Free tools for investigating digital ads

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Craig Silverman
Craig Silverman
Welcome to the first issue of Digital Investigations for 2022! As always, you can scroll to the bottom of this message and click the link to unsubscribe. I’m not asking you to leave — I just want to be sure I’m reaching people who are interested in this content.

Brands and organizations of all sizes will spend more than $550 billion on digital ads this year. That means banner ads, video ads, sponsored tweets, search ads, ads in emails, ads in podcasts, and on and on…
The systems used to buy and sell digital ads are vast, complicated, poorly understood, and rife with fraud. Every year, billions of dollars disappear into the gaping maw of the murky and complex digital ad ecosystem.
I’m fascinated and horrified by the level of deception and criminality in digital advertising. I’ve done several investigations into ad fraud, as well as a series about a massive scam fuelled by tens of millions of dollars worth of deceptive Facebook ads. Last December, I published a story about how former Trump advisor and campaign chair Steve Bannon exploits a loophole in Google’s ads policies to earn money.
These investigations require an understanding of how digital advertising works, and the many ways people exploit the system. I also rely on tools to understand how a website or app earns money, which ad tech partners it works with, and to learn more about an advertiser.
Here’s a rundown of free tools you can use to investigate digital ads. First, a reminder: Tools are useless unless you understand when and how to use them. They can give you data, but you need to interpret the data, and to know which questions it can and can’t answer. It’s about how you think, not what tools you have access to. Enjoy and test out these tools — but don’t expect them to do the heavy lifting for you.
AdBeat
AdBeat is an ad spy tool. It shows information about ads running across different ad networks, geographies, and keywords, among other data points. Ad spy tools are useful and powerful, but expensive. They can cost hundreds of dollars a month, and most don’t have a free version. As of this writing, AdBeat has a useful free offering. You can enter the URL of an advertiser and it will show data about how may ads they run, what the ads look like, where the ads have appeared etc. For example, if I want to see the ads running for ford.com I could enter that as my AdBeat search.
Basically, if you’re investigating a URL or an advertiser, you can pop it into AdBeat to see if it has any associated ad data. Caveat: this tool has a US/English bias.
Blacklight
This tool was built by nonprofit news org The Markup. It’s a user friendly way to scan a webpage and see the ad and analytics trackers, among other relevant services, it uses or interacts with. Blacklight is a good starting point if you’re not familiar with ad tech, as the results page helps explain what different trackers do. Blacklight also flags tracker activity that could be of concern.
Ghostery
Ghostery is a browser plugin. It’s typically used as an ad blocker, but it can also give you a rundown of the advertising, social, and analytics trackers present on a webpage. Open the Ghostery plugin and select the “detailed view” option. It will list ad partners/networks the publisher is working with, and the analytics software the site uses to track its audience, among other things.
Note that not all of the ad trackers listed by Ghostery will necessarily be active. But it’s a helpful roadmap as you try to figure out how a site earns money. I use Ghostery more frequently than Blacklight because, as a browser plugin, it shows me the tracker info faster than having to go to plug the URL into Blacklight.
Why do I care about ad trackers? Along with telling you which ad partners a site uses, you can also use the presence of Google AdSense and Analytics trackers to use the method I described here to connect a website to others.
PageXray
This tool can help you see the requests a URL sends to ad networks, analytics products, and other services the site might be using. Ghostery tells you which trackers are present on the site, and PageXray helps you see which ones are active. If you’re not family with these kind of web requests, one simple tip is to take the URL associated with one of the requests you see and Google it.
I put my employer’s website into PageXray and one of the requests showed the URL htlbid.com. I put “htlbid.com” into Google and found a site that explained it’s the script used by Hashtag Labs, which is a partner that helps ProPublica with its display advertising.
One other helpful thing about PageXray is that if you scroll down it will give you a list of the external links a page points to, and you can use it to see if a site loads different trackers if the site is accessed in different parts of the world. Read this LinkedIn post from Dr Augustine Fou, the creator of PageXray, to learn more about that, and to see the tool in action.
Well Known
This site was built by a solo software developer as a way to visualize and explore data about websites and mobile apps. To start, make sure you sign up for a free account on the site. You see more data if you’re logged in!
Among other things, Well Known scans the ads.txt and app-ads.txt files of sites and apps, and structures the data so it’s easy to explore and find connections between sites, apps, and the ad networks and partners they work with.
Here’s a primer on ads.txt if you’re not familiar with this digital advertising standard. Basically, sites and apps are supposed to have a public listing of all the ad partners they work with, including the account ID associated with the relationship. (Mobile apps have an apps-ads.txt file.)You can use Well Known to find connections between sites and apps based on their ad IDs, and see who their partners are. This tells you who they work with to earn money, and whether different sites and apps are connected. It takes complicated ads.txt files, helps you make sense of them, and use them to identify networks of sites and ad partners.
One note of caution is that ads.txt and app-ads.txt files can contain out of date info, and not every app or site has one. So, as always, you need to confirm which relationships are active. Fortunately, Ghostery, PageXray, and Blacklight can help you with that!
If this is all new to you, it will take time to understand how you can use ads.txt and app-ads.txt information. But trust me when I say it can be valuable.
I hope you test and enjoy these tools! I’ll be back with a future issue that goes more in depth on investigating digital ads.
Worth Reading
As noted above, I recently published a look at how Steve Bannon exploits a loophole in Google’s ad policies to keep the money flowing for his site warroom.org, among others.
How Steve Bannon Has Exploited Google Ads to Monetize Extremism — ProPublica
Here’s a great thread about using corporate statements and documents, satellite imagery, and other info to conduct a supply chain investigation.
Alison Killing
After we reported that Hugo Boss was working with a Chinese supplier with close ties to Xinjiang, that supplier was quietly cut from Hugo Boss' supplier list. Here’s how we did the investigation. Thread
https://t.co/lLyAXN8lhG
Indian news site The Wire published an incredible three part investigation into an app allegedly used by people affiliated with India’s ruling party to manipulate social media and messaging platforms. Start with part one below.
Tek Fog: An App With BJP Footprints for Cyber Troops to Automate Hate, Manipulate Trends
And finally, here’s a free 5-hour video course offering an overview of open source investigation essentials.
Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) in 5 Hours - Full Course - Learn OSINT!
Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) in 5 Hours - Full Course - Learn OSINT!
That’s it for this issue. Thanks for reading!
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Craig Silverman
Craig Silverman @craigsilverman

Tips and techniques, breakdowns of great reporting on disinformation and digital deception, links to resources, and analysis of the digital ecosystem.

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