Understatement of the year, coming up. Covid-19 has had a big impact on the world. The spread of the virus, the ensuing global pandemic, and seemingly endless cycle of lockdown, reopen, lockdown again has had a serious impact, not just on our lives, but on our businesses.
Digital advertising is no different. We have pointed out before that Covid-19 changed online advertising by introducing new scams, malvertising attacks, and user experience challenges for platforms and publishers to navigate. Today we’re all living in a digital economy, with more people than ever online looking to engage with websites, content, and brands, who in turn are all looking to build relationships with new potential customers by providing an amazing experience.
Unfortunately, some people don’t always find amazing experiences. They find malware when they click on an ad, or they might have adult imagery shown to them (or their kids) on a website they thought was family friendly. They might find a site they love is suddenly excruciatingly slow to load, without realising that the fault lies with a poorly optimised display ad.
Ad quality -- or the lack thereof -- can have a massive impact on a user’s trust, and the strength of their relationship with your business. Protecting that relationship is key to successfully maximising the revenue of your ad delivery. So, how do you deliver high ad quality?
AdSecure was built with the goal of answering that question, so let’s take a look at how it’s done.
First, how do we define ad quality? Generally speaking we can break this down into three components:
1 - Threat protection: An ad is clean and free of any number of threats that can harm user security, like malware, forced-redirects, or phishing attacks.
2 - User Experience: Is the ad ready for user engagement? Meaning the ad imagery is displaying as it should, there are no broken links, and it’s not littered with JS alerts or permission notifications that can annoy site visitors, leading to them abandoning the website altogether.
3 - Performance: Is the ad aligned with industry standards like the IAB's (Interactive Advertising Bureau) New Ad Portfolio? Issues like ad weight, file compression, dimensions, and request count can play a big part in an ad’s conversion rate. Website performance can be heavily impacted as well. Now that Google has added web content performance into it’s SEO rankings, monitoring for low performing ad content can help publishers ensure they avoid SEO penalties in future.
Next, how do we build a strategy that provides constant protection against threats, monitoring for poor user experience issues, and insight into ad performance? Rather than a single course of action, or a “one size fits all” approach like blocking at page level alone, a comprehensive, multi-staged approach provides a much more robust framework for ensuring your ads are always safe for users when they encounter them, and optimised for high engagement. Let’s break down how that strategy works.
Stage 1 - Pre-flight verification
Before your ad campaign is launched and out there for the world to engage with, it’s important to verify that everything is working as intended, the content looks the way it should, and all the links in the path are both clean from malicious activity and working properly.
By performing an initial analysis of your creatives before going live, you can determine the presence of malware and other potential threats, ensure that there are no broken links in the chain, perform a quality assurance check on the visual elements of the ad, and see how it will appear to users depending on their location and the device they might view the ad on.
Knowing what issues might be in play before a campaign launches gives you time to resolve them before they become a problem that can harm users, damage your trusted business partnerships, or impact ROI. Making pre-flight scanning a part of your verification process will help keep revenue flowing without sacrificing your reputation or user trust.
Pro tip: Make sure your ads meet the top standards. Ever notice that a campaign isn’t converting as expected? If so, there’s a good chance the ad wasn’t optimised to perform in a way that drives user engagement. By enabling our IAB Standards compliance widget on your ad verification scans you can identify which ads don’t perform well, and solve the problem beforehand, increasing the conversion rate and boosting your revenues in the process.
Stage 2 - Active monitoring
Protecting the user experience doesn’t end once your campaign is active. Creatives can often be changed by malicious advertisers after they’ve gone through initial verification, as the malvertiser believes they’ve passed the final verification hurdle. This is when the threat level can really escalate.
With offers that rotate frequently, or within always chaotic programmatic environments, we often see campaigns start out clean, but then quickly be changed to deliver malware, or redirect users against their will to phishing sites designed to harvest their secure data. By setting up projects or recurring API analyses in AdSecure, you can monitor your ad campaigns throughout their active lifecycles and immediately know when malicious activity comes into play, allowing you to act quickly to remove the problem before it spirals out of control.
