How Websites Scam Advertisers Into Paying For Invisible Ads

Scam truck

Buying display ads online seems like it should be a fairly straightforward proposition: you design your ad, submit it to an ad network, and pay up based on how many consumers you want it displayed to.

But it isn’t always so simple to know you’re actually getting all the ad impressions you pay for. As a result, a small industry — called ad verification — has sprung up to keep publishers honest. The biggest company in this space, DoubleVerify, raised $10 million in March.

That’s nothing to sniff at. But, because it has no direct relevance to consumers, few people even know what ad verification is. We asked DoubleVerify to show us some examples of the sorts of scams that publishers can pull to get paid for ads their readers never see. Here, courtesy of DoubleVerify, is how these scams work:

Invisible Ads

This website is running ads users can't see.

In the bottom frame, we've tweaked the code so you can now see the hidden ads. Hidden ads are coded by reducing height and width of iFrames to '0,' so they aren't visible, but register as having been displayed.

Overlapping Ads

Those blue sidebars are iFrames running on top of that web page.

When the frames are removed, you can see that there is actually advertising beneath them. The site charges for those ads as if they were actually visible.

Injecting ads

This is the CNN web page seen by a user who has downloaded a search toolbar.

Search toolbar companies spread downloads and sign up as publishers in ad networks, then inject ads on top of pages to collect on each advertiser impression regardless of the type of content on the page.

Stacked Ads

Ads are stacked on top of one another to double impressions. The website will report that it served up two impressions of the ad to the user who loaded this page, while concealing the fact that the two copies of the ad were on top of each other.

Sites can stack more than two ads to collect on multiple impressions.

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