By Julia Amorim, CEO  |  This article was originally published on MediaPost 08.28.15.

Buyers of digital advertising want their ads to be seen—a point so obvious that it might even seem trivial. Thus, in order to help brands ensure this result, the Media Ratings Council (MRC) has released viewability guidelines based on an ad’s likelihood of being seen. Viewability, then, might seem an ideal metric by which brands can choose those vendors most likely to return the highest engagement.

Unfortunately, viewability is not the reliably homogeneous or even especially informative metric that it may seem. Measuring visibility is no easy task, and there is no standardized measurement process across different viewability vendors. This means that publisher ratings might vary according to different sources. In addition, increased buyer demand for high viewability ratings pushes publishers to prioritize viewability—in many cases, even at the expense of user experience (and, as a result, viewer engagement). However, viewability alone cannot distinguish those publishers using underhanded tactics in order to pump stats.

Buyers want viewable inventory

With the availability of viewability metrics, buyers have begun to demand increased viewability from publishers. Some buyers—most notably, Kellogg’s—are demanding 100% viewability believing that an ad that isn’t “seen” generates no return on investment—it is nothing but a waste of money.

As a result, many publishers must redesign their websites in order to incorporate more ads and adjust ad placement for better viewability. The best publishers are able to do this without disrupting a user’s experience: maintaining quality of content, placing a limited number of ads alongside, clearly distinguishing ads from content, etc. Still, even the best publishers cannot guarantee a particular user’s behavior or ad engagement.  Even with well-placed ads, a user can choose to scroll and skip through pages as they please, despite the publisher’s best efforts.

Moreover, when users buy ads based solely on viewability, those publishers taking necessary steps to adapt must serve an even-higher number of impressions to garner desired viewability ratings. In order to cover rising costs, these publishers must increase their inventory prices. And while some buyers fully understand the reality of rising costs, their buying choices are often restricted by pre-viewability budgets that don’t take new, premium pricing into account.

Of course, in digital advertising as in everything else, the unavoidable truth is that you get what you pay for. Many buyers focused on viewability alone turn instead to less scrupulous publishers who prioritize viewability at the expense of user experience and engagement.

Unprincipled publishers game the system

There are many ways to increase a publisher’s visibility rating without adding on that premium price tag: that is, by trying toforce user behavior rather than making digital ads a non-intrusive or even complementary component of a user’s experience.

Such “bargain” publishers use myriad methods to stack the ratings in their favor. Some of these tactics include: ad stuffing, or cramming a webpage full of ads. This is miserable for the user, who most likely won’t spend much time looking at any of those ads; however, each ad on the page could technically count as viewable. Some publishers include very little content on a page and surround that content with ads, forcing users to scroll past numerous ads and even bounce to additional pages (with even more ads). In this case, again, ads are detrimental to a user’s experience—but regardless, the more ads that are “seen” in the browser window, the better that publisher’s viewability rating. Along similar lines, some publishers auto-refresh ads: while a user stays on the same page, cycling through different ads, cranking up page views and ad loads.

Despite the prevalence of such practices, viewability standards alone cannot tell a buyer anything about the quality of that publisher’s practices and user experience. Distinguishing between premium publishers and less-desirable placement requires human insight and trained judgment.

Viewability measurement is not standardized

A Media Ratings Council accredited measurement is based on a particular ad’s likelihood of being seen—it cannot actually guarantee views, much less qualified views. Furthermore, there is no standard methodology for measuring viewability and results tend to vary from one vendor to another; making a guarantee of 100% viewability not only misleading, but actually impossible. With contradictory information available, buyers may make misinformed buying decisions based on skewed publisher reputation and ratings. Because viewability isn’t standardized, no viewability metrics should be seen as solid evidence. In fact, there isn’t even an agreed upon definition of “viewability”: while MRC standards counts a standard display ad as “viewable” if at least 50% of that ad is within view for one second, many publishers and vendors continue to disagree.

Finally, publishers have no control over the way they are seen by viewability vendors—a point essential to the success of fraudulent publishers that force viewability. Viewability does not reward good UX or web design best practices. Instead, a focus on viewability unintentionally rewards publishers that act as advertising mills—or even sites that practice outright fraud in generating their numbers.

Instead of viewability alone, publishers and buyers must focus on the human element

While it makes sense for a buyer to pursue advertising campaigns that actually get seen, choosing publishers based solely on viewability metrics actually reduces a campaign’s effectiveness. As discussed, the fact that an ad is placed somewhere on a website that physically could be visible to a viewer has very little impact on that viewer’s resulting behavior.

Rather than obsessing over a single viewability number, buyers must adopt a broader view of advertising success. After all, buyers who are quick to dismiss publishers without a viewability score of 100% might miss out on valuable target audiences without further consideration.  Alternatively, brands who are driven to make a strong impression should consider a more premium media buy, such as a multi-unit takeover, in order to increase ad effectiveness and user engagement.

Viewability is, at most, a single component of a larger, more holistic view of campaign success. In addition to viewability metrics, buyers must consider factors such as publisher quality and placement. Buyers must keep the end goal in mind—working toward particular KPIs decided on for a particular campaign, layering in data from multiple sources, etc.—always focused on their target audience’s engagement/conversions. Buyers must understand what they are buying, who they are buying from, what their selected publishers offer. After all, understanding features such as the reputability of a site, the “feel” and inner workings of its advertising environment, the way target users behave under particular conditions, and so on provides far more (and more useful!) data upon which to base a buying decision.

In today’s highly competitive digital advertising market, it is essential for vendors and publishers not only to leverage a range of performance metrics when buying/selling ads, but also to understand, at a deeper level, that audience behavior cannot be controlled by numbers alone.

In order to attract quality buyers, publishers cannot abandon site quality, reputation, and user experience to misleadingly inflate a single statistic. And in order to truly maximize visibility and engagement, buyers must not only understand user behavior, but also plan with “the bigger picture” for campaigns to best ensure that ads are seen by and have a real impact on their target audience.