When To Care – And When NOT To Care – About Bot Traffic

I want to correct a few misapprehensions that some people may have about bot traffic.

In short: bot traffic is not always a killer. It’s never good, but you shouldn’t regard “bot or no bot” as the ultimate decision-maker on a placement.

Why not? Well, let’s look at 3 different types of placement.

John Connor’s Nightmare: The 95% Bot Placement

When you run a bot test on a traffic source, you’ll often come across placements which are very, very high percentage bots, up to 95% or 100%.

This is where bot testing (here’s how to do a simple bot test) really shines. These placements are absolute garbage. They’ve got no chance of giving you any sort of a return – but if you’re just testing conventionally, you can waste 3x your payout on finding that out, per placement. Bot testing lets you check a lot more cheaply on many sources – 30 or so clicks, sometimes less.

These placements are really simple. But…

I’m Sorry, Dave, I Can’t Convert That: 50% bots

Placements with mixed bot and human traffic are much more complex. I’ve run bot tests in the past and discovered 60% bot traffic onprofitable placements.


Because the remaining 40% traffic was competitively priced.

The first thing you need to do with a mixed traffic placement is to figure out if it can be profitable, based on the human traffic alone. Say you’ve got a payout of $12, and you’re running on a native traffic source with $0.50 CPC. Now, say you discover that placement is 60% bots. That means that 6 out of 10 of your clicks will be bot-driven if they average the same click rate as humans. In other words, if you pay $5 for clicks, you only get 4 legitimate clicks, for an effective CPC of $1.25.

Are you likely to see a conversion rate of significantly above 10% (roughly the amount you’d need to break even)? That determines whether the placement is priced fairly, and whether you should continue bidding on it. In this case, I’d be skeptical: $12 payout implies a lower CVR. Native traffic can boost that, but still, it would look to me like that placement is being bid on by people who don’t understand that they’re paying for bot traffic, and aren’t taking that into account.

As a general rule, the more brand-friendly the placement, the less likely it is that the pricing will take into account bot traffic. But that’s just a rule of thumb based on the fact that brand advertisers tend to be less performance-driven, and more driven by being able to say to their clients that they’ve had “300,000 eyeballs on this ad” (even if 299,999 of those were less eyeballs and more HTML parsers).

So what should you do with a high-bot placement that you believe could be profitable? Answer – test it as normal, but ignore all metrics that don’t make you money. Bots will play hell with your CTR – they’ll either artificially inflate it or artificially reduce it. You might see click loss, you might see all kinds of odd behaviour. Ignore everything except how much you’re spending, and how much you make. Conversion rate per click, cost per click, and your overall payout are all you care about.

The Promised Land? 0% bots

And here’s the other thing to remember: just because there are no bots doesn’t mean the placement will convert.

There’s an excellent example of that on a lot of DSPs right now: Grindr. I’ve done multiple bot tests on Grindr traffic, and it’s one of the purest-human sources I’ve seen (at least as of six months ago). Almost no bots, just tons of horny gay guys.

It’s also on a lot of blacklists. Damn thing just won’t convert for many people. Why? Well, just because the horny gay guys are human doesn’t mean they’re interested in your ad. The demographic is tech-savvy, cynical about advertising, and very very focused on one thing and one thing only: shagging. So despite being a very high-quality placement from the bot point of view, it’s a terrible placement from the making-money point of view in most cases.

(Grindr can be an amazing placement, but you’ve pretty much got to tailor your entire campaign to it, and push something the users are actually interested in. Muscle, diet, dating.)

Other placements get great bot results, but won’t convert on anything. That usually means they’re heavy on fat-finger clicks: the ad’s placed in such a way that lots of users click on it accidentally. Games are particularly bad for this. Some of them may even incentivise users to click on ads to get in-game currency – of course, the CVR of such clicks is terrible.

So just because you’ve found a 0% bot placement, that doesn’t mean you’ve found the Promised Land. You could get better results with a high-bot but high-conversion placement.

All of this will become more important as advertisers become more bot-savvy. Expect to see mixed-traffic placements get a lot cheaper, particularly once brands start throwing fits about paying for bot traffic. And given the current press interest in ad fraud, expect to see that happening sooner rather than later.

What do you think? Any tips on making the most of mixed-traffic placements, or any questions on the proper care and feeding of bots? Let me know below!

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