The Fraud Loophole: Is Performance Attribution Flawed?

Before we begin, let me offer a disclaimer: I wrote this memo as a personal tribute to the mobile advertising industry. Throughout my long adtech career, I have come across hundreds of mobile app developers globally and seen that the lack of standards creates a chaotic environment where advertisers have no ability to truly measure their effectiveness in running performance based campaigns. I’m humbled by the sophisticated buyers I work with who understand the problem and admit that the current “default” created by a competitive industry, ruled by duopolies, harms the entire ecosystem. As Managing Director and CRO at AppLift, my benefit from an industry-wide standard would be to be able to be measured equally amongst peers. On that note, let’s get to it…

The dawn (and the boom that followed) of digital advertising created an industry where some companies work to bring value for themselves, instead of working to bring value for the advertiser, by exploiting loopholes to get a higher attribution match rate by way of the lack of standards in tracking. The lack of standards in mobile attribution result in an uneven measurement of who should be attributed with each conversion.

Even the more sophisticated advertisers are unable to effectively measure the success of their marketing activities across multiple channels due to the lack of consistency in attribution models and methods.

The MSN Messenger Prologue

During the early days of desktop advertising, the major players were Google, AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. I’m referring to a time before RTB, before video advertising, where when you thought of a phone, you thought of a Nokia device that had “snake” as per apps, when advertisers shed millions of dollars for online banners expecting a click and hoping for a lead registration or an online purchase.

Post-Click attribution was the de-facto standard. But there were players in the market lobbying to change this to Post-View.

The player lobbying the most was Microsoft.

In 2004, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger was what “Whatsapp” is today, with about 300M users, representing almost 1/3 of the global internet population, at the time. There was almost no computer that didn’t have MSN Messenger on or in the background at any moment.

If Microsoft had their way and would push for a Post-View attribution “standard,” Microsoft would have been able to “claim” a lot more conversions resulting through users “seeing” an advertisement on MSN Messenger, even if it was running in the background. Microsoft could have potentially been an adtech giant and a monopoly as a result of this, as advertisers would see fantastic performance reported when running a campaign with MSN.

The Duopoly Epilogue

It was the year 2008 – Apple and Google had launched their App Stores. What began that year can be termed as a mobile marketing revolution — a plethora of ad networks popped up very quickly, offering impressions, clicks and also cost per install campaigns for app developers.

Facebook, who already had a massive reach, made very slow steps into mobile initially, and eventually released their mobile ad product in the later half of 2012.

The few mobile app developers who managed to get a ticket for the beta were initially ecstatic about the “performance.” But the smarter ones very quickly noticed one odd thing:
The number of installs generated that Facebook reported , were considerably higher than the incremental paid installs advertisers saw through their attribution service provider.

Facebook has its own attribution standards, armed with a default 28-day attribution window for Post-Click and 1 day for Post-View. While this is configurable (if you look under a rock that is under a mattress than is hidden in a house in the middle of a haunted forest….), the minimum window of attribution available with Facebook is still large enough for them to be able to claim a lot of conversions to be “theirs.”

With 1.7 billion registered users and more than 1 billion daily active users, Facebook is capable of claiming almost all conversions as used that have been “rightfully” attributed to Facebook. Additionally, Facebook uses a “Post-View” attribution (as an undisputed standard for their inventory), as opposed to a standard industry measurement based on Post-Click attribution. This allows more and more ad tech companies to exploit the loophole and demand Post-View attribution links from their advertisers, as no one is looking into Post-View fraud!

What An Industry Without Attribution Standards Looks Like

Most mobile attribution companies comply with Facebook’s demands of attribution. In order to allow app developers to track their Facebook campaigns via the MMPs dashboards, MMPs have an API integration with Facebook where they post all installs to Facebook, such that it returns a “these are mine” response to the attribution player. How does Facebook decide which are theirs and which aren’t? If a user went to the app store and downloaded organically (not even noticing the ad on Facebook), there’s nothing to stop them from claiming the downloads under Post-View attribution.

If a certain attribution company doesn’t have this API with Facebook, Facebook demands their SDK integrated with the app developer. What Facebook would report as “their generated installs” would be a far higher number than reality.

Any app developer using an attribution company not certified by Facebook can check this easily — just add the number of installs Facebook reported, the number of Paid installs and Organic installs reported by your attribution player , and compare this to the App Store’s actual count of installs. The numbers would be much higher than the actual downloads received.

If mobile app advertisers would push the attribution companies and vendors to develop a single industry standard in mobile app download attribution, it would mean that everyone will be weighted the same — app developers would be able to compare apples to apples and not apples to steaks.

I have a pretty good concept for what attribution standards should look like, but as a “vendor” I can’t do it alone.We need more developers, vendors and attribution companies to join the campaign.

Where Do We Go From Here

We have been investing significantly in the technology and focusing on growing a team to evaluate traffic and how it is being attributed. A lot of this has to do with fraud detection and prevention which also comprises understanding and tackling the “false positives.”

Bringing more industry awareness is also key. We have started discussing this topic with partners from the industry, including our key clients and also attribution partners. We are seeking a very active dialogue here.

Mobile app developers, what do you think? Are you aware of the problem? Do you think it would serve your interests to push for a standard? Would you like to see a change? Let us know in the Comments section or ping me at