Blame it on Google : Rise of mobile ad fraud(5 of 7)

While in previous posts, we have seen how all the stakeholders: ad networks, attribution platform, and advertisers are positioned in the overall app marketing ecosystem.

The ecosystem was in a messy state due to the limitations faced by each of the stakeholders. It eventually led to ad fraud growth in mobile ad space. Let’s see the limitations faced by each of them


Lately building an app had become comparative easier task like building a website. However growing it to a certain threshold level and driving further growth through virality was very different from the website.

For a web marketer, marketing starts with the calculated mix of a short terms strategy called Search Engine Marketing(SEM) and a long term strategy called Search Engine Optimization(SEO). While SEM generates quick traffic by spending money in Adwords, SEO is a continuous process to generate sustained organic traffic over a medium and long term.  Display ads are used when the search campaigns reach a critical volume, and any incremental lead would cost too high to go after.

However, the scenario is different in the app stores(Appstore and Playstore). Google said a large percentage of the installs in playstore was happening through store search and other discovery options. The scenario is no different in AppStore. This being the case, Google didn’t introduce search ads in Playstore till 2015(AppStore did it only in 2016) which would have been a boon to advertisers. Adding to the trouble, ASO(App store optimization) was not so elaborate and rewarding as SEO. So advertisers flocked to playstore discovery options to get visibility.

One of the most prevalent app-discovery options is the “Top-ranked app of the day” and the featured app of the day. Google updates the rank once in a day whereas Apple does it once in every two hours. As mentioned in the earlier, top rank algorithm of Appstore and Playstore gives the highest weightage to daily app install volume and velocity. Only in early 2017, Google started considering other engagement factors of the app.

Thereby to increase the app discoverability and accelerate install growth, app developers flocked towards options which give them higher install volume at lower cost. Which happens to be Blind ad networks. That too predominantly incent ad networks where advertisers were promised high installs volume at a per installs cost as low as 10 -15 cents. This scenario led digital marketer to jump start large scale campaigns(even though for a short period) in a situation where they neither understand the mobile attribution fully nor having information about their ad placements.

The lack of the standardized in mobile app attribution measurement across the industry had created knowledge gap for the advertiser. With Google and Apple changing their ad tracking policies frequently and attribution platform coming up new solutions to patch up the information deficiency, advertisers were shooting in the dark for most of the time.   

While the advertisers were limited by knowledge, attribution platforms were limited by their pricing methods and Ad networks are limited by high competition. We will see about it in the next post.

To be continued…


Age of App attribution: Rise of mobile ad fraud (4 of 7)

As we saw in the earlier post, with no standardization set in the attribution like Google did in web analytics using GA, Mobile Attribution Platform (MAP) market had many players catering to small groups of customers.

Minimum criteria to enter the market happened to be integrating with Google AdWords and Facebook ad manager for mobile traffic data. Understanding the limitation of their tracking platforms, Facebook (FB has Facebook analytics) and Google starting sharing their attribution data with few early players in the industry. Even platforms without direct integration (official marketing partner) with Google or Facebook were able to build their tools by using various analytical workarounds.

Once Facebook and Google were on-boarded as partners, moving forward and adding other ad networks was like icing on the cake. Many players entered the market, but a dozen players are currently active now.  Google also re-entered this industry by acquiring firebase in 2014 and provided free service. But it failed to catch up with other players. However, they could provide something that no other player would be able to: App download information matching with playstore developer console.   

Except for playstore, Appstore, and OS, nobody can really know whether an app gets downloaded and installed on the device. Even app developers come to know about it only when the app gets opened for the first time in the mobile device. Likewise, attribution platforms will be informed and measure an app install through the first open event only. However, firebase’s integration with playstore gives app developer access to the user level app download data.

With literally no differentiator regarding underlying services attribution platforms started promoting themselves with simple add-on features time to time. In the initial days it was the availability of post-install events for quality measurement, then it was a cohort level different data representation and user retention. The recent buzz word for differentiation is fraud analytics.

Fraud analytics as the differentiation factor was first started by Adjust with their excellent article( It spurred a lot of digital marketers to rethink their digital strategy. However, the fraudster always used to outpace the marketer by a significant margin.

We will see how.

To be continued…

Rise and fall of Incent ad networks : Rise of Digital Ad Fraud (3 of 7)

Google SEO ranking algorithms evolved significantly over the 2000s and 2010s. As and when a new loopholes surfaced and Google figured out how it has been exploited by the web developers new checks and rules were reintroduced to penalize the exploiters.

