It’s 10PM, Do You Know Where Your Programmatic Ads Are?


Programmatic buying is getting a lot of praise these days, but also a lot of flack. Programmatic ad buying simply means automated. A lot of people confuse it with buying ads through computer-run auctions — known as real-time bidding — but that’s just one way to buy ads programmatically. At its core, programmatic buying is any ad buy that gets processed through machines.

In digital advertising, programmatic is a powerful tool but it also comes with some serious downsides. One of the biggest is click fraud, phony clicks on banner ads that end up costing the advertiser without delivery any benefit. But there is another existential threat to the industry: URL masking.

Imagine this, you want to advertise a great new album on a series of great music blogs so you purchase some inventory on the hypothetical But in the end, your ad ends up showing on piracy sites where that very same album is being downloaded. How did this all happen?

The practice of URL masking usually involves utilizing iframes, the same code that lets people embed YouTube videos and other media. What happens is that the music piracy site, or any site with a reputation that scares away advertisers, will embed ads that were meant for, fooling paying advertisers in the process.

AdAge ran a really great article on the problem last week, citing recent research that suggests that 40% of programmatically bought digital ads have masked URLs.

URL masking is often used to trick advertisers into running ads on sites with illicit or stolen content, which tend to generate lots of traffic but little ad revenue. URL masking is also used to fool buyers into thinking they’re buying premium inventory when they are instead getting low quality placements.

Some will hear a lot of talk about programmatic buying as the “future of marketing,” and, like every great seller of snake oil, as a “hop on now or be forever left behind” scenario. But I’d liken it more, in its current state, to a prototype car engine that may revolutionize the industry, or simply leave you stranded.

Programmatic buying is an important part of a marketer’s arsenal. But I’m a staunch believer that programmatic marketing lacks a lot of what makes local marketing great. At the Altitude Group, we focus on the power of true cross-platform marketing. But for many marketers, the risks associated with programmatic buying are just too great to deal with until the industry successfully weeds out click fraud and URL masking.