What is “Invalid Traffic” and Should You Worry About it?

Invalid Traffic and Should You Worry About it

Invalid traffic is an overarching term, used to refer to shady online activity, although that’s a limited definition. In reality, there are plenty of legitimate reasons which can cause a portion of your traffic to be considered “invalid”. If you happen to get any alerts containing the same phrase, don’t panic just yet. We’ll discuss all the different types bellow, to explain when you need to take action and when it’s nothing to worry about. 

Traffic scams are hardly a new occurrence. Even though they’ve gotten less effective over time, things have actually gotten worse in terms of scale. Web security methods have become more sophisticated but unfortunately so have their fraudulent counterparts. It’s not yet safe for publishers to just ignore the problem. Even with digital behemoths such as Google being on the lookout. Typically, you’d be just fine as long as you stick to the major platforms’ Terms of Service. However, you are always in danger of malicious attacks. Even accidental activities can drive your business to the ground, especially when your audience grows larger. 

Let’s define “invalid traffic”

Google provides a rather broad definition which states: 

“Invalid traffic includes any clicks or impressions that may artificially inflate an advertiser’s costs or a publisher’s earnings.”

Simply put, any traffic that exists merely for the purpose of profit and can’t bring any value to advertisers is not eligible for monetization. That’s certainly accurate. However, without elaborating any further this is open to wrongful interpretation. Also, the negative effects of such occurrences extend beyond the realm of monetization as well.

To clear things up, let’s look at specific examples of invalid traffic and what dangers they may hold. You may see these classified in a variety of ways online. Yet, for the sake of helping you understand the basic principles we’ve split them into 4 categories:

Intentional Human Activity

Basically, people deliberately refreshing pages or clicking on ads repeatedly, in order to increase ad earnings. This also includes publishers clicking on their own ads and reloading pages excessively, buffing up impression volumes. The keyword here is excessively. It’s virtually impossible to prevent seeing ads on your own property, even clicking any once in a while by accident. The systems tracking these events are pretty clever. So don’t worry, you won’t get in trouble if you’re not doing it on purpose. 

Non-intentional Human Activity

In this category we’re mostly talking about any accidental ad clicks that may have occurred. The way this is identified is usually by tracking users’ activity post-click. When they close the respective landing page immediately after opening it, before it even manages to load any content, it suggests an unintentional event. For the most part such occurrences are rare and pretty harmless and their effects on revenue are negligible. Yet, keep in mind that certain placement and design practices can lead users into doing so, in which case the responsibility is yours alone. 

Fraudulent Automatic Activity

The most dangerous source of invalid traffic is when either the publisher or a third party uses bots. To create fake website visits, actions, impressions or ad clicks is also heavily punishable. While most media owners would never consider doing so, this could actually be happening to them without even realizing it. One reason for such tactics is brands trying to undercut their competitor’s marketing campaigns. It’s rare but it does happen. A more frequent model, however, is for certain groups to send out bots. They browse parts of the web and collect a large amount of artificial “users” with specific cookies, that can later be sold on open marketplaces.

The effects of this practice for publishers are pretty severe. Not only does it mess up your data and ratings, but also depletes advertiser budgets. Budgets, that could be otherwise spent towards your genuine audience. Last, but not least, bot farms are also used to steal content. And also to spam post through all available channels, redirecting users to the fraudster’s website. All of the above are deliberately created with malicious intent. It can be difficult to detect, as the parties deploying them are creating more sophisticated ways of doing so. 

Non-fraudulent Automatic Activity

Plenty of spiders, crawlers and bots are constantly going through your website and registering as users. Whether you know it or not. Most of these are not malicious, but rather helpful and their existence is unavoidable – it’s just part of the deal. You can’t really do without them. All search engines deploy such to scan your website and gather information for operational purposes. The good thing is that these are pretty obvious and easily identifiable, since they’re not meant to deceive.  

So what can you do to prevent invalid traffic?

Start with the basics – Analytics

The first step towards eliminating fraudulent traffic is identifying it. In order to do so, you need to have a good baseline for comparison. Get to know your audience in and out. Who are your users? When are they most active? What numbers are you getting on average and what does your regular engagement funnel look like? All of this is pretty easy to find in Google Analytics or any alternative tool you’re using. By doing so you can identify irregularities and inspect for any signals of bot activity. Understand your website performance better.

Be careful with your traffic sources

It’s pretty simple – don’t ever buy traffic. No matter how promising or legitimate the seller is, 99% of the time they’re using bot farms. It’s simply not worth it and besides, you’ll be back to square one as soon as you stop paying. You should also be careful with any advertising campaigns you’re running of your own. Plenty of low-tier marketplaces promise lucrative conversion rates. Which is tricking publishers into working with them while actually committing fraud to achieve those numbers.  Your best bet is sticking to mainstream platforms and shooting for long-term organic growth.

Use reliable monetization platform

The same goes for your monetization partners. All the well-established marketplaces have more advanced technology and methods to filter fraudsters out. That works in your favor as even if any such reach your website. They simply won’t find whatever they’re looking for and leave you alone pretty quickly. Also don’t forget to keep up your blacklist – sketchy advertisers attract sketchy traffic. 

Practice proper ad placement and implementation

As already mentioned, invalid traffic doesn’t just occur because of intentional misconduct. It also can be a result of user error. An example of this would be users that often click on ads by accident. Whenever they are positioned in a way that makes it easy to do so. Make sure to follow the appropriate guidelines for ad positioning and analyze user interaction to minimize those chances. A typical example of an error in this regard is ads under drop-down menus or elements. It can easily lead to accidental clicks when users aren’t careful and often leads to revenue deductions. Also, make sure that your code is clean and there aren’t any ads overlapping other elements. Especially the ones that users have no choice but to click on to access content. 

Get third-party traffic vetting

The truth is that even taking all the necessary precautions may not be enough to keep fraudulent traffic sources out. In this case a third-party vetting partner may be the right choice. There are plenty of companies offering real-time traffic filtering and they’re actually quite good at it. Once you reach a certain audience size things become way more difficult to manage. And at that stage, getting a third-party involved is definitely a good idea.

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