Rise and fall of Incent ad network

Unlike SEO ranking, playstore/app store daily top app rank algorithm gives higher weightage to app install velocity. It forced app developers to promote app installs quantity over the quality installs. Even though other factors like app usage, DAU, MAU, rating, etc. were considered, it was minuscule. This reason accelerated the demand for App install campaigns among the app developers and app marketers.

As the demand for app install campaigns increased to get visibility in playstore/app store, the number of blind ad networks proliferated in the market. They positioned themselves as the proper solution for high volume app install campaign. They give a unique advantage for app marketer as their price stays consistent (at least in papers) even at the high install quantity(CPI).  Even though they don’t share information on ad placements, marketers hardly worried as they were getting installs anyway.

Another type for networks that gained high traction but faded out currently is Incent ad networks. They incentive customers with digital wallet money or currencies in gaming apps which will help players advancing to next levels.

The earlier type of incent networks providing digital wallet money was very prevalent in developing countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia especially. By concept, incent networks acted as a platform for an app developer to showcase their feature to the perspective customers. By doing so, they also garnered some install velocity in the app store/playstore to top the rank table. They certainly proved value when used in smaller proportions. But too much of anything indeed is a recipe for disaster.

As the demand for cheap installs increased, coupled with zero entry barrier and easy re-brokering of ad inventory, many players entered the market claiming to be one of the largest players. This propelled price-war, and fraudulent practice flourished in order to compensate the price reduction due to competition.

Networks when faced high demand from the advertisers approached all type of publishers who can provide installs at lower CPI. Many fraudulent publishers managed a large array of devices both physical, as well as virtual and started producing events who look like an app install in the eyes of attribution platform. Nonetheless, this mechanism of generating fraud installs had many flaws.

Nonetheless, this mechanism of generating fraud installs had many flaws.

  • Firstly the post install events/engagements for these installs would be next to nothing
  • Secondly, their potential to give indefinite volume infuses suspicion in marketer’s mind as these numbers won’t reflect in the Playstore or Appstore.
  • Lastly having a close look at the install postback parameters like IP address, IMEI ID(if shared), telecom service provider name, device model/make, etc. could reveal visible patterns

Even though it took some time for the advertiser to catch these points eventually the inevitable happened and the glory of intent Ad started fading. By the end of 2016, mostly all sane app promoters stopped using Incent Ad networks. Due to the massive drop in demand, many incent only networks closed down during this period, and others scaled down or stopped their incent activities

Even today few networks sell this incent installs as the rank booster solution even after Google has officially announced against it. It is the high time all the digital marketers be told the truth.

Early Bird makes the norm : Rise of Mobile Ad fraud (2 of 7)

In general, monopoly markets leads to price discrimination. However, it also provides higher profit margin to the market leader which would eventually plowed back into innovation to retain their leadership position. Google exactly did this in desktop/web side of digital ads. They invested adequately in innovations on fraud detection that largely kept fraudsters out of the game. They also invested in products like Chrome (later in Android) to keep their market dominance intact. However, the industry dynamics started changing in 2007 when Apple launched iPhone. The days that followed saw a complete shift in how people consume digital media.

Early Bird makes the norm

In the beginning of the mobile age, Apple being the pioneer in smartphone technology created most of mobile advertisement standards and Google ported and adapted most of their standards. One best example on this could be mobile device Identifiers. Like cookies are there to track a user in the browser, some identifier is required at the mobile device level for traffic attribution, segmentation, and targeting. Initially, Apple used UDID(Unique Device Identifier) as the unique identifier for the device and Google used device ID. In 2013 due to user privacy norms, Apple moved to IDFA (Identifier for Advertising) which gives opt out option for user from ad targeting. Very next year Google just followed suit by introducing GAID(Google advertising ID) which complies with user privacy policy.

When it comes to media consumption pattern on mobile devices, users generally do it through apps. Time spent on mobile browser constitute only 10–15%. So every media company had their own app. Games developers did their share too to become the largest category in terms of numbers in Appstore and Playstore. On top of it, Google’s lenient policies in publishing apps in Playstore, unlike AppStore, leads to astronomical growth in the number of apps in Playstore in short period of time. This situation made app visibility tough for any app developers. Also, the need of getting their app installed in user devices became a herculean task. This phenomenon led app install ads to become a pacesetter for the mobile ads growth and be its most important growth driver.

