What the IAB’s Buyers.json Transparency Initiative Means for Digital Advertising

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By Eric Bozinny, Senior Director, Marketplace Quality
March 11, 2021

Optimal programmatic marketplace transparency has been a work-in-progress for the industry. As ad tech transitioned from insertion orders to the waterfall, and then to RTB, companies and technologies added value where they felt they could. Now, Buyers.json presents another opportunity to bring more inventory clarity, transparency, and control for buyers, the drivers of the programmatic ecosystem.

When ad fraud became a clear danger to digital advertising, the supply side was the first focus of industry-driven transparency efforts. Exposing the dark corners of the supply chain became a priority, bringing clarity to buyers whose marketing dollars fund the entire system. This resulted in a series of specs that benefited a goal of transparency, including Ads.txt, App-Ads.txt, Sellers.json and Supply Chain Object.

Supply transparency for buyers continues to improve. Pursuing a similar approach illuminating buyers will not only help sellers, but also help legitimate buyers by reducing behaviors that negatively impact their campaigns and the consumers they are trying to engage online.

The Buyers.json initiative can help decrease the amount of malvertising that works its way through the supply chain to publishers and their audiences. They are the obvious beneficiaries of buy-side transparency and can be most harmed by the actions of malicious ads, which can include the injection of computer viruses, phishing attempts, and other behaviors that greatly exceed a simple marketing message.

The initiative is designed to bring transparency about many buyers that are currently hidden from view and identification upstream from a DSP. Put simply, Buyers.json is a publicly viewable file that a DSP and other buy-side intermediaries can post to their root domain (such as “DSP.com/buyers.json”). Exchanges and publishers in the supply chain can reference this Buyers.json file and find the buyer entry corresponding to the buyer identifier captured from the response stream. This will ultimately allow publishers to determine which buyer is responsible for an ad (which is especially useful when a malicious ad is identified).

How will this help? Currently, whenever PubMatic identifies a malicious ad, we block the ad from serving on our publishers’ inventory. With Buyers.json, we’ll be able to take blocking a step further by identifying the discrete buyer sending the ads to our publishers and blocking the malicious buyer completely.

While the benefits to the supply side of the ledger are self-evident, advertisers can also benefit from buy-side transparency. One of the most widely abused functions of malicious advertising is to redirect the user away from the publisher page they are viewing, to a page where the bad actor will try to capture the user’s interest.

For example, with a misleading “Spin to win a gift card!” page, malware could pull the user away from the legitimate ads on the original page, which won’t have a chance to load completely or be viewed. Another impact to those legitimate marketers occurs when malware infects users’ computers with the infrastructure needed to execute ad fraud. This in turn directly and negatively impacts advertisers.

The birds’ eye view is evident – Buyers.json is a win for greater transparency in the programmatic ecosystem. For those interested in supporting this initiative, industry leader and PubMatic ad quality partner Confiant recently launched an educational Buyers.json microsite. Publishers can also sign up on the site to pledge support and receive updates on the initiative.

While malware should be a concern for all SSPs, they do not all have the same capability to minimize malware. According to Confant’s Quarterly Demand Ad Quality Report, in Q4 2020, PubMatic served the lowest percentage of total malicious impressions of all the major SSPs. Read the report here.