Fighting invalid traffic is essential for the long-term sustainability of the digital advertising ecosystem. We have an extensive internal system to filter out invalid traffic – from simple filters to large-scale machine learning models – and we collaborate with advertisers, agencies, publishers, ad tech companies, research institutions, law enforcement and other third party organizations to identify potential threats. We take all reports of questionable activity seriously, and when we find invalid traffic, we act quickly to remove it from our systems.
Last week, BuzzFeed News provided us with information that helped us identify new aspects of an ad fraud operation across apps and websites that were monetizing with numerous ad platforms, including Google. While our internal systems had previously caught and blocked violating websites from our ad network, in the past week we also removed apps involved in the ad fraud scheme so they can no longer monetize with Google. Further, we have blacklisted additional apps and websites that are outside of our ad network, to ensure that advertisers using Display & Video 360 (formerly known as DoubleClick Bid Manager) do not buy any of this traffic. We are continuing to monitor this operation and will continue to take action if we find any additional invalid traffic.
While our analysis of the operation is ongoing, we estimate that the dollar value of impacted Google advertiser spend across the apps and websites involved in the operation is under $10 million. The majority of impacted advertiser spend was from invalid traffic on inventory from non-Google, third-party ad networks.
A technical overview of the ad fraud operation is included below.
Collaboration throughout our industry is critical in helping us to better detect, prevent, and disable these threats across the ecosystem. We want to thank BuzzFeed for sharing information that allowed us to take further action. This effort highlights the importance of collaborating with others to counter bad actors. Ad fraud is an industry-wide issue that no company can tackle alone. We remain committed to fighting invalid traffic and ad fraud threats such as this one, both to protect our advertisers, publishers, and users, as well as to protect the integrity of the broader digital advertising ecosystem.
Google deploys comprehensive, state-of-the-art systems and procedures to combat ad fraud. We have made and continue to make considerable investments to protect our ad systems against invalid traffic.
As detailed above, we’ve identified, analyzed and blocked invalid traffic associated with this operation, both by removing apps and blacklisting websites. Our engineering and operations teams, across various organizations, are also taking systemic action to disrupt this threat, including the takedown of command and control infrastructure that powers the associated botnet. In addition, we have shared relevant technical information with trusted partners across the ecosystem, so that they can also harden their defenses and minimize the impact of this threat throughout the industry.
The BuzzFeed News report covers several fraud tactics (both web and mobile app) that are allegedly utilized by the same group. The web-based traffic is generated by a botnet that Google and others have been tracking, known as “TechSnab.” The TechSnab botnet is a small to medium-sized botnet that has existed for a few years. The number of active infections associated with TechSnab was reduced significantly after the Google Chrome Cleanup tool began prompting users to uninstall the malware.
In similar fashion to other botnets, this operates by creating hidden browser windows that visit web pages to inflate ad revenue. The malware contains common IP based cloaking, data obfuscation, and anti-analysis defenses. This botnet drove traffic to a ring of websites created specifically for this operation, and monetized with Google and many third party ad exchanges. As mentioned above, we began taking action on these websites earlier this year.
Based on analysis of historical ads.txt crawl data, inventory from these websites was widely available throughout the advertising ecosystem, and as many as 150 exchanges, supply-side platforms (SSPs) or networks may have sold this inventory. The botnet operators had hundreds of accounts across 88 different exchanges (based on accounts listed with “DIRECT” status in their ads.txt files).
This fraud primarily impacted mobile apps. We investigated those apps that were monetizing via AdMob and removed those that were engaged in this behavior from our ad network. The traffic from these apps seems to be a blend of organic user traffic and artificially inflated ad traffic, including traffic based on hidden ads. Additionally, we found the presence of several ad networks, indicating that it’s likely many were being used for monetization. We are actively tracking this operation, and continually updating and improving our enforcement tactics.