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Q&A: iotec On ads.txt and Improving Transparency within Programmatic

Q&A: iotec On ads.txt and Improving Transparency within Programmatic

PerformanceIN

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) launched ads.txt as part of it's "Gold Standard" initiative to improve transparency within the programmatic space and the buying process between advertisers and publishers. PerformanceIN talks to Paul Wright, CEO of iotec on what ads.txt is and how it proposes to solve the ongoing problems in programmatic advertising.

What is ads.txt?

As the name implies, ads.txt (Authorized Digital Sellers) is a text file which lets publishers publically whitelist who is allowed to sell their ads within the programmatic space.

Like robots.txt, only publishers are able to post the file to their domain in order to verify their inventory, making it highly secure.

What problem does it propose to solve?

Announced by the IAB last month, ads.txt is part of an initiative called the ‘Gold Standard’, which aims to improve transparency within digital advertising and reduce the fraudulent activity that has been a mainstay concern of advertisers and marketers in 2017.

ads.txt can let brands see that they are buying authentic inventory, having a clear and direct effect on criminals who now have little room to counterfeit within the supply chain as more publishers and buyers support the initiative.

Does it work?

In short, yes. For those who are buying from publishers who both support ads.txt and have correctly implemented it they can be reasonably comfortable that all inventory purchased is almost certainly legitimate. An approved reseller could still misrepresent inventory, but there are additional controls possible here.

On the publishing side, the only thing required in order to support ads.txt is to create a text file entitled “ads.txt” with a list of authorised sellers and place it at the top/root level of your web domain. The option is also there for those who want to list what types of ads are being served (e.g. banner ads, skyscraper ads, MPUs, etc).

Buyers (like DSPs) are able to then crawl web pages for ads.txt, finding authorised sellers for each domain in the process as the requisite Publisher IDs in each ads.txt list show who is allowed to sell what; that ads purchased for ‘PerformanceIN’ are actually going to PerformanceIN.com and not PerfarmanceIn.com.

What are the barriers to adoption?

As the IAB states, the file is easily updatable and it's easy for publishers / distributors to create their own and input the required information.

With many exchanges announcing that they will cease to buy inventory from sites that don’t have ads.txt correctly implemented, expect to see the rate of adoption increase rapidly as we head into 2018. Sites without the file entirely are not blocked yet, but expect to see this soon.

Does it have any impact on costs/revenues?

This is two-fold. Whilst the solution is not expensive nor hard to implement, having a open list of all authorised sellers enables buyers to compare and contrast inventory across different channels, with the file giving you an exact picture of what ads are where.

The potential complication then, is that buyers are now able, by having publisher IDs locked in, to see who offers the best price. As more publishers support the initiative we could be seeing a shake-up with prices for inventory across different channels being constantly matched to the competition. For now though, it provides buyers a huge amount of choice and clarity when choosing where to buy ads.

Of course, for those making a profit off fraudulent inventory, the impact is obvious.

What are the other risks?

We’re aware of one risk which can bypass even a correctly configured ads.txt file.  We’ve heard of fraudsters simply calling up the webmasters of premium publishers and asking to have their details added to the ads.txt file, playing on the fact that in some large businesses, commercial and editorial teams often aren’t aligned. Successfully getting added to ads.txt would grant an unscrupulous reseller the ability to alter cheaper inventory to appear to belong to the premium publisher.

Clearly, it is vital that the list of resellers in properly vetted and maintained. For a guide on how to implement ads.txt correctly we recommend you see the IAB’s PDF briefer.

How might it evolve - what comes next?

Ads.cert is the next stage of protection, with publishers embedding an encrypted certificate in every ad impression, allowing the authenticity of the source to be validated and solving for the ‘unscrupulous reseller’ scenario..

With an increasing focus on transparency we could be seeing a new wave of end-to-end control over the digital advertising ecosystem.

Blockchain has been much touted as a solution providing a complete micro-transactional ledger; in theory this would supersede both ads.txt and ads.cert in providing a complete audit trail for every impression. In practice, blockchain has scale and cost limitations which would prevent its use for every transaction at the impression level. The emerging use of blockchain to manage macro-transactions (eg. contracts at the campaign level) may have some merits, but is not a replacement for ads.txt and does nothing to address ad fraud or brand safety.

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Paul Wright

Paul Wright

Paul is the CEO of iotec, the intent marketing specialists, applying machine learning to identify consumer intent without assumption. Within his 30 years of experience Paul has held many senior roles across the media and advertising industry, including positions as Director of iAd, Apple's Mobile Advertising Platform and Chief Digital Officer at Omnicom Media Group, one of the UK's largest media groups.

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