For those of us in the digital advertising space, bots are a familiar and always evolving, challenge. They can engage in convincingly human-like behavior (clicking on ads, playing videos, performing searches, and on and on), and for that reason are a favorite tool of fraudsters seeking to mislead marketers, publishers, and agencies about the real impact of their ads. IAS offers a range of solutions that help identify these malevolent bots, spotting when online behavior is not that of a human, and helping advertisers avoid the corruption of their metrics by such deception.

But what if the bot is a human? No, we’re not talking about some dystopian, Terminator-like scenario in which the line between human and android becomes blurry. Rather, it’s a case of humans being rewarded for taking bot-like actions — and it’s a fast-growing concern for our industry.

When we say “human bots” what we’re really talking about is “incentivized browsing.” It happens when a person is rewarded in some way to interact with ads due to reasons other than the ad itself — whether that’s cash for clicking on banners, discounts in return for time spent on a website, or some other benefits as payment for online actions. This behavior inflates impressions and other metrics, with numbers that imply the ads are being served to a target audience when they are not.

How Big a Problem Is Incentivized Browsing?

IAS has detected a rapid rise in this kind of pay-for-play browsing over the past few months. In the last year, we’ve found that more than six billion ads have been served to incentivized users, despite our warnings that these are what we have classified as Reduced Value Inventory, likely to deliver weaker campaign results than high-quality placements delivered to advertisers’ target audiences.

Incentivized browsing remains in the grey area of online advertising. These browsers are real people, but their compromised motives for taking any ad-related actions make their interactions with ads  of less value to an advertiser than if those interactions occurred organically.

A Look at the Numbers

IAS recently conducted some of our own research into the effects that incentivized browsing can have on a campaign’s ROI. Combining our fraud detection and conversion tracking capabilities, we compared the behavior of incentivized browsers to regular visitors of a popular news site and a subject-focused social-networking site — specifically their browsing habits and conversion rates.

We found that those visiting the incentivized browsing site spent three-quarters of their online time on sites that couldn’t be used for behavioral targeting (other incentivized browsing sites, checking email, and so on), with just a quarter of their time spent on sites that can be used to deliver an ad that speaks to their interests. In other words, little can be learned about them, making an advertiser’s effort to target a message to them (as opposed to those visiting the news or social networking site) a major challenge.

Our study also found that incentivized browsers were significantly less likely to make a purchase or some other kind of conversion, compared to the other two types of sites. Specifically, those on the incentivized browsing site were at least 25% less likely to have at least one conversion than either the audience on the news or social media sites. The rate of conversions per impression for the incentivized users was 61% below the baseline established in the research. By our estimates, that means that the average price of a conversion for an incentivized browser is 65% more expensive than the same for a visitor to a news site and 82% more expensive than a visitor to a social networking site. Not a great value for advertisers

Unlike with bots, which have a 0% chance of conversion, the incentivized “human bots” may sometimes be converted by your ads. But we found this type of inventory offers a reduced value to advertisers, who should be very wary of directing ad dollars toward them.

Download the full whitepaper to read more about IAS’ investigation into incentivized browzing and how it can significantly impact advertiser ROI.

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