Delivering targeted ads to your ideal customers is an excellent way to drive new sales and grow revenue. Over the years, there have been many developments in advertising that have helped businesses of all industries better reach their intended audiences with ads.
One of the biggest advertising channels used by modern marketing departments is Google AdSense—though estimates of AdSense’s market share vary from one source to the next. For example, according to Datanyze, Google AdSense is on 978,456 websites and has a 61.24% market share as of August 28, 2022. Meanwhile, Slintel estimates that AdSense has an 88.13% market share and has 703,965 current customers.
The top competitor of AdSense, according to Datanyze, is Google Ads—which has 16.64% market share. This means that Google owns the top two ad serving solutions and has a massive lead over the competition.
However, despite being an industry giant, Google’s AdSense platform isn’t immune to the problem of ad fraud. Despite the tech company’s best efforts to curtail fraud and prevent abuse, there are some fraudsters out there who abuse AdSense (and any other advertising channels they can manipulate) to make money at your expense—and potentially damage your advertising efforts in the process.
Ad fraud on the AdSense platform can have dire consequences for advertisers of all industries. To protect your AdSense account from fraudsters, it’s important to know what AdSense is, how fraud affects your AdSense account, and some basic anti-fraud measures you can take to prevent fraud.
What Is Google AdSense?
As Google itself states on its AdSense Help page: it is “a way for publishers to earn money from their online content.” AdSense matches ads to websites based on the site’s content and visitors—displaying content that is created by merchants who want to promote their products and services to customers they might not otherwise reach.
Publishers paste some ad code from Google on their website pages—giving Google free space to display ads to any website visitors that happen to land on those pages. Advertisers bid money to show up in these ad spaces in a real-time bidding (RTB) auction where the highest-paying relevant ads are then shown to the visitor.
How Does Google Determine Which Ads Are Relevant?
One way is by tracking cookie data of visitors to display ads relevant to their recent activities. For example, if someone recently shopped for barbecue grills online, then Google might display ads related to barbecue supplies like charcoal, lighter fluid, grill cleaning equipment, hot dogs, etc.
Another way that ads might get chosen is based on the content of the website the ads are being placed on. For example, a camping enthusiast’s web blog that ranks for camping-related keywords might get ads related to camping supplies like tents, sleeping bags, portable grills, torches, hiking boots, etc.
It’s important to note that the website owner does have the ability to block ads they don’t want appearing on their site. Site owners might block ads with objectionable content or that are in competition with some product or service they are trying to promote.
How Does Fraud Affect Your Google AdSense Account?
So, how does ad fraud enter the picture? Well, as with any industry where money is available, there will always be someone out there to try to make a quick and easy buck at someone else’s expense. As the largest online ad delivery solution on the market, AdSense ads are often the target of fraudsters who don’t care how they hurt your advertising efforts and budget.
For example, a fraudster might create a whole fake website to put Google AdSense code on, then generate fake clicks and impressions to generate revenue. When fraudsters target your marketing efforts, here are a few of the ways that your AdSense account might be affected.
Reduced AdSense ROI
The first side-effect of ad fraud in any online marketing campaign is reduced return-on-investment for that ad campaign. When fraudsters target your AdSense ads with click bots, you’ll generate less ROI for the money you’re spending since none of those fraudulent clicks will actually convert into customers.
Your spending goes up, but your business generated remains the same—creating wasted ad spend. Worse yet, the clicks generated could throw off your marketing data and make you think that an ad was more effective at generating interest than it really was—causing you to double down on a less-than-effective piece of marketing collateral.
This can affect the ROI of future marketing campaigns even without the presence of further fraud since the faulty assumptions from bad marketing data can result in the creation of more ineffective ads.
Some fraudsters take their attempts to profit from their fraud to the next level by using stolen credit card information to actually complete purchases. Once the real cardholder notices the fraudulent charges, they’ll often demand their money back. This creates a chargeback against the merchant.
What’s a chargeback? As noted by Investopedia, “a chargeback is the payment amount that is returned to a debit or credit card, after a customer disputes the transaction or simply returns the purchased items.”
Chargebacks are an enormous problem for any merchant—but can be especially painful for merchants with online storefronts supported by ads. This is because a chargeback often includes not only the base amount of money the merchant would have earned but also a fee from the card issuer. Additionally, the merchant may be out whatever money they spent on preparing a product for shipping and, in some cases, the product itself when the chargeback is caused by fraud.
Fraudsters using stolen credit card info to complete transactions can massively increase the number of chargebacks a merchant has to deal with. This, in turn, leads to heightened operating costs from fees, wasted shipping, product loss, and other incidental costs of shipping a product that was purchased using stolen information.
