Advertising Digital Publishing
3 mins read

Exposed: How the Guardian is tackling ad fraud on its own websites

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Last month, Guardian US and programmatic partner MightyHive teamed up with Google to test how much Guardian ad inventory being sold on the open marketplace was not legitimate.

What they found was clear evidence that unauthorized players were pretending to sell Guardian inventory and diverting the revenue to themselves. The conclusion? Ad fraud is still rife, threatening even the most influential of publishers.


Ad fraud, in its simplest terms, is a ruse in which the perpetrator fools brand advertisers into paying for fake inventory or misrepresented ad placement. It’s this trickery that cost the digital publishing industry over $16 billion in 2017 alone, according to the IAB.

“This fakery will not stop until the agencies are held fully accountable for the deceptions, and not a moment before”

Bo Sacks

With deep seated suspicions that its inventory was being faked, Guardian US teamed up with Google and MightyHive to initiate a series of tests to investigate issues of programmatic ad fraud on the open exchange and the effectiveness of ads.txt, an IAB initiative adopted by publishers to signal that their inventory is authentic and only sold by vetted third parties.

The team purchased ad inventory—ostensibly from Guardian US—through a demand-side platform (DSP) buying via the open marketplace. A similar buy was made specifying verification from ads.txt.

The results showed clear evidence of unauthorized exchanges claiming to have sold Guardian US inventory and taking revenue when the buy was made through the open exchange. In contrast, there were no signs of fraud through the DSP only buying ads.txt authorized inventory.

Specifically the results showed:

  •  Video was the most affected with 72% of video ad spend going to unauthorized exchanges and SSPs Advertisement
  • When buying without ads.txt, both display and video inventory sales were reported by unauthorized exchanges claiming to sell the Guardian US inventory – the money for these sales did not reach Guardian US.
  • Ads.txt buying saw no discrepancies in revenue, and all inventory was bought through Guardian US authorized exchanges.

If the Guardian’s experience is any measure, it’s clear that the ads.txt initiative is making strong inroads into authenticating and verifying publisher ad inventory. More importantly, it is driving revenue back to its rightful owner – the publisher.

“The IAB-backed ads.txt initiative is important, and it’s one that we’ve been supportive of from the beginning—it brings transparency to an otherwise difficult to navigate marketplace by allowing publishers the ability to publicly authorise digital sellers on their site”, Adam Singolda, CEO of Taboola told WNIP.

“The initiative aims to tackle many issues such as fake domains and other types of unauthorised inventory. While it is an obviously noble effort on behalf of the industry, it’s more than that—publishers on the Taboola Network who have implemented the ads.txt file are already seeing revenue uplift.”

Ken Goldsholl, CEO of ad-free platform Notd, told WNIP, “It’s bad enough that when news and magazine publishers rely on third party ad platforms, they let advertisers set the value of their content, but ad fraud makes that business model even less viable. To make it even worse, the video ads that interrupt the reading experience ruin the publisher’s reputation.”

What next?

Part of the existing problem is that media buyers do not press for an account of where their ad spend is going. As one industry insider told WNIP, if media buyers don’t expect and pay for transparency from their suppliers, they won’t get it.

Regardless, the top challenge of addressing ad quality issues is tracking down bad actors in the supply chain. According to 2018 research by ad intelligence firm Ad Lightning, nearly six in 10 of US media ops professionals labelled it as still a ‘significant problem’.

Yet by taking measures such as ads.txt to eliminate fraud, a publisher’s ad inventory not only becomes more robust, it also becomes more valuable and commands higher price points.

Ad fraud cannot be ignored.  But if publishers choose to seek a proactive stance, the opportunity to eradicate the scourge from the digital advertising ecosystem could become a real possibility.

Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash