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What Is a Bot? How Do Bots Impact Your Digital Ad Campaigns?

January 20, 2021

How much money do you spend on ads per month? Some companies dedicate as much as millions of dollars per month towards getting their ads in front of the right people. Unfortunately, a percentage of that is unknowingly wasted money. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, Adobe found that 28% of website traffic likely came from bots and other “non-human signals.” If you've invested money into a digital ad campaign, there's no guarantee that those ads will end up in front of real people. They might, instead, end up being served to bots. 

What exactly are bots? And, how do we prevent them from siphoning your company’s ad spend?

The Mechanical Menace

What are these bots? Short for “robot,” a bot is an automated software program built to carry out a specific task by simulating a human's use of a website. Usually, this wouldn't be a problem, since we have bots all over the internet. 

What Is Bot Traffic?

Traffic bots are one of the “bad” kinds of bots that contribute to bot fraud. These bots are made to simulate traffic from a live human to trick businesses into thinking that their ads are getting impressions. However, instead of a person, they’re getting a bot who cannot make a purchase or contribute to the company’s revenue.

Bot traffic detected” should be a dreaded warning for any business running an extensive campaign with spending based on traffic/impressions generated.

How Do Bots Affect Digital Ad Campaigns and Businesses?

Once there's a revenue stream, there will be people trying to exploit it. Ads are no different. How do bots, like traffic bots and click bots, negatively impact digital ad campaigns for businesses?

Ad fraud (hello bots, goodbye revenue!)

Early on in the life cycle of ad production, some creative coders realized they could make a lot of money by faking the number of impressions that an ad receives. This procedure is known as ad fraud which stems from illicit traffic sourcing.

When you pay for an online ad, you assume that your affiliate is putting it in front of a real human being. Most of your metrics work with that premise – with a certain number of impressions, you'll expect a particular conversion rate. 

However, when up to half of your ads are in front of bots, what are you paying for? Typically, when you're promoting a website, you source traffic from multiple channels. The thought is that, as more people see your ads, they'd be more likely to click on them. Bots change that entire dynamic.

When you buy ads from a website, they serve it to their engaged audience, and you have a chance of getting a consumer to buy your product. However, traffic brokers have caught onto this scheme. They offer a massive number of visitors in any demographic, but at a much lower cost than traditional advertisers.

The problem is that you're not buying REAL impressions. You're effectively paying affiliates and advertising platforms for bogus impressions, which won't benefit your business in the long run. Most companies aren't aware of how insidious these practices are and how much money they're wasting on traffic sourcing. Traffic sourcing can be a massive boost to a business's visibility. If left unprotected, you run the risk of being inundated by bot impressions. Their impact on your business can be deep and destructive.

Spam

Spam bots are a bit different from the traffic bots used in normal ad fraud. Instead of wrecking the metrics of a particular ad campaign by flooding it with fake traffic, spam bots send unwelcome messages to people—often fraudulently representing a legitimate business to earn the victim’s trust. According to statistics cited by Kaspersky, someone who reads 10-20 emails daily “will spend 5-6 hours per month just deleting spam.” 

This can be a major nuisance factor for potential customers. If leads associate your brand with the spam that wastes so much of their time, they are less likely to become customers.

Alternatively, spam bots could collect contact information from people that unscrupulous advertising services can resell to businesses that think they’re buying legitimate, interested customer/lead lists. This can lead to the business sending unwanted messages to uninterested contacts and getting flagged as spam in email and social media ad campaigns. This can negatively impact the company’s ability to send further advertisements.

Affiliates using lists collected by spam bots may register thousands of impressions that will never lead to sales because of how poorly-curated those lists are.

DDoS attacks

While distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks don’t have much to do with advertising campaigns, botnets using a business’ compromised IT assets to carry these attacks out can negatively impact the company’s brand reputation. 

How Bots Affect Your Metrics

As marketers, we rely on data to inform our decisions. When that data comes from an artificially inflated source, the numbers we get (and the insights they provide) are worthless. Among the ways that bots can damage your metrics and lead you down the wrong path include:

  • Skewed attribution reports: Lead attribution reports allow you to spot which digital campaigns have been getting the most clicks. Ideally, with a human audience, you can tailor your content to your audience's tastes. Bots don't care, since they don't have any tastes. The insights generated from their "clicks" might lead you to make bad choices in future digital ad campaigns.

  • Erroneous Analytics: Analytics also rely on a human audience to be useful. The analytics reports from your website can give you a unique insight into your core audience. You can determine where your core audience is located, or what age group they may be in. All of these can help streamline your website to suit them. Unfortunately, bots can skew these analytics and give you the wrong information about the people you think are your audience.

  • Driving Up PPC Costs: When a bot crosses a page, it will click on every ad it encounters. The bot's clicks translate into more revenue for the website that the ad is hosted on and increase your cost for ads. The more well-designed bots can even randomly vary the amount of time they spend on a page or even fill out basic forms so they look less mechanical and become harder to spot. A lot of the clicks these bots generate are non-usable leads or fraudulent traffic, and it requires a lot of technology to determine these users are fraudulent.

  • Bots Could Lead to Bad Advertising Channel Decisions: Social media is the best method for establishing an audience. However, a user doesn't have to do all the work themselves. Twitter bots, for example, make it easy to code an app that follows random people and then unfollows them if they don't reciprocate over a short time. Most Twitter users don't know if they're influencing people or just bots.

  • No Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) Measurement: How much is a customer worth to you? The CLV metric offers you insights into the value that a customer brings to the business over the entire time that they associate with you. It also allows a company to balance its ad-spend budget to cater for the money it will recoup from that customer. If your impressions are all bots, then you have no baseline for CLV measurements. None of those bots are "customers," and so they have zero lifetime value to the business. No matter how you try, you can't divide by zero.

With the right solution in place, you’ll have access to technology that is constantly updated to stay a few steps ahead of the bad actors—essentially enabling you to future-proof your campaigns.

Download this eBook to better understand affiliate marketing, ad and affiliate fraud, and how to minimize your company’s risk with an ad fraud solution. >>

How to Identify the Signs and Know If You Have a Bot Problem

There are several methods that you can invest in to determine if bots are plaguing you. Among them are:

  • High Clicks Rate with Low Conversions: If you notice a rapid increase in clicks but little to now conversions, you may have a bot problem.

  • Abandoned Shopping Carts: Bots can’t complete a purchase. If you notice a high bounce rate or visitors placing items in carts and leaving them behind, you may have a bot problem.

  • Unfamiliar Traffic Sources: Look into your traffic data. Bad traffic may originate from large data centers and send multiple clicks from the same IP address. If your traffic is coming from an area outside of your target audience, this is a red flag.

  • Impressions remain constant after implementing "Invalid Traffic" solutions: Not all traffic coming from human users will be valid. If you implement measures to stop invalid traffic but get no corresponding decrease in user impressions, your supplier is probably using bots to drive up the impression count.

  • Form-fills with fake information: It’s easy to identify a bot form fill when it submits illegible information but what happens when a sophisticated bot uses valid information in a form, like a real phone number or email address. You may have a TCPA noncompliance issue if the form’s owner doesn’t properly vet the “lead.”

These are just a few methods you can use to help you spot when you have bots populating your page and pretending to be legitimate users. Once you notice some of these signs, you'll need some way to verify whether you're dealing with bots or if another issue may be causing your poor results.

However, keeping an eye out for all of these warning signs manually can be time-consuming and difficult. Plus, how can any one person possibly keep track of all the data they need to accurately detect fraudulent advertisement bots and sort them out from the real people clicking on their ads?

How to Prevent Fraudulent Advertising

What can your business do to prevent bot fraud advertising and avoid wasting money? There are several things that can help your company avoid online ad fraud:

  • Carefully vet affiliate partners. When conducting affiliate marketing, verify that any affiliate partners have a history of providing legitimate leads and results and not just a bunch of impressions.

  • Consider using results-based commissions. Some companies base the commissions they pay to their affiliates on the actual number of sales those affiliates generate. Doing so will require having a method of tracking which affiliates are bringing specific leads – such as an affiliate-specific promo code.

  • Keep an eye out for ad fraud warning signs. Watching for things like high clicks with low conversions and high abandoned cart rates can help you detect click bots and other forms of bot fraud early. This can help you minimize the impact of fraud on your ad campaigns.

The Right Solution

The best defense companies can use to protect their brand and consumers from bad bots engaged in ad fraud is to invest in an ad fraud solution, like Anura. 

Based on hundreds of data points per visitor, Anura can distinguish between clicks generated by bots, malware, and human fraud, versus clicks generated by legitimate website visitors. With precise combination of machine learning and well-versed engineers, Anura can achieve these results.

Anura does not use confusing numerical scoring systems which create false positives. Just a black-and-white indicator of web traffic as real or fraudulent. When Anura says it’s bad, it’s bad.

FAQs about Bots and Bot Fraud:

What is bot fraud in advertising?

Bot fraud is when someone uses automated programs to trick a target into thinking that they have generated business leads from an online ad campaign. For example, click bots may click on automated ads to make a company using a pay-per-click ad campaign pay for false results.

Why are bots bad for my business’ ad campaigns?

Bots cause businesses to waste money unnecessarily on fraudulent ad clicks that won’t generate revenue. Additionally, they can skew an ad campaign’s metrics, causing businesses to make decisions based on bad data.

What’s the definition of ad fraud?

A basic ad fraud definition is when an advertising platform or affiliate partner falsifies impressions, ad clicks, or leads to trick someone into spending money on an ad campaign.

What’s CAPTCHA?

CAPTCHA is an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. It’s an automated tool for thwarting most basic click bots to prevent bot fraud.

How can I tell if I’m dealing with fraud ad bots?

Some basic warning signs include high click rates with extremely low (or no) conversions, abnormal amounts of abandoned carts, unfamiliar traffic sources, and fake or nonsensical information in forms.

Are there “good” bots?

Some bots can be good. Examples of good bots include the bots used by Google to collate internet data so web pages can show up in search results and big data aggregation bots that help businesses collect the info they need to make smart, data-driven decisions.

How are bots related to DDoS attacks?

While not directly related to ad fraud bots, botnets (large collections of bots hosted on compromised computers and IoT devices) can be used to carry out distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on companies. This can disrupt operations and damage an organization’s reputation with prospects.

Can bots affect Facebook intelligent ads?

Facebook’s intelligent ads, which use cookies and browser data to put specific advertisements in front of potential customers who may be interested in a specific product or service, can definitely be impacted by bot ad fraud. According to an article by Light Reading, “Typical advertisers often are spending 20% of their budget paying for views from bots.”

How can I stop bot traffic fraud from hurting my ad campaigns?

The best way to bot is to detect it early and nip it in the bud. Tools like Anura can reliably identify bots to stop bot fraud without accidentally eliminating traffic from actual humans.

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