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Fraud, Invisible Ads and Silly Targeting

Robots Watching TV
(Photo: “Robots Watching Telly” from Nice Paper Toys.)

Mercedes-Benz recently accused Rocket Fuel, the giant ad network, of fraud, asserting 57% of the impressions the car-maker bought on the network’s websites were seen only by non-human software bots. From the FT:

Part of a recent Mercedes-Benz online advertising campaign was viewed more often by automated computer programmes than by human beings, according to documents seen by the Financial Times.

The ads were inadvertently placed on to fraudulent websites by Rocket Fuel, a Nasdaq-listed ad technology company that went public last September with a market capitalisation of nearly $1bn.

Rocket Fuel, in a blog post, refutes those numbers, claiming only 6% of the Mercedes-Benz impressions were fraudulent, and that they replaced them with ad impressions served to actual humans “before any bills were even sent.” In the same post, they tout their prowess in identifying and declining fraudulent inventory. “We reject approximately 40% of all ad space daily due to its failure to pass our own bot and brand-safety screens.” Good for you, Rocket Fuel, but bad for the rest of the industry. Forty-percent?? What’s 40% of $43 billion in digital ad spending?

Of course, the industry recently made a small leap forward. At least regarding the online ads that are aimed at humans — 54% of which, according to Comscore, are delivered to parts of the web that human eyes can’t see, below the fold or otherwise outside the browser’s viewport. The IAB has formalized a new viewability standard. No longer will publishers or ad networks (those that comply, anyway) charge for ad impressions delivered outside the visible, on-screen space on a consumer’s screen. From now on, half (or more) of the ad unit must have the opportunity to be seen, and must stay there for at least one second. If you’re starting from zero seconds and invisible, I guess, this is progress. Modest, incremental progress, but it’s a start.

Numbers like that — 40% is fraud, 54% can’t be seen by humans — can depress a person. But the ads that aren’t invisible or software scams, at least they’re super targeted and awesome, right? It’s downright scary how those online ad algorithms know absolutely everything about us, right? Sometime I’m not so sure.

Roman Mars Tweet

Earlier this week I saw this tweet from Roman Mars, the prominent design and architecture journalist. The New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff calls him “the Ira Glass of design.” Meanwhile the marketing team at School of Visual Arts wants to send him back to school, and is spending marketing dollars to pursue its case.

It struck me that those emails and postcards would qualify as excellent, near-perfect targeting in the world of digital advertising. Last weekend I did two things online. One, I visited the website for a touristy Chinatown restaurant (Z and Y) to get their address, and, later that night, ate there with my in-laws. Two, I bought a Welsh Love Spoon as a present for my daughter. For the rest of the week Google served me ads for Z and Y Restaurant and promotions for Welsh Love Spoons.

Silly, right?

Do the ad-targeting algorithms think I’m due to go back to Z and Y so soon? And if I did go back to Z and Y a week later, shouldn’t the chefs and waiters ad Z and Y, not Google, get the credit for my return trip? And the Welsh Love Spoons. Is there something in my personal Big Data that says I’ve suddenly become an obsessive Welsh Love Spoon collector? I can attest to the fact that these ads connected with human eyes — for a full handful of seconds! — but I’m still tempted to call them a scam.