Pro tip: Monitor at scale. Not all ads generate threats or user experience issues at page level, and some ads generate them on either side of the user journey. It’s important to know when that’s happening. By enabling our Ad Discovery function on your projects or programmatic analyses, you can perform scans on either side of banners, iframes, or native ads to detect threats wherever a user may encounter them.
For publishers, Ad Discovery also allows you to identify and analyse all the ads running on your site and mobile pages to ensure all ads that users might encounter are free of threats. Ad Discovery also doesn’t require the implementation of any scripts, just a simple placement of a URL when launching an analysis or project to get started.
Stage 3 - Real-time blocking, your last line of defense
Real-time blocking solutions often over promise but under deliver, and can mistakenly be sold as the only solution a publisher will need to protect against threats. In reality, a real-time blocking solution can act as a robust final defense against any issues that slip through during the earlier stages of your ad quality monitoring framework, working at page level to detect and block any unsafe ads before they can do real harm to your users and erode their trust.
AdSecure’s new Client-Side Wrapper will detect and eliminate any bad ads at page level, and can be designed to replace them with a clean ad from a safe inventory in order to keep revenue secure and flowing, and keep your users safely engaged with your great content.
Pro tip: Publishers can now put AdSecure’s real-time blocking solution to the test for free! We are providing all publishers looking to add real-time blocking to their threat prevention arsenal a free 30 day trial. If you would like to learn more about how it works, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional best practices
Classify your content: Going beyond security, unsafe, potentially offensive content can ruin a user’s experience VERY quickly. A website that unknowingly displays adult content can see their viewership drop, causing major harm to it's brand equity. Today we’re also living in the world of the deep fake, where images can be manipulated to deliver false, misleading narratives, usually for partisan political reasons, or in order to profit from various financial scams. Understanding how your content appears to users can go a long way to protecting relationships, reputations, and revenue generation.
Pro tip: AdSecure launched Content Classification earlier this year to help you identify and eliminate any unsafe, or unwanted visual elements within your ads. Enabling unsafe content detection can help you avoid offensive imagery being displayed to site visitors, or uncover “fake” images that have been manipulated for various reasons.
In addition to unsafe content, our Content Classification modules also include Labels to help optimise SEO, and Logo detection to weed out unwanted brand placement, or illegal use of known brands to sell unrelated products.
Look for present symptoms to avoid future issues: Recently, Threatpost published an article looking at the Malsmoke zloader attack campaign, which uses a fake java update to trick users on adult sites into downloading the zloader banking malware. One interesting component of these attacks was the prevalent use of Suspicious TLDs (top-level domains) as part of the attack delivery method.
Suspicious TLDs are known to be used by malvertisers due to their low cost, and as we can see from the Malsmoke campaign, it’s dangerous to ignore the presence of these TLDs in an ad’s redirection path, as they can often be an early warning sign for the arrival of malicious activity.
Pro tip: AdSecure provides detection for Suspicious TLDs whenever they appear in the redirection path, including those frequently used in the Malsmoke zloader attack, such as .online. Monitoring for these types of domains can help you gain immediate insights into potential malicious attacks before they have a chance to harm users AND your reputation.
In addition, aggregators like VirusTotal and Sucuri have started to flag many of the URLs used in the Malsmoke campaign as malicious. AdSecure includes alerts for both VirusTotal and Sucuri’s live results, and coupled with our Threat Intelligence solution you can effectively monitor Malsmoke’s attack patterns to avoid falling victim to it.
We’re heading for a very interesting holiday season. Thanks to Covid-19 online retail business is expected to see holiday sales of upwards of $180 billion. Fraudsters and malicious actors will already know this, and will be looking for their piece of the action as well. This year providing safe, high quality ads will be more crucial than ever both in terms of protecting user experience, and maximising revenue by ensuring each ad is optimised for digital engagement. Using a comprehensive ad quality solution, like AdSecure, that allows you to monitor through every stage of an ad’s lifecycle can help you keep revenue flowing while keeping user’s secure.