Late in 2013, spider.io, a UK-based company dedicated to fighting advertising fraud, posted a video to its website. It shows a computer desktop with no programs running on it visibly, but which is infected by TDSS malware that is running 23 hidden windows, with fake cursor activity darting all over the page and clicking on ads at random. It is like watching a robot use a computer that only likes ads.
What it was pointing out is bad for Google’s business, but today Google announced officially that it had bought spider.io and its staff of seven. It’s likely to go under the general radar in a week where Facebook bought WhatsApp for $ 19 billion, but it is still an applaudable move.
Online ad fraud is a huge threat to Google’s $ 37 billion advertising business and a dark secret of the online ad industry, even as 2014 promises to be another year of double-digit growth for online ads. Around a third of all ad impressions online are estimated to be faked and close to half of all display ads are put out on sham websites and never seen.
“Ad fraud is the pollution problem of the web,” Google’s vice-president for display advertising Neal Mohan told the Financial Times this week. “If you are out at a national park or trying to get a photograph of a beautiful lake, it is a mound of trash in front of it.”
Sure, no one has probably ever equated the online ad industry with a natural wonder of the world before, but with Facebook publicly disavowing its link to fake traffic while admitting under its breath that as many as 11 percent of its accounts are fake, it is a credit-where-credit- is-due moment for Google.
Spider.io has grabbed headlines by busting some of the most sophisticated online ad scams in the last year. Last year it exposed a new brand of software that lets browsers download YouTube clips to their computer, but then displays extra ads on the very edge of the page when they revisit the site, often which further infect the computer with malware.
In early 2013, the company uncovered a “botnet scheme” which had hijacked 120,000 computers across the US and could have been responsible for up to nine billion page impressions a month, defrauding advertisers of tens of millions of dollars.
Many websites, such as Crackle and CollegeHumor have been alleged to be benefitting from the fake traffic, as well as dubious exchanges reselling display ads for major brands. Dismayingly, many ad experts have commented that online ad fraud is hard to prosecute and stop, with its proponents finding ways eventually to reverse engineer every security option.
The terms of the Spider.io deal were not announced, but its fraud detection software will be included with Google ad offerings and its detection expertise is now part of the Google family. Presuming it wasn’t bought by Google with the intention of quieting the one company that’s been pointing out how dubious your major stream of revenue can be, it is a positive move in getting out in front of the awkward spambot issue that online advertisers can’t seem to shake.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]