Many popular Remarketing Platforms purposely report misleading metrics so that advertisers increase their ad spend. Here are some of the tactics they use to fool advertisers and how you can protect yourself.

Common Deception Tactics

View Through Conversions included in ROI calculations

A View Through Conversion occurs when an ad is displayed and a purchase is made without anyone clicking on the ad.

It is OK to include a “View Conversions” column in a report. But it is NOT OK to combine View Conversions with Click Conversions in the same column.

View Conversion metrics have their value and uses in specific scenarios. However, in the context of a sales driven remarketing campaign they should be excluded. Counting View Conversions will inflate your numbers and cause you to over spend.

There are two additional issues related to View Through Conversions:

1. Cookie Bombing and Fake Impressions

Over 50% of Display Ads never actually appear on the user’s screen (they are served in a hidden iframe, or are stacked underneath other ads, or stuffed way down at the bottom of the page, etc…). These hidden ads still record a “View” in the user’s remarketing cookie. When that user eventually purchases on your site, that invisible ad will take credit for the purchase.

2. View Throughs Masquerading as Click Throughs

Advertising platforms will try to disguise View Through Conversions as a Click Through Conversions, by claiming to have a new more accurate attribution model:

  • YouTube TrueView Conversions are actually View-Through conversions that are counted as Click Throughs in the Conversions column.
  • Steelhouse’s “Verified Visit” model counts any View-Through visit to your site within 1 hour of seeing an ad as a Click-Through visit. Any conversion that happens within 30 days of this View-Through visit is counted as a Click Conversion (even though, no click ever occurred).

How to protect yourself?

  • Insist that your network only report on Click Through Conversions and exclude View Through Conversions. If you use AdRoll, you can disable View Throughs yourself in their interface.
  • Use data from your own analytics. *Usually* most analytics platforms do not track View-Through attribution. Always assume your analytics data is more correct than the Remarketing Platform’s data.
  • Don’t run Conversion focused YouTube campaigns. There is currently no way to opt-out of the TrueView model.
  • Don’t use Steelhouse

Fraudulent Automated Clicks

Fake clicks are an evolution of Cookie Bombing, except in this case clicks are auto generated onto the invisible ads, sending invisible visits to your site, and claiming Click credit for your purchases.

How Fake Clicks Work

  1. A legitimate customer visits your site but does not purchase. He is now placed into your remarketing list.
  2. This customer now visits a unscrupulous or infected site on the internet. That site serves up an invisible ad and automatically “clicks” on that ad.
  3. That click causes an invisible visit to your website, by that customer. That customer’s remarketing cookie records a click and a site visit.
  4. Your legitimate customer now has a remarketing cookie set that says he saw an ad, clicked on that ad, and visited your website from that ad.
  5. When that customer comes back to your site to make a purchases, that ad will take credit for the conversion.

There are two issues here: The first is that you’ve paid for a fraudulent click. The second more important issue is that a conversion has been attributed to that fraudulent click. As a result, your remarketing platform appears to be performing better, meaning you will likely increase your budget in order to buy more of those fraudulent clicks.

Obfuscation and Lack of transparency

Anytime the remarketing network is hiding data from you, that’s an opportunity for them to fool you. For example, Criteo refuses to be transparent with the list of publisher sites where you ad appears and where your clicks and conversions come from.

How to protect yourself?

  • Insist on detailed and transparent reports on where your ads were served, and where the clicks came from. If certain sites seem to have unusually high click and conversion rates, dig deeper into those sites to see if they are legitimate or not.
  • Avoid using platforms that lack transparency. Don’t use Criteo for this reason, as they refuse to provide transparent reports of where your ads are served, preventing you from doing a proper audit.

Hijacking Visits and Overwriting Analytics

When you install 3rd party javascript pixels on your site, you give the owner of that script a lot of power. In particular that script can overwrite referral data, popup hidden pages, and generate clicks to your site. It can even directly write to your analytics platform!

You may think that your analytics data is safe, but think again. When you install any 3rd party javascript on your site, you also expose your analytics account for injection.

This is super alarming and you should be very concerned about this capability. Any Advertising Platform that has any javascript installed on your site can be overwriting and modifying your analytics data. They can override referral data for direct and organic visits to make it look like they are coming from their network. They can highjack e-commerce transactions and attribute them to themselves. They can make it seem like they are out-performing all your other marketing channels.

Steelhouse, under their Verified Visit model, uses their javascript pixel to generate clicks on ads, visits to your site, and to attribute conversions to themselves directly in your analytics.

How this works:

  1. A legitimate customer visits your site but does not purchase. He is now placed into your remarketing list.
  2. This customer now visits another site and is shown an ad. The customer DOES NOT click on the ad, but the remarketing cookie records a View.
  3. An hour later, the customer revisits your site from an organic source. The pixel script on your site detects that the customer has a recent ad view recorded.
  4. The pixel script loads an invisible iFrame, in the iFrame it loads the original ad and generates an automatic click and visit to your site.
  5. Your legitimate customer now has a remarketing cookie set that says he saw an ad, clicked on that ad, and visited your website from that ad. Your analytics data also says that this customer came from an ad click, and not from the original organic source.
  6. When that customer comes back to your site to make a purchases, that ad will take credit for the conversion.

Worst still, when you look in your analytics, it will appear that your Remarketing Platform is sending you lots of visitors and conversions, which will cause you to spend more with them. The reality is that these visitors are organic visits that were hijacked by the remarketing pixel.

How to protect yourself?

  • Insist on an image only tracking pixel. Although this is rarely a viable option, try to avoid 3rd party javascript when possible.
  • Keep your analytics private and hidden. The less they know about your analytics platform and setup, the more difficult it will be for them to inject data. Avoid giving them any access, and ideally don’t even tell them what platform you use.
  • Get a written declaration from the Remarketing Platform that they will not inject data into your analytics, that they will not modify referral data, that they will not generate clicks, nor do anything that will simulate visits to your site or in your analytics.
  • Don’t use Steelhouse

More steps to protect yourself

Be very skeptical

Be very skeptical of all data provided by the 3rd party platform. By default assume they are lying to you and are trying to take your money. Always rely on your in-house analytics data first (although even this can be messed with via 3rd party pixels) and always try to deeply understand how their platform and algorithms work. Explicitly ask what they are doing about ad fraud.

Beware of secret sauces, black boxes, and magical artificial intelligence powered predictive self optimizing algorithms. If something looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

Never ask the barber if you need a Haircut…

The ultimate selfish goal of any Advertising Platform is to MAXIMIZE your ad spend. You are THEIR customer and they want YOUR money. They want you to allocate as much of your budget to them as possible. They are incentivized to fool you.

Therefore be very skeptical with the data they give you and the stories they tell you.

Recommended Platforms

I would explicitly AVOID using either Steelhouse or Criteo due to first hand bad experiences with both. Here are the only three remarketing platforms that I currently recommend:

  • Google Display Network with my recommended remarketing campaign setup and segmentation. Also continually audit the ad placements site list for fraudulent sites.
  • Facebook but ignore the “Results” metric and configure your attribution model for Click Through Conversions only. You can configure this in Ads Manager by clicking on Columns > Configure Columns > Attribution Window > Comparing Window and only selecting 1, 7, or 28 day click attribution.
  • AdRoll but with their View Through Conversion attribution set to 0%. You can configure this after you create you account by going to Gear Icon > Attribution Settings > Advanced


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