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Advertising fraud presents an enormous, costly and often undetected challenge for game devs. A recent study from the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimates that mobile fraud (serving ads not viewed by human users and cashing in on the impressions) costs advertisers nearly $1.3 billion per year.

A taboo topic, mobile game ad fraud not only impacts developers, but also the ad networks they work with and potential players. During a talk at GDC last week, I uncovered the underground world of ad fraud, explaining its origins and offering some tips on how to spot and tackle the issue.

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Chartboost’s Pepe Agell at GDC 2016

Brief history: What is ad fraud and where does it come from?

The days of one advertising channel between marketers and publishers are long gone. Today, mobile advertising involves a complex cocktail of agencies, proprietary ad servers and multiple ad networks using different tools to track ad ROI and traffic. Unfortunately, this complexity is ideal territory for fraudsters: allowing them to drive traffic to fake users (bots) and drain ad budget.

ad-fraud-chartAny game in an app store is vulnerable to fraud. As the mobile advertising market is set to overtake desktop advertising by 2018, devs and marketers need to understand the benchmarks of fraud to save money and help their business grow.

Ad fraud: What to look for

1. Activity that is too predictable:

By definition, people are unpredictable and irrational. A consistent pattern of clicks—either by time or frequency—could be a sign of automated ad fraud. Keep an eye out for activity that’s a bit too pristine, as this may find a bot placed by fraudsters.

2. Clicks in one geography and installs in another:

Ad fraudsters know that the networks are complex and touchpoints are almost impossible to keep tabs on. Game developers with games in stores that touch all corners of the world should pay attention to click/install geography discrepancies. It’s possible that someone in Germany clicks the ad and then installs the game while on the beach in Mexico, but that’s not often the case. More frequently, geographic leaps like those are a sign of ad fraud.

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3. Many installs to one device or IP address:

This may sound intuitive, but it’s often overlooked when game installs originate from the exact same device or network key. I’m not talking about 2-3 installs on the same iPhone 6, I’m talking about thousands. There are areas around the world from Latin America to Southeast Asia that tend to see a concentration of this activity. No matter where it occurs, multiple installs are a clear sign of potential ad fraud.

4. A flurry of activity around install and then a huge drop:

What users do with a game once it’s downloaded may hold the key to future revenue growth, marketing, brand awareness and installs from the same community. Players that install a game and play it sparingly may not fit the proper player profile. That said, it’s rare for users to play or interact with a game and then go radio silent. Look for such cases and analyze them as potential ad fraud.

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If one of the above scenarios occurs, here’s a simple yet effective plan of action to combat fraud moving forward:

  • Buy via transparent acquisition channels
  • Work with partners
  • Focus spend on action-based pricing models
  • Analyze player behavior after the install

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