Yesterday the IAB formally announced its ads.txt initiative. This is a small but reasonable attempt to address one small part of the huge ad fraud ecosystem that next year will cost advertisers an estimated $19 billion, and a massive $44 billion by 2022. In Australia, the figure quoted is about $120 million annually.

Specifically, the initiative makes it more difficult for ad fraud entities to sell counterfeit inventory. That is all it does.

According to ad fraud specialist Shailin Dhar at Method Media Intelligence, “The ads.txt has merit in that it’s a great thing to have publishers list out who they work with. It does not address the fraudulent traffic problem. All it helps us with is knowing that an impression was either spoofed, resold, or injected by adware.”

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Still, that’s not a bad start and does tend to beg the question, why has it taken so long. More on that another day.

Here is how the process works. A publisher for instance, The Sydney Morning Herald manually creates a text file called ads.txt which lists the authorised direct and indirect sellers and resellers of its inventory.

Programmatic buyers use software – typically something called a demand-side platform (DSP)* either directly owned by a brand or operated by an agency on behalf of the brand to read the data in the ads.txt file which contains a unique ID for the publisher in that DSP confirming the inventory is valid and associated with that domain.

A couple of points:

  • For the time being not having ads.txt on your site will not stop you getting ads. (That may change if enough publishers adopt the approach in future and the model swaps from carrot to stick Google is already muttering suggestions along that line).
  • Next, finding an ads.txt file on a site is no guarantee that the site is legitimate. Dhar, for instance, says that at the moment there are more fraudulent sites adopting ads.txt than premium publishers! He is not the only one to suggest this to Which-50.
  • And the whole dog and pony show depends on a manual process publishers inputting the correct data into the ads.txt file. Apparently that’s a bigger problem than you might imagine, according to those we have spoken to who reference human error as a concern.

The success or otherwise of the approach ultimately depends on the willingness of the publishers to add  and maintain ads.txt in their root directory.) The root directory is the top of the file structure so for instance

In fact, here is the Sydney Morning Herald’s ads.txt file.

We are only using The Sydney Morning Herald because Which-50 does not sell advertising. Now in case you are wondering whether revealing your unique ID inside a specific DSP is the kind of thing to bring a smile to the face of the Russian Mafia, we wondered the same thing but the advice we are getting for now is you are probably ok. Probably.

According to Marc Goldberg, CEO, Trust Metrics, “A whitelist plus ads.txt will be a good way to mitigate by providing a roadmap to the set of desired domains. Ads.txt creates a path back to potential makegoods if the agency/advertiser looks at reports post campaign and see sites that were not on the original lists. It also now provides more than just a path, but explicit directions to the destination.”

He cautioned however that the one thing txt has not done is improve the supply pool. “You still need a fraud vendor, you still need safety measure.”
In a statement released yesterday, IAB Australia CEO Vijay Solanki said the initial response to the ads.txt initiative has been encouraging “… but we need the entire digital ecosystem to get on board in order to drive wholesale changes and to ensure the full potential of ads.txt is realised.”

Solanki said he is calling upon Australian publishers to adopt ads.txt to give buyers the confidence that the inventory they are buying is legitimate. “We need to act collaboratively in order to continue to drive progress in our industry and help provide a safe programmatic environment for Australian brands.”

Of course, Solanki’s job would be made a lot easier if his own board practised what they preached. When we checked this morning neither Telstra, Yahoo Australian or NineMSN  all of whom have representatives on the local IAB board had implemented ads.txt as best we can tell.

To date, over two hundred Australian publishers have adopted and are supporting the technology, including The Guardian Australia, News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and Mamamia. IAB Australia would like to see this figure increase to over 1,000 to achieve critical mass.

Jonas Jaanimagi, IAB Australia executive consultant who has been working with the industry to support the implementation of ads.txt, said, “Mass adoption of ads.txt will benefit the entire digital advertising ecosystem.”

“Sellers will be protected from spoofing and buyers can buy programmatically with greater confidence from domains with this simple solution in place. The wide-scale adoption of ads.txt will give major brands peace of mind that their marketing messages will only appear on verified domains, significantly improving brand safety and eliminating any risk of ad fraud related to domain spoofing.”

One publisher that has already adopted the approach is The Guardian, Australia. Tony Bell, national sales director at The Guardian Australia, noted that The Guardian has adopted the ads.txt protocol globally. “We support all moves to clean up the digital ecosystem and improve transparency of the programmatic supply chain. Ads.txt verified vendors provide buyers with a guarantee that inventory is genuine, and will help eliminate fraudulent practices in the industry.”

A blockchain alternative

There are already companies looking at improving upon the ads.txt solution. MetaX, a business exploring blockchain solutions for digital advertising is working on an initiative called Ad.text plus. Interestingly the former head of IAB Labs,  Alanna Gombert has moved to MetaX after resigning from her role recently.

According to Praneet Sharma, the CTO at Method Media Intelligence, ads.txt plus (basically ads.txt on the blockchain) addresses the main concerns with vanilla ads.txt in three ways:

  • 1. There is no need to build a crawler. The blockchain infrastructure provides an API endpoint. This is easier to maintain.
  • 2. Synchronization. DSPs might have disparate states of various publishers’ .txt files. This inconsistency can cause issues.
  • 3.Advertisers can monitor change in a txt file. Already there are many cases where the .txt file can change daily.
“This solution handles change and extra infrastructural overhead,” he said.

* A demand-side platform is software that enables buyers – brands, agencies and ad networks – to purchase advertising spots from ad exchanges and publishers.

Clarification: Carsales was originally incorrectly identified as a company which had not implemented ads.txt despite having a member on the IAB board.  The company does not sell programmatically itself. Instead, Carsales partners with Audience360 which executes a data-based audience extension to which Carsales is a data-partner.

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