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What Does Google's App Purge Mean for Ad Fraud & Affiliate Marketing?

In early 2020, tech industry giant Google announced that it was removing 600 apps from the Google Play Store and banning the app makers from Google AdMob and Google Ad Manager for “violating [Google’s] disruptive ads policy and disallowed interstitial policy.”

What does this app purge mean for the fight against mobile ad fraud? How has the purge impacted affiliate marketing efforts? More importantly, what can you do to protect your company’s ad spend from future mobile ad fraud schemes?

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The Story Behind Mobile Ad Fraud

Mobile ad fraud can take many forms. Some common forms of fraud that target mobile devices and users include:

  • In-App Advertising Fraud. Here, hidden ads in an app are used to generate impressions. Because the ads are hidden, they don’t really drive user engagement or brand awareness.

  • Mobile Web Fraud. A subset of web fraud that targets mobile device users. Here, fraudulent bot traffic on mobile devices or deceptive mobile ads which showcase one service/product but move app users to a completely unrelated site page.

  • Mobile Malware/Click Fraud Bots. In this fraud scheme, mobile device users are tricked into downloading malicious software or apps that click on ads, fill out forms, or complete other tasks in the background whenever the infected device is not actively being used. Mobile malware can turn an infected device into a zombie for a botnet—allowing the botnet’s controller to use the device in large-scale cyberattacks.

Any of these ad fraud strategies can have a significant impact on your company’s bottom line. For example, in-app mobile ad fraud can rapidly drain your marketing budget by tricking you into paying for impressions that won’t have any real results. Click fraud bots can drain budgets even faster by generating fake clicks and form fills.

Meanwhile, mobile web fraud can both drain your ad budget and create negative PR with mobile device users who click on the fraudulent ads. Being misled about an offer (clicking on an ad for one thing and being brought to something else) can make customers think that your company is running a “bait and switch” scam when it’s really the fraudster at fault.

The Purge of Digital Ad Fraud Apps from the Google Play Store

So, what drove Google to remove 600 apps from its mobile app store as part of its fraud prevention efforts? Part of the reason was to protect advertisers who pay Google to get their ads placed in mobile apps.

The cost of ad fraud varies depending on who you ask. For example, Juniper Research forecasted that ad fraud will reach $100 billion by 2023 (up from $42 billion in 2019) while ANA stated that: “Economic losses due to bot fraud are expected to total $5.8 billion in 2019.” Of course, the Juniper number is referencing ad fraud in general, while the ANA article is specifically discussing bot fraud, which may help explain the discrepancy in reported numbers.

With companies losing billions of dollars to fraud in apps shared through the Google Play Store, it’s only natural for Google to take a hard stance to fight fraudulent app makers.

The “App Purge” of the Google Play Store began with the removal of two popular apps that each had millions of downloads. As reported by BuzzFeed, the behavior identified by Google “enabled the apps to falsely receive credit for helping cause a user to download and open other apps… The Cheetah and Kika apps were claiming a portion of these fees even when they played no role in an installation.”

From there, Google went on to investigate and purge roughly 600 additional apps from its mobile app store. To help aid in this effort, Google reportedly “developed a machine-learning technology to detect when apps show ‘out-of-context’ ads, leading it to enforce its policies against disruptive ads and disallowed interstitials.” (Source: Marketing Dive).

This is far from the only time such malicious activity has been found in mobile apps. For example, Anura also detected click attempts made from a variety of apps available in the Google Play Store. Two such apps—Lovely Rose and Oriental Beauty—were installed in a mobile device to monitor their activity over 24 hours. In that time, the click logs showed a collective 3,061 requests for an ad (which was granted 169 times) despite nobody physically touching the test device during the test period.

What Does the Purge Mean for Fraud Prevention?

Google’s development of a machine learning tool to help identify fraud-enabling apps in its Play Store marks a major step forward for fraud prevention. It showcases how the major industry players are starting to take notice of the problem fraud poses—which will likely inspire fraudsters to further refine their tactics.

It’s a pattern that has been repeated numerous times in the past. For example, back in the day, advertisers started catching on to the use of bots to generate clicks and started employing CAPTCHA tools to stop them. Fraudsters responded by making bots that could bypass CAPTCHA and leveraging human fraud farms to generate clicks instead.

Unfortunately, Google’s response doesn’t mean that your own fraud prevention efforts can be slackened—there are still countless fraudsters out there. Given that Google has over 3.48 million apps on the Play Store (source: Statista), the 600 apps removed in the purge are just a drop in the bucket—they only account for 0.017% of all apps on the mobile storefront. This could mean that the “purge” likely doesn’t cover all of the apps that enable fraud in some way since not every ad fraud scheme uses the same tactics.

So, it’s important to continue being vigilant and follow ad fraud prevention best practices—such as using an ad fraud solution to detect fraud as it happens and identify the source of the fraud before you end up paying for fake leads and invalid traffic.

Mobile Ad Fraud Prevention Tips for Marketers

What can you do to stop mobile fraud (and other forms of ad fraud) from ruining your marketing ROI? Here are a few things you can do to stop bots, human fraud farms, and other types of digital ad fraud:

  • Tracking Your Ad Performance Metrics. The first step in fighting fraud is paying attention to your ad campaign performance. Early fraud detection often relies on being able to spot abnormal patterns in ad performance—such as a large increase in clicks for an ad without any new leads being generated, an increase in abandoned carts from leads brought in by a particular affiliate, or a sharp overall decrease in revenue-per-lead.

  • Using Honeypots to Trick Bots. The Honeypot form field is an “invisible” form field that is in the website’s CSS code. While humans can’t see it, bots can. So, when that honeypot field gets filled, you know that a bot is behind it. This is useful for immediately identifying fraudulent leads from bots.

  • Using CAPTCHA. While not perfect by any means, free CAPTCHA tools can be useful for blocking some of the simplest bot programs. However, they generally won’t stop more capable bots, so this is more of a supplemental tool than a primary fraud prevention technique.

  • Tracking Web Visitor Metadata. Is there a specific IP address where a lot of fraud comes from? Blocking that IP address could help stop fraud. Are there “visitors'' to your site who are on-page for less than two seconds, but still manage to click ads or fill out forms? They could be bot traffic rather than real traffic. Keeping an eye on website visitor metadata through tracking cookies and other monitoring tools can be incredibly useful for identifying potential fraud.

  • Using a Proven Ad Fraud Solution. A dedicated ad fraud solution is crucial for stopping ad fraud, but it’s important to use the right one! Look for a solution that has a proven track record of helping other companies put a stop to ad fraud in various forms.

Of these fraud prevention tips, using a proven ad fraud solution can have the biggest impact in terms of ad revenue saved. Consider this: a manual review of your ad performance metrics can take several minutes to complete once you get started. Odds are, unless you have a specialized team dedicated to just watching your marketing metrics, it will take hours or days in between each check.

In that time, how much ad fraud would your company be exposed to before someone reviews the metrics and finds the problem? How much more fraud would you end up paying for before you found the source of the fraud and put a stop to it?

This is where an ad fraud solution that checks your website traffic in real time becomes a must-have tool. The Anura ad fraud solution not only checks traffic in real time, it also checks hundreds of data points about each visitor against decades of real conversion data to accurately identify fraud with no false positives. With Anura, when it’s marked as fraud, it’s fraud—and we provide the data to back up each and every event we mark.

Don’t let mobile ad fraud ravage your marketing budget. Contact us and ask for a demo of the Anura ad fraud solution now!

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