Cancellation of Your AdSense Account
Google maintains a strict set of Program Policies that advertisers and site owners need to follow. On their policy page, Google notes that it reserves “the right to disable ad serving to your site and/or disable your AdSense account at any time. If your account is disabled, you will not be eligible for further participation in the AdSense program.”
One of the biggest reasons why an AdSense account might be disabled is “invalid clicks and impressions.” In simple terms, a publisher is not allowed to click on their own ads or use any means to inflate impressions or clicks artificially (whether they use bots or human fraud farms).
This makes sense. After all, the one most likely to benefit from ad fraud is the publisher of the website the ad is posted on. However, not all ad fraud on a website is generated by the site’s owner. Some unscrupulous individuals may use click bots and human fraud farms to target a website and flood it with fake clicks specifically to harm that site’s publisher and get their AdSense account taken down. In fact, scammers have already weaponized this tactic to extort money out of website owners.
On the other hand, if Google suspects that an advertiser is supporting a fake clicks scheme, they may choose to penalize them instead of (or in addition to) the site publisher. After all, the language in the Google AdSense Program Policies page gives Google incredible leeway—they don’t have to terminate the account for an articulable cause. Mere suspicion of foul play is enough to justify an AdSense account termination.
How Do You Protect Your AdSense Account from Fraud?
So, what can you do to protect your AdSense account from the negative impacts of ad fraud? There are a lot of things that both marketers and website owners can do to protect their AdSense accounts from fraud.
The first thing that anyone with an AdSense account should do is review the Google AdSense policies and what they entail. Since Google periodically updates these rules, it can help to check them at least once a quarter just to verify any major changes and how they might affect your AdSense strategy.
Also, if you suspect that a violation has occurred, be sure to report it to Google right away. Being proactive and disavowing invalid traffic can go a long way towards keeping your AdSense account healthy and showing Google that you’re trying to work with them to stay within policy.
Tips for Website Owners/Publishers
- Use Basic Bot Filters to Prevent Fake Clicks. While tools like CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA can be easily bypassed by more sophisticated bots, they can still block some of the most basic bot traffic, helping to minimize the number of fake clicks that get through to ads on your site.
- Check Your Website Analytics for Odd Traffic Patterns. A sudden sharp increase in website visitors at odd hours of the day (or night) can be an early warning sign of bot traffic or traffic from an overseas click farm operation. Keeping an eye out for odd traffic patterns can help you identify fraud so you can put a stop to it.
- Review Ad Code Placement on the Page. Sometimes, an invalid click isn’t the product of fraud, but an accident caused by a misclick or someone thinking that an ad was part of the website navigation. Since Google specifically punishes ad placements that encourage accidental or unintentional clicks, it may be helpful to review ad placements and modify them to prevent such accidents.
Tips for Marketers
- Check Where Your Ads Are Being Placed. When you’re bidding for ad space in an RTB auction, it’s often difficult to verify the sites where your ads are being placed. However, it can be useful to review where your ads have been placed and to check for signs of domain spoofing and other issues that indicate a fake website—even if it’s “after the fact.” This way, you can at least report the issue to Google and prevent future ads from being placed there.
- Review Your Ad Metrics. Reviewing the analytics for your ad campaigns can do a lot to help you spot potential fraud. For example, are your ads generating a lot of clicks, but not much in the way of new customers? That could be a warning sign that the ad is being targeted by click fraud schemes. When possible, track which specific placements are getting the most unproductive clicks so you can identify your most likely sources of AdSense fraud. Tracking the IP addresses of fraudulent clicks can sometimes be helpful, but IP blocking alone is rarely enough to stop ad fraud since fraudsters can always add more addresses (or hide traffic sources with VPNs).
Tip for Both: Use an Ad Fraud Solution
One way that both website owners and advertisers alike can combat fraud is to leverage an ad fraud solution to check website traffic in real time as it comes in. How could an ad fraud solution help both advertisers and site owners?
For website owners hosting ads, an ad fraud solution can be used to verify all traffic coming in and flag it as real or fake before visitors even click on an ad. They can then block those visitors from seeing or clicking on the ads. This can help the site owner protect their AdSense account from being terminated for promoting fake clicks.
For advertisers/merchants, using an ad fraud solution to check all of the traffic that comes from AdSense clicks can be an invaluable way of affirming or refuting the validity of the “leads” generated by your AdSense campaigns.
However, it’s important to use the right ad fraud solution. Anura is certified against fraud to detect it in real time so you can stop it as it happens and protect your marketing from the worst effects of fraud.
Start protecting your ad campaigns and AdSense account from fraud today by reaching out to Anura!