Breaking Down Viewability

By Travis Biechele, Director of Digital Media

June 01, 2017

If an online ad impression is served and no one is there to see it…did it even appear? The answer is, yes. This reality has sparked fiery conversations about viewability across the ad industry throughout the past several years.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which consists of more than 650 media and ad technology companies that account for 86% of all U.S. online advertising, and the Media Rating Council (MRC), which Congress established in the 1960s to audit the accuracy of TV and radio audience research, publish specific and detailed online advertising standards and guidelines for measuring viewability. They define viewable impressions as follows:

  • Display – More than 50% of the display ad surface area must exposed for at least one second
  • Video – More than 50% of the display ad surface area must exposed for at least two continuous seconds

I know what you’re thinking… WHAT!?

That’s right, the current standard is that just half of your ad must be on-screen for one second (two for video). Would you pay for a billboard if you knew that trees or a building obscured the bottom half? How about if the board flickered on and off at one-second intervals? This example may be an extreme, but the net effect is the same.

As an industry, we pay for ads on a CPM basis (cost-per-thousand) without guarantee that people can, much less actually do see them. You might argue that the same applies for TV—that you can’t guarantee that someone sees your commercial if they leave the room or pick up their phone. This is true, but at least we know that the ad aired and had real potential to be seen.


Why is this the current situation?

Here are some of the key factors:

  1. Many publishers—individual websites—do not cater to the advertiser experience. They may swing in one direction, completely focusing on experience with site content (not a bad thing). Or they may swing the other direction, cluttering the site with ads, some of which load outside the in-view browser window.
  1. We cannot control the scroll speed of users. If an ad loads top of page, and a user immediately scrolls down the page, that ad may not be in view for even a full second. It would not be deemed viewable, despite its apparent “premium” placement. For the record, ads placed high on the page or “above the fold” are not necessarily high quality. However, many will try to sell them as such. The entire ad experience should be considered, not just vertical placement on a page.
  1. “Viewable” is tough to prove. If an ad is in view because a user rereads a certain paragraph or leaves an article open during a lunch break, the impression is viewable by MRC standards. But if that viewer was hyper-focused on the article content, their tunnel vision may have prevented them from even seeing the ad. Yes, the ad would be deemed viewable, but the user never really “saw” it.
  1. There are both technological limitations and unscrupulous players that make 100% viewability unrealistic. Without diving into gory details, differing site build strategies, custom ad offerings and other factors prevent the full body of ad inventory from being measurable, much less viewable. Unfortunately, there are also companies that make a living from predatory, non-human internet activity that muddies data streams and negatively impacts ad serving measurement.


What do we do about this?

First, we need a greater demand for viewable ads. As companies, brands and even ad agencies, we need to raise our expectations. In theory, this would put pressure on websites to design/redesign for the consumer experience AND the ad experience. Both are important in the current ecosystem of (mostly) free internet content, and the innovation needs to start on the publisher side.

Second, always include a verification partner. Consider this a given, and contract with that partner on all digital media buys. Partners like Integral Ad Science (IAS), Double Verify (DV) and Moat are a few category leaders. Not only do they provide a third-party audit of viewability and ad delivery, but many will tell you if inventory is able to be measured for viewability. Further still, verification partners ensure your ads are served in brand-safe environments, which have received heightened attention lately with concern over ads appearing next to extremist content. Lastly, verification partners help weed out potential ad fraud from bots. All of this is not to say that programmatic media buying is bad. However, it comes with an intrinsic risk of non-viewable and non-measurable inventory.

Third, seek out inherently viewable inventory experiences. Think about YouTube, where you can skip an ad after 5 seconds, but there is almost zero risk that an ad is not viewable. Or consider Pandora, where ads are only displayed when users interact with the platform or app, like when they favorite a song or change the station. Even high-impact display units, like push-downs, offer an experience that is hard to ignore, but not necessarily intrusive.

At S&B, we ask publishers a lot of questions about their inventory, their measurement methodologies, and the transparency of their reporting before we spend a dollar.

It’s a painstaking process, but it’s a testament to our dedication to clients. We owe it to them to instill confidence in our partnership and trust of the intricate world of digital media. This acute attention to detail separates us from other media buying agencies.

If you have questions, we’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below or email us at


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We created a captivating, cinematic video to celebrate the dedication of Wisconsin's dairy farmers. The video was supported with a social media and digital advertising campaign.

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