What is Buyers.json? Learn about the new IAB spec

In a recent post, we examined brand safety from the publishers’ perspective. To quickly recap: Brands don’t want their ads to appear in inappropriate or objectionable editorial environments. The reputational damage caused by such placements is hard to measure and difficult to repair, so it makes sense that most buyers are hopping on the brand safety bandwagon.

But what about publishers? What if they want to block inappropriate or malicious ads from appearing on their webpages? While all SSPs provide URL blacklist functionality, beyond those basic tools, publishers don’t have a lot of insight or control over who’s buying their inventory.

Two new standards recently launched for public comment by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Buyers.json and DemandChain object, may soon change that. But before we get into what Buyers.json is, it may be helpful to recap its buy-side equivalents, ads.txt and Sellers.json.

Ads.txt and Sellers.json

In 2019, IAB Tech Lab launched two new standards, Ads.txt and Sellers.json, to protect buyers from inadvertently purchasing fraudulent or spoofed inventory.

Ads.txt is a file hosted by publishers on their root domain, i.e., xyz.com/ads.txt. The file lists all the ad networks, ad exchanges, and SSPs that are authorized to sell the publisher’s inventory, either directly (“DIRECT”) or indirectly (“RESELLER”). When purchasing inventory from a third-party, the buyer can  look up to verify their entry in the publishers’ ads.txt file. Since the file is hosted directly by the publisher on their own domain, it is difficult to alter. Ads.txt helps but is not foolproof and publishers need to follow ads.txt best practices to stay secure.

In comparison, Sellers.json is a file hosted by ad networks, ad exchanges, and supply-side platforms (SSPs) on their root domain, i.e., xyz.com/sellers.json. It lists all the publishers whose inventory they can rightfully sell and also acts as a public ledger for verifying the transactions of individual bid requests. The standard includes the OpenRTB SupplyChain object, which enables the discovery of all the intermediaries involved in a specific bid transaction, represented as nodes consisting of advertising system identifier (asi) and seller IDs (sid).

When used together, ads.txt and Sellers.json help buyers better protect themselves against fraudulent and spoofed inventory by enabling them to see the provenance of the inventory they purchase. These standards have also helped publishers, by making it increasingly difficult for fraudsters to siphon off the ad spend originally intended for legitimate sites and apps.

While these standards are great, you might wonder: How can publishers verify or exercise control over who is buying their inventory? Enter Buyers.json.

What is Buyers.json?

Buyers.json is a proposed standard that will give publishers the same insight into and control over who they are transacting with, as Sellers.json did to the buy-side of ad tech. Earlier this year, IAB released Version 1.0 of the new Buyers.json specification.

When publishers sell their inventory, they essentially allow third parties to place code and content on their webpages, which could potentially disrupt the user experience of their sites. And in worst case scenarios, publishers may inadvertently expose themselves to malware, scams, automated redirects, and all the other forms in which malvertising is delivered.

Ad quality scanners can help but they don’t always work. Sometimes even after a publisher has identified a bad player and taken steps to restrict them from buying inventory, they can get away by simply switching their DSP—leading to a frustrating game of whack-a-mole.

Buyers.json can help publishers and SSPs more easily identify malvertising attacks, identify problematic buyers across multiple DSPs, and take appropriate action to protect their business and users. Based on the current version of the spec, here are some things it might include:

  • DemandChain, a new object within OpenRTB which will allow sellers to view all the entities involved in purchasing an ad creative. Just as SupplyChain object complements Sellers.json, the DemandChain object will accompany Buyers.json
  • A central registry of buyers and exchange mechanism for reputation signals
  • An industry certification program for ad servers
  • Standardized methods for disclosing buyer information on the client-side and in header bidding frameworks like Prebid. Creatives may also include “calling cards”, which may be used to identify the buyer of the creative and the entity/s that delivered it on-page.

“The buyer transparency that the demand chain object brings will help publishers in a multitude of ways. Publishers would be able to better identify demand not only to reduce malvertising, but to improve ad quality, to reduce transaction failure, and to discover buyers who may be interested in more highly coupled partnerships.” Patrick McCann, SVP Research Cafe Media, said in a recent press release. “Publishers will have visibility into how buyers are making supply path decisions and potentially partner with them to choose a more optimal one. The utility of the demand chain object to the publisher community is hard to overstate.”

Pledge your support

While existing standards like ads.txt and Sellers.json have benefitted publishers in some ways, their ability to exercise control over who buys their inventory has not grown proportional to the buy-side of ad tech. The Buyers.json standard is one step towards balancing the scales. The standard has already garnered a lot of support from publishers and SSPs, including Magnite, OpenX, Index Exchange, LA Times, The Guardian, Meredith, and Cafe Media.

Standards gain adoption by consensus; it is therefore crucial that more publishers and SSPs step forward to show their support for the standard. If you are one of the parties who stand to directly benefit from the standard, consider pledging your support at the Buyers.json microsite.

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