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Ad Quality
June 22, 2016

How to Manage Programmatic Ad Quality: A Survival Guide for Publishers

For the past year, we (SpanishDict and PubNation) have been focused on improving ad quality throughout the internet. We fundamentally believe that an acute focus on user experience (as it pertains ...

Jordan Woods

For the past year, we (SpanishDict and PubNation) have been focused on improving ad quality throughout the internet. We fundamentally believe that an acute focus on user experience (as it pertains to ad quality) ultimately drives more publisher revenue. The ideas presented in this post make up our internal process for managing ad quality.

Porn, Programmatic, and Process

We received a complaint a few years ago about a “pornographic” ad showing up on SpanishDict. At the time, we received so few complaints -- maybe 4 or 5 each month -- that we didn’t have a process in place to address them, so we asked the user to send us a screenshot to verify that the ad violated our advertising policy. Call it hubris or naiveté, but we thought it was highly unlikely that such an ad could appear on our site (Spoiler: we were verywrong). We have always had strict ad quality goals, as our site is viewed by millions of school-aged children each month.

The user sent us the screenshot, and (surprise!) it was indeed pornographic. We were mortified. Immediately, we contacted each of our partners, but none claimed the ad. Each partner wanted an ad call, but all we had was a screenshot. We attempted to catch the ad in the wild by spoofing the user’s setup but were unsuccessful. Finally, one of the SSPs came forward and informed us that they had rendered the ad, determined that it had come through their RTB platform and removed it. After that experience, we vowed to create a process to ensure that we had a better plan of action should this ever happen again...until we got busy working on other projects. Alas, one of the biggest issues with managing ad quality is that no one actually wants to do it.

It took another round of bad ads -- this time auto-play audio ads -- for us to get serious about creating a solution.

PubNation’s Humble Origins

When the second outbreak of bad ads hit our site, we began seriously evaluating how we would handle ad quality issues. Over the course of a few weeks, our engineers worked on a prototype for a simple tool that was appropriately called “Report This Ad”. In essence, it was a “Report This Ad” link that appeared below each ad unit on our page. When a user clicked the link, we received an email with the ad call from that complaint. These little changes made a huge difference. Complaints for auto-play audio, inappropriate content, and full-screen interstitials flooded in. We went from 4 to 5 complaints per month to 4 to 5 hundred complaints per month. This initially frustrated us, but we came away from this experience with a guiding principle for ad quality management: Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.

This little tool grew to become what we now call PubNation. The best practices that follow are all incorporated into PubNation because we believe they’re integral to successfully managing programmatic ad quality. Bearing that in mind, the focus of this post isn’t to educate people on our product, but rather share our best practices on managing ad quality.

Why You Should Care About Ad Quality

Before getting into the "how", let’s address the "why". A separate blog post could be exclusively dedicated to this topic, but we’ll spare you the extra reading by sharing a few reasons that come to mind:

  • Traffic Decline - Poor ad quality underscores one of the most problematic issues for publishers: most sites are replaceable. The internet is a vast sea of content where users have their pick of sports and entertainment blogs, newspapers, or reference sites. The simple answer for users that are fed up with a slow, ad-laden site is to find an alternative. Session length, pageviews, and visits can all drop over time as users find alternatives.
  • Revenue - If a user spends less time on your site as a result of a poor ad experience, revenue is negatively affected. The impact of this can be especially dire if you do paid traffic acquisition.
  • Site Speed - We’ve all heard that speed kills, well so does lack of speed. It kills the user experience on a site. Whether it’s a video ad taking up all of a user’s CPU or an ad partner dropping dozens of pixels, slow sites are one of the most frustrating user experience issues on the internet.
  • Brand - Bad ads can quickly ruin years of accrued brand equity. We can attest to this after our experience with the pornographic ad that appeared on SpanishDict.
  • Ad Blocking - Internet users don’t simply wake up one morning and think, “I’d like to download an ad blocker today” -- they have an experience that makes ad blocking attractive to them. Sites overrun by bad ads perpetuate this problem.

