It's Not Just Websites, Google Search Partner Fraud has Infiltrated the App Ecosystem

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Why is it essential for marketers to stay ahead of ad fraud?

Time and time again, the digital advertising industry is reminded that the lack of transparency in the supply chain wastes advertisers money, can cause brands reputational harm, or result in ads funding illegal and questionable content.

The most recent ANA Programmatic Supply Chain study1, released in December, claims there are US$22 billion efficiency gains to be made for client-side marketers if they address the issues of information asymmetry in the market.

One area in digital advertising where information asymmetry is rife is search, as the major platforms do not provide the ability to use independent pre-bid or on-search-result-page controls. When search advertising counts for over 40% of digital advertising spend, this leaves search open to exploitation by bad actors. This risk gets amplified when search engines, like Google, have a broad network of ‘partner’ sites with embedded search.

Adalytics’ recent report into Google Search Partners (GSP) highlighted the extreme end of the issue – sanctioned websites and questionable content displaying search ads.

Google, a 3rd Party, or basic diligence would determine such sites should not be monetisation eligible – sites with adult-themes in their website address don’t require sophisticated AI to determine they are potentially risky. But these sites represent just the tip of the iceberg.

What our team uncovered is that the problems with ‘search partner’ monetisation extend into the app-store ecosystem. This accelerated with Google’s adoption of Performance Max (PMax), which attempts to find the best place for your ad and can easily be gamed.

Search, GSP, and Pmax is getting worse because in a world where detailed log-level data is absent or often redacted due to ‘privacy’ concerns, conducting click-level analysis can shine light where there is darkness. This is because the performance nature of search, paying per click, means data does and will flow to marketers who have the systems in place. This can then be used to proactively stop fraud and protect marketing spend.

We are now seeing (and blocking) not only questionable websites, but a litany of Google Play Store apps that are generating GSP and PMax search queries despite having no search functionality. This is not some website opportunistically adding Google search functionality – this is direct and outright fraud and theft of advertising dollars.

For example, one of our major telecommunications clients, which provides mobile and broadband services to over 80 million customers, saw an influx of search clicks coming from apps that had no legitimate basis for being a traffic source. The apps included child-directed content, games, and services operating on the very edges of legitimacy.

One app we identified, a child-directed ‘virtual cartoon superstar’ has users actively searching for terms such as home ‘wifi providers’ and ‘fibre internet’. Aside from the behaviour being incongruent with the audience, there were other unusual patterns we observed. This includes search queries that were always unbranded, meaning the app can maximise search and exploit search matches not only in our client’s home market, but to generate queries and false clicks in other parts of the world.

Another example that we discovered was an incentivised crypto-currency earning app attempting to drive significant click traffic from high-cost generic keywords like ‘WiFi deals’ or ‘phone deals’. This app is also a GSP, despite the app being absent of search functionality.

As our team of data scientists investigated further, we also identified that across both apps mentioned above, repetitive generic searches were coming from clusters of similar IP address ranges, indicating a high probability of coordinated invalid traffic and click fraud.

All of these were coming from apps that are ‘partners’ in the GSP and PMax network – costing advertisers money. Exclusion lists and legacy third party verification approaches, such as keyword blocking, would fail to protect advertisers from search click fraud, which is why new solutions and tools are required.

So how can marketers and agencies avoid falling victim to such fraud? With advertising automation, AI-decisioning, and an increasing shift of advertising budgets to performance channels, marketers need to forensically audit the actions, like clicks, that drive those results. Otherwise, they will continue to lose money to the deceptive practices that run rampant within this complex landscape.

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