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Ads.txt – The Solution to Unauthorized Selling?

As far as buzzwords go in the ad tech world, fraud is usually at the top of the list. For years it has been a constant battle to identify and eliminate bad actors, with varying degrees of success.

In the programmatic space, fraud from unauthorized selling is a huge problem in need of a solution. Launched by the IAB Lab in May 2017, Ads.txt (stands for Authorized Digital Sellers) attempts to be that solution by providing a free and easy way for publishers to declare who is authorized to sell their ad inventory. In an ecosystem moving towards hi-tech features like virtual reality and machine learning, the Ads.txt initiative is brilliant in its simplicity. Publishers just post a text file on their root domain that contains the required authorized seller’s information (domain, ID, type of relationship). Buyers can then access this list on a participating publisher by adding /ads.txt to their domain. (i.e. www.menshealth.com/ads.txt). To automate the process of reading these files, there are open source crawlers programmatic buyers can utilize to compile a list of authorized sellers for each publisher. They can then match that list against data provided in the OpenRTB bid request.

This file is easy to update, so adding a new partner listing is not something that requires hours of coding or creates a hierarchy where bigger partners are prioritized over the little guys. It makes it an ‘easy ask’ to have your information included.

We have used this to our advantage here at JUICE. Our programmatic direct platform, Nectar, is a bit of a unique case for Ads.txt. Nectar has direct relationships and is authorized to advertise on all of our publisher’s sites, however we had no way of showing proof of that until now. We were able to reach out to our publishers that are taking part in the Ads.txt initiative and provide them with our information so they could include us. Despite the fact that platforms like Nectar are not what Ads.txt was created for, publishers were receptive to adding our information in their file as there is very little lift required.

There are a few significant hurdles standing in the way of Ads.txt being a viable solution today:
– No App listings: Since you must use a web browser to pull up the Ads.txt file, there is no current solution to show authorized sellers of that App’s ad inventory. With JUICE being a mobile-only company, this hurts our ability to utilize Ads.txt. The IAB is working on an in-app solution.
– No ad size designation: While a vendor may be authorized to sell a publisher’s standard banners, they might not be authorized to sell video. Currently, there is no way to make that distinction.
– Typos and syntax errors: As it is still a manual process to update a publisher’s listing, the risk of error is high. If an authorized seller is not input correctly, a potential buyer will not see you as authorized when crawling that site.
– Slow adoption: While there has been considerable fanfare around this initiative and implementation is easy, a lot of publishers have been slow to get on board. As of December 2017, Google reports that only 38% of top 2,000 websites have implemented Ads.txt.

Despite these limitations, Ads.txt is a great leap forward in the quest to eliminate fraud. Industry leaders like Google and AppNexus have become big advocates of Ads.txt which will likely increase adoption rates in 2018. Once publishers see their programmatic revenue drop due to the fact they aren’t using Ads.txt, they will be quick to get on board. The entire ad tech industry endorsing a single initiative has always been considered impossible, however I think we can be optimistic that Ads.txt can be that unicorn.

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