In the measurement front, Google being a laggard had tried to extend and utilize all their website measurement tools for various mobile ad measurement applications. Mobile attribution being a different ball game, those tools never picked up as expected. This situation created a void in mobile app measurement ecosystem and provided opportunities for new entrants into the market. Many mobile attribution platforms and post install user engagement platforms flourished in the industry. Unlike how Google had the monopoly over all the data in desktop era, many players got a chance to own their share of ads data by providing slight incremental value to advertisers. I would say this ad data proliferation had aided the ease of doing malpractice downstream into the time. We will see to in detail in the later posts.

For app install ad campaigns Google simply adapted its web AdWords and added app install as one of the objectives which target mobile and tablet devices to get the downloads. It didn’t gain expected traction initially. Most importantly it didn’t give the great scale that advertisers demanded. Facebook had adapted much better in the mobile advertising space in the early 2010s providing many mobile-specific options for the advertiser. They also made Facebook SDK integration mandatory for all the apps developers who want to market their app and track campaign efficiency accurately. While Facebook app install campaigns provided slightly better scale than Google, its volume elasticity of price is exponential after certain volume threshold. So it didn’t quench ever growing demand of the app marketers.

With the high demand for app installs ads and top established players not able to cater to it, many players entered the market in the name of “Blind ad networks” who promised scale at a fixed price. Without any proper standard and global governing body in the industry along came notorious fraudsters.

To be continued…

Winner take(care)s all : Rise of Mobile Ad fraud (1 of 7)

As you read this article, the global digital Ad spends in mobile has surpassed desktop ad spends in the industry valued more than $190Bn. Out of it, advertisers are estimated to be losing nearly 20% of their ad spends due to digital ad fraud. A notable thing is this percentage had been steadily growing outwitting all industry expert’s fraud projection in the last few years. Certainly, it is not a coincidence that digital ad fraud has been growing hand-in-hand with accelerating mobile ad spends.

Lack of rigidity in the fundamental attribution architecture coupled with industry dynamics is spearheading this phenomenon. In a way, mobile ad tracking mechanism happens to have quite a few loopholes which fraudsters are taking advantage of. To understand this, we need to go back in time by a decade and sail chronologically to apprehend how the digital ad industry had metamorphosed over the period.

Winner take(care)s all

In the 2000s till the inception of iPhones, digital marketing was predominantly website based and majorly dominated by Google. Reason for Google’s dominance would be majorly attributed to the ‘Winner takes all’ characteristic of the digital space where Google singularly dominated search engine market with more than 80% market share. However, the most important reason for their success should be ascribed to how precisely Google crafted and owned complete digital ads ecosystem during that time period. Let us understand how Google executed it.


The typical value chain of digital ad ecosystem contains publishers to the left, advertisers on the right and a cluster of supporting platforms in-between. This platform cluster in the middle has many interconnected units. Whoever happens control majority of these units would end set the rules in the game. The platform cluster has a supply-side platform that aggregates the publisher inventory and a demand side platform, which connects with advertisers and an ad-exchange in the middle, to match the supply with the demand.

Basically, Google controlled both supply and demand side platforms with their Ad-sense and Adwords products respectively. And its DoubleClick is the ad exchange, which matches publisher’s inventory with advertisers targeting needs. DoubleClick also on-boards large publisher directly into it as well. With these three platforms, which were highly adopted by the advertisers and publishers, Google had a tight grip over the complete flow of value and information in the industry.

The web browser also turned out to be another essential element in the chain. As all the traffic is generated through the browser, information recorded in browser become essential for segmentation and targeting of user traffic. While Google owned the complete ecosystem, it had also very well foreseen the part browser would play as the industry grows. It developed Chrome to enter an already matured market and gained substantial share there as well.

In this tightly knitted setup, where Google with advanced technical prowess ensured digital fraud (click spamming is the most sought out fraud in the web) was always under check. They understood, the presence of fraud not only acts as an impediment for new advertisers to try the products it also acts as a hindrance for existing big advertisers to scale further.

Google by proactively taking actions against existing frauds practices and preventing new malpractices from sprouting out increased trust among the advertisers. With proper access to all the data necessary to understand and control the fraud, Google acted judiciously. Even today if you were using Adwords, you could see Google reimbursing your spends on what it deduced as fraud clicks from the total billed amount. These kinds of actions boost confidence among the advertisers. Even with the almost monopolized market, the stakeholders felt peaceful in the fraud controlled environment. This goes by the saying

An honorable winner not only takes all but also takes care of all“.

However, the situation was reversed in mobile ad space.

To be continued…