How to Find & Eliminate 90%+ of Click Fraud in the Google Display Network

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Believe it or not, click fraud in PPC marketing really does exist.

Unfortunately, every display ad network on the planet has fraudulent website placements designed to drain ad budgets from unsuspecting advertisers. You need to get these placements out of your campaigns so your money is spent on clicks that actually do something for your business!

In my article today, I’ll show you how to find the sites responsible for most of the click fraud in your Google Display Network campaigns, plus share some concrete steps you can take to eliminate it.

Finding the Click Fraud in Your Google Display Campaigns

To find the fraudulent display ad clicks you’re paying for, go to “Display campaigns” à “Display Network” à Placements.

Here you’ll see all the websites in the Google Display Network that yielded one or more impressions.

how to eliminate display network click fraud

First notice that the display ads here are showing up on 48,639 different websites:

click fraud in the display network

And if you look at the sites that are generating spend and conversions, you’ll notice that most of them are fake websites.

Take for example “Fakereceipt.us” (link omitted intentionally). This site has spent $139.58 to drive 251 clicks, 22 conversions at an average cost of $6.34 per conversion cost – which is an amazing conversion rate of 8.76%!

display network placements

This sounds fantastic! Almost too good to be true.

And guess what? When you look at the site that drove all the conversions, you see that it’s a fake site.

This website isn’t a real website that people actually visit – it was designed specifically to drain budgets.

How to Identify a Fake Website

Here are the tell-tale signs of a fake website:

  • Extremely thin content
  • Employs a template with little customization
  • Domain registered in the last few days
  • Unusually high number of ads per page

Take a look at our #1 conversion driver:

fake website click fraud

Does it seem likely that this website drove 22 conversions at an 8.76% conversion rate?

No.

Or how about this one?

display click fraud

Totally fake. You get the idea.

These are not highly effective premium display network sites. It’s just click fraud.

How Fake Sites Pull Off Click Fraud

Here’s how these sites work: First, they employ bots to visit your site, so that they can trigger your remarketing ads. Next, the operators of these sites don’t just click on your ads, they also employ people and/or bots fill out your landing pages, to generate fake conversions.

Why on earth would a bot go through the trouble to register a fake conversion on your site?

It’s because Google’s automated bid algorithms allocate even more traffic to these fake sites, if it believes that they are high performers (thank you, machine learning!!).

It’s a vicious cycle.

What can be done?

Dumb Spam Reduction Idea: Exclude Placements

The conventional wisdom around eliminating spam placements on the GDN is to exclude them manually by adding them to an exclusion list, like this:

excluding display network placements

The problem with this approach is that it’s a suicide mission.

Remember, in this example, there were 48,639 different placements to review and more than 90% of them were fake.

That will take forever – I know this because I’ve tried:

display campaign placement exclusions

But worse, even after combing through the entire list, thousands of new fake sites keep showing up in your placement report every month.

So, what should you do?

Stop using automatic placements!

Rather than trying to manually exclude potentially millions of random sites in the GDN, it’s much easier to just be explicit and hand-pick a few dozen or hundred sites that you know are real – like weather.com or cnet.com or techcrunch.com (etc.) – legitimate sites and that real people actually visit (i.e. they are not just made for bot traffic!).

Using Managed Placements in the Google Display Network

To explicitly specify a list of websites you’d like to have your display/remarketing ads show up on, go to “Display Network” à “Targeting” à “Placements” à “Add Multiple Placements” and add your list of websites.

control click fraud

Important note: Make sure to choose “Target and bid” which ensures your ads only show up on the websites you specified.

Finally, make sure you un-select the “Let AdWords automatically find new customers” option, which is selected by default.

aggressive targeting on display network

Otherwise, Google will automatically try to find conversions on all those sites you were trying to exclude in the first place.

How to Find a List of Managed Placements

For starters, don’t use the display planner tool. Why? Because it’s just an index of the millions of sites in the GDN, which includes a considerable number of fake sites!

using managed placements on the google display network

Instead use a tool like SEMrush to search for sites by topic. It shows you the most linked-to sites, which are more likely to be real than most listings in the Display ad planner.

most linked to sites

How to Defeat the Bots & Stop Paying for Fake Clicks

Let’s recap.

Spam sites can suck up tons of clicks and spend from your display ad campaigns, because they register fake conversions, which Google’s algorithms reward by serving your ads there even more.

The solution is to try to never place your conversion pixel on an “easy” conversion, like a lead form, which can be easily faked by a bot.

Instead, only fire your conversion pixel if you’re darn sure that a real conversion has occurred – for example, if a sale has occurred and you’ve billed the customer’s credit card.

Alternatively, if you are collecting leads, fire the conversion pixel on some lower-funnel activity, like activating their trial subscription.

Closing Thoughts

By making this the one small change, we:

  • Reduced fake conversions and costs by 90%
  • Dramatically improved sales productivity: They were initially upset due to loss of leads, but later warmed up to the change when they realized they could make the same number of sales in 1/10 the time (due to not having to chase fake leads).
  • Got much more accurate campaign data: The true campaign performance metrics were worse than we originally thought (since both CTR and conversion metrics were artificially inflated by bots); however, it led us to realize that our ads and landing pages were actually under-performing, so we made some big changes there, too.

Make the changes described in this tutorial to ensure that your valuable display ad budget only gets served to the best (real) sites in the ad network!

Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

Watch the video below on our Free AdWords Grader:

Visit the AdWords Grader.

Comments

Patrick
Jan 03, 2018

Wonderful, i think i will use this info to help me in the future.
Thanks for a great website of wealthy information.

jerin
Jan 05, 2018

Hi
Thanks for the post very useful for the website

John B
Jan 03, 2018

I strongly disagree with this strategy. How can you have an account without automatic placements? How will your account over time find new placements to advertise on? Using only managed placements means you miss on out new websites and pages on other websites where your ads would be a good fit. It's like taking a snapshot of the web and using that snapshot for ads in perpetuity. Find in the short term, but over time you'll be missing many opportunities.

When I mine my automatic placements for fraud and poor performing placements, usually the bulk of spend is on managed placements, but usually it appears sites that perform very poorly only account for a small portion of our spend, and Google washes them out over time. We do over cause audit and block sites that perform poorly so we help out Google with that process. :)

I'm also concerned with the fraudsters knowing what code to execute to tell Adwords a conversion has occurred on your site. For someone to go through that effort means they're targeting you directly? I've never seen this with our own advertising.

LK
Jan 04, 2018

yes i understand the argument for why automatic placements were created a decade ago. i'm just saying that the google algorithms have changed and the click fraudsters have evolved their scams so the result is most people using automatic placement are getting taken for a ride at this point. i.e. the benefit of finding a new website on auto placement is far outweighed by the spam generated by leaving the option to appear anywhere on the GDN open.

put another way, you're always going to have a small portfolio of great sites that drive the best traffic to your site. i'm suggesting that you just fix the list, then perhaps annually you could revisit: are there any new great sites out there that didn't previously exist? if so by all means add them.

Hiero
Jan 04, 2018

s2 Tks for this!

Sam Lee
Jan 04, 2018

Interesting. I think I'll try this out, but create one campaign with managed placements and then another campaign that is more experimental on automatic placements while excluding managed placements. I'll have the experimental campaign with a smaller budget and run it as a secondary. Sort of like the Alpha/Beta search campaign structure strategy.Thanks!

Jules
Jan 04, 2018

Do you also exclude all app placements too?

LK
Jan 05, 2018

usually, yes. a few exceptions: if you're marketing a mobile game app, etc. but even then you're better off explicitly specifying which apps you trust using managed placements.

Ashmith
Jan 04, 2018

The biggest lesson in the whole article is default setting, make sure to un-check the box where they automatically try to find you customers.

Jubileo
Jan 05, 2018

Those spam websites with thin content should be manually reviewed by the Google AdWords team. That should be their job.

LK
Jan 05, 2018

i too wish that GDN and other ad networks would have a minimum quality threshold for publisher network membership but alas nobody does it (the issue is not exclusive to Google - the Facebook Audience Network is also a dumping ground of spam sites, AdRoll, they all have the same issues). At least with google, they have this weird work-around to explicitly specify ad placements.

Johnny
Jan 05, 2018

isn't it better to write a script which would exclude the fake placements, their stats are way out of the line so should be easy to automate it
also if i might suggest to do the pics from the new aw interface as this will be soon a bit useless for folks not working with aw daily

LK
Jan 05, 2018

it is unusually difficult for a computer script to determine if site is real or fake.

Carlos Obregon
Jan 05, 2018

I would also add that YouTube placements can be very wasteful too, if you target your ads on youtube with just keywords your ads will be shown next to a bunch of absolute garbage video content. If you choose to target YouTube I would target by channel or in-market audiences.

PPC Protect
Jan 06, 2018

Great article and some great points. We routinely find that click fraud rates on the display network can run at 70-95% of all clicks, with mobile apps being one of the worst offenders. Google should be doing more to stop this.

Hashim Warren
Jan 07, 2018

Great advice, Larry. I've been using this strategy for years. I hand select placements for clients. It takes me forever to review these sites by hand, but the results over time are worth it.

I also suggest using Builtwith.com and pulling a list of sites that use Adsense in your niche.

My last suggestion is to use my list of 100+ premium placements https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1J3oLGUzYAjibScUmZq_Vk1WH7dsGQhkUk9MLsbIO0LY/edit?usp=sharing

james
Jan 08, 2018

coolmath-games.com isn't a fake website. it might have bad gaming traffic, but its not fake. its been in the gdn network for atleast 5-10 years. the method in the article is good advice for newbies or small budget advertisers.

Search with Display could actually work better than whats suggested in this article. And its a lot less work. Search with display can really suck if you don't know what you're doing or its absolutely amazing when you do.

Steve Roth
Jan 08, 2018

This is a great article. Thanks.

We have a large budget so don't want to be cherry-picking little sites by hand, that have trivial inventory available. Really want a list of the top 50 (?), 100 (?) legitimate Adwords sites by volume. We'll continue to target audiences, and let AW optimize, using all our current techniques — but only buying impressions on legitimate sites.

Any ideas where to find that list?

With it, could just paste the list into Placements for all ad groups...good to go.

??

Thanks,

Steve

Brendan Haggerty
Jan 08, 2018

This is a really eye opening article. Our company has fumbled around with GDN for a couple of years trying to make sense of it. I went down the rabbit hole of trying to exclude, but I just didn't have the time. Thanks for giving this great tip, which will save me time and the company money.

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