There are many ways to build an audience — sometimes you just get lucky, sometimes you’re so good it’s easy, sometimes it only comes after years of hard work.

There are also ways you can, if you happen to have a budget to work with, augment your audience’s natural growth. This is where you find yourself at a crossroad.

Do you or do you not buy traffic?

First, let’s define what “buying traffic” actually means.

Buying traffic happens when you deal with a “traffic acquisition vendor” who promises to send you large chunks of website visitors for fractions of a penny per visit. Sometimes these traffic acquisition vendors label themselves SEO consultants with guaranteed returns.

One such example we found promised to send a website 500,000 visitors over the course of a week for less than $400. Another example, from a different vendor, promised 100,000 visitors in just a single day for the low, low price of $114.

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With cost-per-visit prices that low, the chance to earn a “return” on that investment is obvious if you turn around and re-sell that traffic to ad networks or exchanges.

Let’s also be clear — paying to promote your content on other websites is not something we consider to be “buying traffic.” Promoting your content is called marketing. Buying traffic that, if you’re not careful, could be loaded down with bots and reselling it as legitimate ad impressions is called fraud.

One estimate from last year speculated that as much as $6 billion is being wasted by brands advertising to non-humans, and as much as a third of ad traffic is fraudulent.

While that practice may have passed through quality checks in the past, advertisers and ad tech companies are no longer taking a laissez-faire approach to publishers who seek to monetize non-human traffic. In the past, advertisers looked at the amount of bot traffic that was purchased as part of their overall spend as something of a necessary evil — a “tax” so to speak as it was more costly to detect it than to pay for it.

As technology firms like Telemetry, White Ops, MdotLabs (recently purchased by Comscore), and Integral have made the detection and blocking of fraudulent traffic more affordable and accessible to both the buy and sell sides, there has been a huge crack down in the industry.

As that happens, the consequences can be quite severe for publishers who knowingly (or unknowingly) purchase bot traffic. Many companies who would represent or buy your ad inventory have a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, and there are no “review boards” to petition if your site gets blacklisted from the various marketplaces/networks.

Meanwhile, the buy side is aggressively seeking to spend on sites with verified quality human traffic. As the “tax” on fraud goes away, this “real” traffic will command a higher value because advertisers’ ROI will increase. Essentially, advertisers can afford to buy more because they’re not wasting money on garbage.

Luckily for publishers, checking for and wiping out bot traffic is getting easier and less costly.
You can use Google Analytics to filter for some types of bot traffic and to see if you have a problem, because knowing is half the battle.

After that, you can take steps to deny that bot traffic or remove advertising from it. You can look into doing it yourself, or you can turn to one of many technology solutions (like the ones we mentioned earlier) to help.

The incentive to clean up inventory has finally arrived and the penalty not to has become substantial.