Bad bots have been making headlines recently for the role they played in derailing online ticket sales for Taylor Swift’s world tour – with Singapore being the most recent casualty of bot-enabled unethical practices like ticket scalping.

But it’s not just concert tickets – bad bots have been a significant thorn in the side of online businesses for decades now, evolving and adapting with emerging technologies to pose significant challenges in areas including cybersecurity, user experience and advertising revenue. Ad fraud in particular is costing businesses billions in losses, with the APAC region alone slated to lose US$56 billion to invalid bot traffic – an amount that is subject to increase, due to the return of travel in the region. 

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After years of movement restrictions, the travel and tourism industry across APAC is expected to make a recovery to pre-pandemic levels this year. Southeast Asian markets like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia are already experiencing a surge in travel bookings. But unfortunately, as the appetite for travel increases, so does the incidence of ad fraudsters armed with bad bots to exploit unprotected businesses. 

Why bad bots target travel and tourism

While bots generated almost half (47.4%) of all 2022’s global internet traffic, recent research has revealed that travel advertisers are impacted to a greater extent. Bots were found to make up to 80% of all invalid traffic for travel advertisers, a stark contrast to the 15-30% affecting other industries. Some of the factors contributing to the industry’s particular vulnerability include:

  • Use of Third-Party Online Travel Agencies (OTAs): The travel industry has a multitude of authorised and unauthorised third-party OTAs that scrape data from airlines and hotel databases. These OTAs sell data on behalf of airlines and rentals, creating opportunities for bots to exploit and generate invalid traffic.
  • High-Value Loyalty Programs: Bad bots target loyalty programs to conduct account takeover attacks, steal points or miles, and engage in fraudulent redemptions. The value associated with loyalty programs makes them an appealing target for bad bot activity.
  • App Usage and Mobile Experiences: Many travel vendors rely on apps and mobile experiences to engage with their target customers. However, this reliance on app installations makes them more vulnerable to receiving low-quality traffic and misattributed downloads, leading to skewed analytics and ineffective advertising costs. 

With one of the highest fraud rates worldwide, Singapore’s travel industry is particularly vulnerable to bot attacks. And with 53% of Singaporeans keen to fly out this year, ad fraud protection is the need of the hour for travel businesses to keep customer and advertiser satisfaction on track. 

Bad bots hurt everyone – but especially advertisers

In the highly competitive travel marketplace, failing to protect against bad bots can result in significant losses for multiple stakeholders in the travel industry. Online booking platforms and OTAs, for example, not only bear the responsibility of protecting their platforms from bad bots but also addressing them and ensuring data security. Bad bot activities can tarnish their reputation if customers perceive their platforms as unreliable or unsafe. Customers in the travel industry are also impacted by inventory hoarding bots, for example, who fabricate demand to create scarcity, resulting in higher prices and limited choices. Customers also face the risk of falling victim to fraud, such as unauthorised bookings or having their personal information compromised in data breaches.

Arguably, the greatest impact is felt by advertisers. Fraudulent clicks alone, for example, can derail pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaigns, resulting in wasted ad spend, reduced ROI, and misleading campaign metrics. This includes travel companies themselves, who often invest significant capital to promote downloads of their travel apps, including pay-per-install (PPI) performance networks. However, recent research shows that over 50% of the traffic delivered by these performance networks is invalid, leading to higher instances of not only fraudulent installations but also post-installation events including flight and hotel bookings. Such fraudulent activity can quickly deplete ad budgets without generating actual conversions. 

Ad fraud can also hurt travel businesses for the longer term by compromising brand safety and trust. For example, It’s crucial for advertisers to ensure their ads are presented in a suitable and brand-safe environment that aligns with their values, target audience, and desired image. By contributing to an increase in fraudulent or non-human traffic, bad bots can result in brand suitability violations or ads being displayed in unsuitable contexts. Research shows the average brand suitability violation rate for travel advertisers was 82% higher than other verticals, and up by 52% in APAC. A platform that is unable to maintain brand suitability will continue to lose out on advertising dollars unless it can demonstrate the ability to protect brand integrity.

Ramping up protection is imminent yet long-term 

While there have been significant advancements in bot detection and security measures, fraudsters will continue to adapt their own technology, creating a continuous cycle of innovation and countermeasures in the battle against malicious bot activity. As the prevalence of digital transactions increases, bad bots are a challenge that travel businesses will need to continuously navigate and address. 

Today, several solutions exist that can help businesses protect themselves in faster and more efficient ways. This includes employing advanced algorithms to identify and block suspicious bot behaviour or utilising machine learning to adapt to evolving bot techniques. Looking to the future, collaborative efforts and industry partnerships will be key to battling travel’s vulnerability to bot attacks, including the sharing of data and insights to identify and track malicious bot networks. 

The first step, however, is for travel businesses to prioritise the continuous monitoring and analysis of their website traffic, so they can identify anomalies and detect potential fraud early. As awareness grows, so will the implementation of fraud detection technologies and third-party verification tools on the scale needed to protect the industry at large.

The article titled “It’s not just concert tickets – bad bots are hurting the travel industry too” was contributed by Chadwick Kinlay, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), TrafficGuard

About the author

Chad Kinlay is the Chief Marketing Officer of TrafficGuard, a platform which provides comprehensive ad verification, measurement and fraud protection for brands, apps, agencies and ad networks. Having successfully scaled technology businesses globally, Chad is a key growth driver at TrafficGuard, leading the strategic marketing and business development efforts for expansion across the globe.

Prior to his role at TrafficGuard, Chad was Director of Marketing and Communications at Epsilon Telecommunications, where he led marketing across APAC, USA, Europe and MEA.

With over 15 years of communication industry experience, Chad is rapidly establishing TrafficGuard as an industry leader with the mission to help every business get the clarity they need to unlock the best advertising performance through ad fraud solutions across all industry verticals everywhere.