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Protection From “Bad Ads” in Your Mobile Apps

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Posted by Ekaterina Vagner on July 8, 2015
Protection From Bad Ads in Your Mobile Apps

Imagine you are an officer responsible for security checks in one of the world’s largest international airports. Every day you’re faced with processing thousands of passengers. You can’t allow illegal content to be transported, and you have to help passengers adhere to standards for luggage content, measurements and even to courteous and compliant passenger behavior. Sure, you have x-ray scanners and other hidden detectors, but criminals can be inventive, and sometimes you need to double-check suspicious objects.

This association carries over into the world of mobile advertising as well. A mobile ad exchange can also be thought of as a huge transit hub. The greater the traffic, the greater the pressure on the exchange, and the greater the responsibility to ensure safe passage for all that travels through it.

Officers of ad quality, such as those of us here at Smaato, work to ensure compliance of the ads that travel through our platform. We protect publishers on the one hand, and on the other hand allow our demand partners to take advantage of the efficiencies we’ve created. We work to help them advertize their products at a right place and right time by making the rules clear and understandable for everyone, by ensuring quick and thorough workflows and by not creating long waiting queues for ad delivery.

As a mobile ad exchange, Smaato delivers 60 billion ad impressions per month. Imagine now a similar amount of passengers in our imaginary airport, running through our imaginary security checkpoints at great speed. By reducing the speed of the flow for a more thorough search, you’ll get angry passengers, as there are thousands of planes waiting for them. Any tardiness or delays will lead to low fill rates; the airport will lose money and hey, our imaginary security officer might even lose his job. Yet if you check passengers superficially, there’s a big chance for a culprit – a “bad actor”, if you will - to break through. Ad traffic is obviously not as critical as traffic in illegal goods, but fraudulent ad traffic can harm in other ways: it puts at stake publishers’ brands, it can poison the user experience, and it can ultimately sully the reputation and good name of the demand partner.

As the volume of advertising traffic increases, a manual check of ads would take ages, so ad quality operators and managers rely on the latest technical innovations to prevent fraudulent ads and to help secure users’ mobile devices. This way we keep the flow humming, and get rid of bad ads without affecting the quality of experience.

So what is a bad ad, actually? Bad ads violate quality guidelines and standards, and by breaking the rules they harm consumers, publishers and the entire advertising industry. Some of these ads are simply of poor quality, flat-out annoying or contain prohibited content. And some exist for their own disreputable purposes. They are beneficial only to their creators, can gather private user data, and can even harm the mobile device iself. Bad ads vary and take numerous forms. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.


This is an ad that automatically redirects the user somewhere other than where they’re expecting to go, without user interaction. This aggressive behavior pushes the user into viewing some undesired and unwanted third-party content. It may even be difficult for the user to come back to the original publisher’s page after constantly being redirected elsewhere. There are ad networks who actually love this sort of ad: they earn money whenever someone downloads content from a targeted link. The advertiser may not be even aware that such methods exist on the back of their ads. We at Smaato find auto-redirects highly disruptive, and they are automatically blocked by the latest version of our SDK.


These ads appear suddenly on top of the publisher's content page once the ad is clicked. Often the user needs to spend some time looking for options to close it. Taking into account the size of the mobile device, the pop-up banner might be clicked somehow anyway in the process of trying to close it, and the user is then redirected to unwanted content. Pop-ups prevent people from viewing the publisher’s content, and they certainly disturb and annoy visitors to their apps and sites. These ads are also automatically blocked if you are using Smaato’s latest SDK.


Spyware, malware, phishing, scam, fraudulent ads - these terms compile a long list of shady cybercriminal industry. Malware is intrusive software that helps its nefarious owners to gather data, to perform actions without user interference and so on. By injecting malicious code, these ads’ creators violate users’ privacy, and often infect their devices for further illegal activity. Identifying and blacklisting domains with malicious activity is one of our prioritized objectives. This is an invisible but insidious foe.

Bad ads may take other treacherous forms. We prohibit and pursue deceptive, misleading and illegal advertisements. Highly suggestive content or sexually explicit images are a “no go”. If they’re harassing, abusive, unlawful; if they promote or contain links related to violence, hate, offensive content, defamatory content, profane or discriminatory content – they’re all strictly prohibited. Shaky ads – you know, the ones that blink with extreme frequency and flash all the colors of the rainbow - will definitely be removed from our exchange. Last but not least, all ads must be compliant with Smaato’s technical guidelines in terms of format and performance.

If bad ads are counterproductive for all stakeholders, why do such ads appear? By enabling self-service for advertisers, by not implementing pre- or post- ad quality checks, and by allowing previously-approved campaigns to later be edited are some of the key reasons that bad ads break through. Our aim is to dramatically reduce the possibility that unwanted content will poison our ecosystem. We encourage demand partners to not work with untrustworthy “grey” advertisers, and to help block their campaigns from Smaato and from others who run platforms like ours.

Ad violations are continuously getting more sophisticated and challenging to detect, so we are acting proactively and are adjusting every day by evolving our methods and technology to detect and prevent bad ads. The ad quality job is a daily fight against bad ads. We’re seeing positive changes in how our partners treat ad quality issues of late, with more and more companies dedicating time and resources, implementing tools and sharing best practices to help defeat bad market players. We’re all coming to see it as a long-term investment.

Smaato has no tolerance for bad ads, so we block the culprits’ campaigns and work together with our demand partners to enhance ad quality in general. This is our steadfast commitment to our partners and to the market, as the future of mobile advertising depends greatly on how we react to all the tricks and flicks thrown at us from the dark side. We want to continue growing as a clean and transparent marketplace, one beneficial for all parties not only in the short-term, and not only by pursuing the financial side of the question, but also strategically. Putting an end to bad ads now greatly reduces the incentives and the ability for bad actors to take down the mobile advertising ecosystem in the future.

Written by Ekaterina Vagner

Ekaterina is Smaato’s Ad Quality Manager based in our Hamburg office. Her international experience is a key asset to manage the quality assurance of all ads running in Smaato's global ad exchange.

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