data sources for businesses of all sizes. Artificially inflated traffic stemming from bots skews the marketing data upon which marketers base important decisions. 

Any decision based on audience numbers polluted by IVT has a high likelihood of leading to undesired outcomes. What if your marketing team decides to scale paid advertising based on the false impression that existing campaigns are driving a high volume of clicks? Or what if you tweak your marketing campaigns, tailoring them to the target audience demographics of fake users? The impacts of IVT on marketing data easily culminate in wasted time and money while stifling opportunities for growth and innovation.

Wasted Sales Efforts

By definition, invalid traffic comes from sources with no intention of converting into paying customers, which can negatively impact your sales organization. Customer relationship management (CRM) software and other tools used at different stages of the inbound sales process can get clogged up with invalid leads. Sales teams then waste valuable resources trying to nurture illegitimate leads who’ll never convert.

Cyber threats

Ad fraud is a lucrative cyber crime that has low barriers to entry, and invalid traffic provides an outlet to commit it. One common form of ad fraud occurs when a competitor resorts to black-hat tactics, hiring a botnet or click farm to generate a high volume of fake clicks on your paid ads, resulting in wasted advertising budget.

Sophisticated invalid traffic (SIVT) is particularly insidious and difficult to detect, and the consequences can impact publishers who rely on the revenue generated from companies that pay to advertise on the publisher’s site. Certain categories of SIVT inject ads without the publisher’s consent, which can lead to bans from ad networks.

How to Stop Invalid Traffic

There is a somewhat pervasive myth that IVT only affects companies who are hosting ads or publishing them. However, IVT impacts websites with no advertising at all, whether through manipulating organic search results or by manually inputting URLs. It is true, however, that those who advertise suffer more due to direct monetary losses from ad fraud.

Bearing in mind all the potential negative consequences of IVT, it’s worth implementing some of the following mitigation strategies.

Understand your traffic

Now that you’re aware of the pervasiveness and cost of IVT, one immediately worthwhile action is to better understand your website’s traffic. Even basic and free web analytics platforms enable you to granularly segment your audience in a number of ways.

Take a look at your different segments based on devices, operating systems, location, session duration, on-site behavior, and more. If you notice any sudden fluctuations in the data, it is a potential indicator of IVT. You should routinely monitor your traffic, and keep a close eye on suspicious changes as it could represent a pattern of artificially inflated traffic.

Improve ad hygiene

Whether you’re a publisher that relies on revenue from displayed ads or you’re a business trying to get more eyeballs onto your website, content remains king in attracting high-quality traffic. For publishers, paying for traffic doesn’t go against many ad networks’ terms of service, but since such third-party services often use click farms or bots to deliver promised traffic increases, you end up losing potential ad revenue. For sites running PPC campaigns, reevaluate existing campaigns and consider redirecting some budget towards SEO improvements.

Invest in bot protection

The most direct way to stop IVT is to invest in a dedicated bot protection solution. However, organizations must be selective, certifying that the solution possesses the capabilities needed to effectively curtail Ad Fraud.

Online property owners should deploy solutions that gauge traffic quality prior to serving  ads. This ensures that only your legitimate visitors see advertisements.

Ad buyers should ensure that they track each channel and campaign, not just at the view level (where metrics are often extremely unreliable and difficult to sanity-check) but after a click has occurred.

Bot management platforms like hCaptcha Enterprise, along with purchase conversion rate measurement, can help confirm you are not paying for fake clicks and views, and quickly spot bad channels and sources to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.

Closing thoughts: A problem measured in billions of dollars

With the global cost of ad fraud projected to rise from $35 billion in 2018 to $100 billion by 2023, invalid traffic is slated to have even greater financial consequences for organizations in the near future. 

You should not rely solely on view validation vendors, as ad views are open to many attacks that are much harder to execute undetected once a prospective customer clicks through to your site or app.

For ad buyers, regularly reviewing your campaign performance at each level (views to clicks, clicks to desired actions) is ultimately the best way to confirm your budget is well spent.

For publishers who sell ads, monitoring your delivered clickthrough rates and sources and confirming they look similar to your normal traffic is necessary to ensure you are reliably delivering what advertisers expect.

Bot management platforms can help with both problems. hCaptcha Enterprise is a privacy-first bot online security solution that uses advanced machine learning to verify the humanity of users. hCaptcha is uniquely powered by a novel edge compute approach to minimize data collection and retention, creating technical guarantees of privacy and locality.

With hCaptcha Enterprise, you can stop bots that drive invalid traffic while maintaining a seamless and low-friction experience for real users.

hCaptcha’s Ad Quality features ensure that your ad traffic is legitimate and reduce ad fraud for both buyers and sellers, saving both time and money while protecting user privacy.

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