Establishing A Methodology

While almost all publishers agree that managing ad quality is important, an equal number would likely admit to not doing a very good job at it. Why is that? Most would say that it’s simply not very easy to manage; it’s difficult to identify the culprit without an ad call (and sometimes even with one), which results in hours spent looking for the ad in the wild. Equally difficult is finding the time or desire to do ad quality management; when faced with other revenue-generating opportunities, ad quality management generally isn’t highly prioritized because it can be hard to measure, and therefore hard to manage.

To address these challenges, we’ve identified four principles for managing programmatic ad quality:

I. Prepare

Before bringing on new partners, decide what content and types of ads are acceptable for your site. For example, SpanishDict doesn’t allow ads for alcohol, tobacco, gambling, or dating because it is an education site used by students and educators. Content considerations aside, we also have a “just say no” policy for full-screen interstitials and other intrusive ads because our users have had an overwhelmingly negative reaction to those units in the past.

We err on the side of caution when considering the types of ads we show on our site. Basically, we pass on anything presented to us as a "high-impact unit" because that's generally code for "unit that your users will hate". Measuring potential revenue against user experience is difficult because you can’t accurately calculate lost revenue from users that may never visit your site again as a result of a bad experience. Given this uncertainty, we don’t bet on short-term gains that could result in long-term losses. A good rule of thumb is to only shows ads that you would be okay seeing as a user on another site.

Beyond simply restricting the type of ads that we show, we take some additional preliminary steps to curtail future ad quality problems:

  • References - most publishers are inundated with emails from new networks and exchanges. While we’re familiar with the major players, we are often contacted by networks that we do not know. We want to sift through these requests as quickly as possible to find good opportunities. To do this, we ask each of these parties for publisher references. Additionally, we turn to our network of publisher friends to find out who we know that has worked with the network. When we looked for new opportunities in the past, we’d use programs like BuiltWith to see which ad partners sites that we are familiar with are using. Additionally, the forthcoming PubNation Certified Partner Program will provide publishers a list of partners that have committed to ad quality excellence through our certification process.
  • Block List - create a block list that you share with each of your ad partners. When possible, we supply our partners with a PDF outlining our policy before turning their tags live. We’ve found this to be better than filling out a form or checking boxes in a UI because we can be extremely explicit in how we define a category, which eliminates ambiguity.
  • Ad Quality Process and Contact - asking ad partners how ad quality issues are resolved internally and where to send complaints saves time when problems arise. Several SSPs have emails specifically for ad quality where you can forward complaints rather than send them to an account manager. While this might seem obvious, sending the complaint directly to the person responsible for ad quality can save hours of back and forth communication.

II. Quantify

If someone were to ask you how big of a problem ad quality is on your website, how would you respond? It’s okay if you don’t know -- we’ve been there too. We’ve found that establishing a baseline for average number of daily complaints is immensely important.

We were blindsided by the pornographic ad on SpanishDict because we very rarely received ad complaints at the time. Reviewing our site around that time gives insight into why we received so few ad complaints:

In order for a user to complain about an ad, she had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and select “contact us”. She was then directed to a new page where she could send us a message. This is a very unintuitive, cumbersome way to report a bad ad.

After the incident on SpanishDict, we built the simple “Report This Ad” link. Here is the difference:

The number of complaints we received shot up. The lack of previous complaints wasn’t indicative of high quality ads serving on our site -- it was just too difficult for users to tell us about our ad problems before. By creating a frictionless process for users to communicate problems with our ads, we have a much better understanding of what’s showing up on our site.

After a couple of weeks with the “Report This Ad” link live, we were able to establish a baseline for our problem. This baseline serves us well because we’re able to see when spikes occur:

It’s good to note that almost every complaint spike that we’ve seen on SpanishDict was due to one or two bad campaigns. Don’t assume that if your complaints shoot up 3x over night that you have to do 3 times the amount of work to resolve them. In the example above, the image shows a very disconcerting spike in complaints. Once we dive into the individual complaints however, we see that our site wasn’t attacked by dozens of malicious ad buyers, but rather that a single auto-play audio Nissan campaign inspired the ire of our users:

This isn’t to say that an annoying campaign that tripled the number of our ad complaints isn’t a big deal (because it is a very big deal), but we were able to remove the entire problem by sending a single email to the responsible ad partner. This is often the case.

