The rise of the machines? Shape-shifting robot viewers to cost marketers £4bn in fake traffic

Catherine Neilan
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Terminator 30: These bots will absolutely not stop, ever, until they have watched the video (Source: Getty).
We're pretty used to hearing that robots are going to steal our jobs. But now it turns out that once they've done that, they're going to do exactly what we do anyway: sit around watching online videos.
But this is actually a serious problem. Global advertisers stand to lose out on $6.3bn (£4bn) next year as a result of the rise of machines watching – er – other machines.
According to a joint report by “bot detector” White Ops and the Association of National Advertisers, hundreds of millions of bots are watching “real websites run by real companies with real visitors”, inflating the monetised audiences by anywhere between five and 50 per cent. Across the brands assessed, bots accounted for 23 per cent of all video impressions and 11 per cent of all display impressions.
That means a large chunk of the money being spent on ads reaching a certain number of eyeballs is being wasted because many of those eyeballs are nothing more than blinking red lights sending the data back to evil robot overlords. Or something.
The report states: “At current bot rates, advertisers will lose approximately $6.3bn globally to bots in 2015 (applying the bot levels observed across our study to the estimated $40bn spent globally on display ads and the estimated $8.3bn spent globally on video ads).”
This happens because bot traffickers hack “everyday computers” and remotely control these to generate ad fraud profits. “Bots hijack browsers to masquerade as real users, blend in with human traffic and generate more revenue,” the report claims.
“By using the computers of real people—people who are logged in to Gmail, sharing on Facebook, and buying on Amazon—the bots do not just blend in, they get targeted,” it continues.
“Bots coast on the credentials of the real users of the computers they hijack. Bots were observed to click more often (but not improbably more often) than real people. Sophisticated bots moved the mouse, making sure to move the cursor over ads. Bots put items in shopping carts and visited many sites to generate histories and cookies to appear more demographically appealing to advertisers and publishers.”
How can you spot a bot? According to the report, half of bots are “not sophisticated enough to keep daylight hours”.
But they can also be quite savvy, reacting to campaigns or specific times of the day that companies might “demand more traffic”. In the manner of Terminator, they can also change their appearance to suit the task:
Bots can make it look easy to reach high volumes of specific audiences. A bot can look like a sports fan, someone with a six-figure income, someone interested in buying a car, or a grandparent looking for holiday gifts for grandchildren.
Out of the 36 companies tracked, finance, family and food domains had the highest percentages of bots, with between 16 and 22 per cent of traffic coming from these machines. Tech, sport and science had the lowest percentage, ranging from three to four per cent.

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