The takeaway from all of this is that in order to quantify the size of your site’s ad quality problem, your site users need a way to easily communicate ad problems. Whether it’s a link, a feedback tab, or an email matters less than how accessible it is; the placement of the reporting mechanism largely impacts the number of complaints received.

III. Identify

Once we established a baseline for our ad quality complaints, we focused on identifying the source of the problem. The ability to capture the ad call when a complaint was generated was the first feature we built in the earliest version of PubNation. By capturing the ad call, we knew that we probably had the information to identify which of our partners served the ad, but that information -- as many publishers know -- isn’t always easy to pick out.

This becomes easier if you know the specific ID convention used by your partners when they serve an ad. For example, if I know that Partner A uses the convention “AdPartnerID” followed by a string of characters when they serve an ad, then I can search for “AdPartnerID” in the call and retrieve that string. Admittedly, this can be time-consuming as it might be necessary to search for multiple IDs. We built partner attribution into PubNation to cut down on time spent searching for this information.

If you’re not using PubNation or you don’t want to search for multiple IDs in the call, another option is to create a simple <div> that you paste below the creative snippet in your ad server to identify the responsible partner. You will need to update the partner name in the <div> each time you append this to a new partner’s creative:

You can then search for this <div> in the ad call to figure out which partner received the impression:

If you use a waterfall approach on your site, it’s important to update the partner name in this <div> and append it to the passback creatives; otherwise, you will only see the partner that received the impression from the ad server when you search for the <div> (even though they didn’t ultimately serve the impression). For example, you might add something like <div class="spanishdict-passback-tracking" data-origin="PARTNER_A" data-destination="PARTNER_B"></div> to your passback tag to indicate that the partner that received the impression from your ad server ("Partner A") passed it back to a backfill partner ("Partner B").

Once you feel confident identifying the responsible partner, it’s good to conduct regular ad quality checks. One idea that our friends at StudyBreak Media shared with us is “A.T.T.” -- Ad Test Thursdays. For one hour each Thursday, their team tries to render bad ads on their site. Because premium line items often meet their frequency caps within a few pageviews, less desirable demand is often left to fill the remaining inventory. As a result, you might see the worst ads deep in a session. Add in a private browser, and the data-deprived traffic will likely display cheaper, untargeted ads. The argument could be made that user sessions with these imposed conditions are not representative of your overall traffic, but that’s not really the point of this exercise: no ads that violate your block list should appear on your site, regardless of session length, geo, etc. If they appear later in a session, then it’s possible that they could appear at any point in a session. When the StudyBreak Media team finds an ad not suitable for their sites, they immediately report it to the responsible demand partner.

On an unrelated note, the StudyBreak Media team also authors a fantastic ad ops blog.

IV. Resolve

All of this work is of little value if we are unable to remove bad ads once we identify and attribute them to a partner. Circling back to a point in our “prepare” step, we’ve found that knowing how our ad partners address these issues internally makes a big difference. How do they verify that the complaint is for an ad that they served? Do they have a unique identifier that they search for? If so, what does that unique identifier actually identify — the campaign, the buyer, etc.?

We do all that we can to provide our demand partners the information that they need to take care of the problem. If we know the ID that one of our SSPs uses to attribute the bad ad to a buyer, then we send that ID rather than the entire ad call. We can then use that ID as a reference number if we want to check the resolution status of a complaint.

After implementing these steps through PubNation and working diligently with our partners to improve ad quality, we’ve seen a huge improvement on SpanishDict:

The End (of this post) Is Near

There is an inextricable link between ad quality and revenue. Indeed, ad quality management is a revenue generating activity: session lengths increase, pageviews grow, and users return when a site is no longer riddled with intrusive ads. Because of this, publishers simply can’t afford to let ad quality management permanently reside on the backburner.

Finally, the relationship between publishers and their ad partners shouldn’t be adversarial when it comes to resolving ad quality problems. Rather than blame their SSPs when bad ads occur, publishers can share information to help their partners expose buyers that violate block lists. The free flow of this information can raise the bar for programmatic ad quality across the entire ecosystem over time. That should be the goal that we collectively strive for.

P.S. For those that requested access to our DFP line item generator mentioned in our previous post on headerbidding, you can find it here.

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