The Good, The Bad, And The Ad: How To Deal With Bad Mobile Ads

This post was originally published on UsabilityGeek.

Mobile ads are part of many apps’ monetisation strategy. However, there are good mobile ads, and there are bad mobile ads. The last thing you want to see over your morning cup of coffee is this type of review for your mobile app, complaining about a poor quality ad:

Why do these bad mobile ads even weasel their way into apps in the first place? The reality is that too many app publishers are guilty of prioritising their own business needs over their users’ needs. Your monetisation strategy can only work for you if your app has users coming back. Bad ads, or too many ads, will send those users running even if your overall app design is perfect.

A report by SOOMLA on user churn shows that some ads cause churn of 8 users per 1000 ads displayed. Take this reviewer, for example, who called the game “fun” but encountered so many ads that they decided to give the app an unfortunate nickname:

Another App Store reviewer summed up a recently published game like this:

Here is some more bad news: your app might have bad mobile ads showing to your users, and you do not even know it — not until reviews like the above have already been published.

This is why, as an app publisher, it is imperative to monitor your mobile ads for quality, placement, and content. They have a direct impact on your app’s UX as well as engagement and retention.

Should you choose to accept it, your mission is to maintain a healthy balance between your needs for monetisation and your users’ needs for whatever value your app offers them.

In this article, we will discuss how to ensure a steady stream of revenue from your app, while still offering users the stellar user experience they are looking for. We will talk about ad quantity and ad quality, and the effect ads have on your app’s UX. Also, you will learn several methods for detecting all sorts of bad mobile ads before many of your users do.

Why You Need Mobile Ads In The First Place

At least 90% of apps today are free, including most of the apps you find in the Top Grossing charts. Where does the money come from? That is what app monetisation methods are for.

When it comes to monetisation, app publishers have a variety of routes available to them. Here are just a few of them: there is the pay to download option, there is the freemium option, and then, there is the wide and wonderful world of mobile ads.

Mobile ads are an excellent option for many app publishers, because you will be able to keep your app free for users, but you will see some revenue come in fairly quickly. They run on the famous and sometimes infamous advertising technology called programmatic advertising, which automates the media buying process and uses accumulated user data to send the most relevant ads to the most relevant audiences at the most effective times.

How does mobile app advertising work? You start by choosing an ad network, which will mediate between the app publisher (you) and the advertisers. You then select what ad formats you want to use (more on those later). Then you decide on an ad pricing model, meaning what user action you get paid for: when the user sees the ad, taps on the ad, or converts.

Meet The Mobile Ads: From Banners To Videos

There are several types of mobile ads to choose from, and different verticals tend to choose different kinds:

  • Banner ads appear at the edges of each screen in your app.
  • Interstitial ads cover the entire screen and are typically shown during the natural transition points in the user journey, for example between two game levels.
  • Video ads also cover the user’s screen, and they often include a “close” button to skip the ad.
  • Rewarded video ads do the same but also offer the user an in-app reward if they watch the video in its entirety, rather than skipping it.

Why Mobile Ads Need A Babysitter

It is easy for app publishers to sit back and allow programmatic advertising to work its magic. Unfortunately, integrating with ad networks is only the first step of the monetisation process. While ad networks are full of ads by honest advertisers wanting to build their business just like you, there are a few bad seeds who are out to make a quick buck off of you and your users. They will sneak past the network operators and bring low-quality, unethical, or inappropriate ads into your app. Mobile ads require monitoring and occasionally a little fixing if you want them to be effective without losing users in the process.

App stores do their best to keep bad mobile ads out — in 2018 Google removed bad ads from 1.5 million apps — but these efforts might take longer to get rid of bad ads. Ultimately, the responsibility to prevent bad ads is on the people creating the app — that is you.

When app publishers neglect to monitor their mobile ads, bad ones creep in. This result is a poor user experience and a lot of angry users. When users really hate the ads they encounter, they go running back to the app store to write a scathing review or to download a competitor’s app. Let us take a look at the different types of bad ads you will be battling when you are trying to prevent user reactions like this one.

Know The Enemy: 4 Types Of Bad Mobile Ads

Bad Mobile Ad #1: Technically flawed ads

Technically flawed ads are ads that, due to a technical issue, damage the user experience and typically cause the user to quit or “kill” the app. Examples of technically flawed ads are ads that do not have a “close” button, bringing the user journey to a complete halt. Another example of a technically flawed ad is one where the close button does not work, leading to unresponsive gestures and frustrated users.

Bad Mobile Ad #2: Abusive ads

Abusive ads might seem like technically flawed ads, for example, ones where the “close” button does not function. This time, though, it is not a flaw, it is a feature. These ads are purposely out to trick users into tapping on them. They do this by giving users the assumption that they are drawing on something else, by telling them their phone has a virus, or by placing misleading buttons that make them think they are closing the ad when instead they are really being automatically subscribed to a service.

Bad Mobile Ad #3: Low-quality ads

Low-quality ads are ads that do not display correctly for the user, for example, due to improper resolution or size. This often occurs due to screen fragmentation on Android, and may also be affected by the user’s screen orientation. Low-quality ads can make your user experience feel less polished and can affect conversion rates.

Bad Mobile Ad #4: Offensive Ads

Offensive ads have no technical flaws, but they are flawed in content and placement. How they are “offensive” can depend on your audience. Users can find some content offensive due to different personal factors, and they have no problem uninstalling your app to avoid that. Apps directed at kids should not include, for example, adult content. Another example: if you have a health and fitness app, you might want to blacklist ads for fast food joints.

Hunting Season: How To Find Bad Mobile Ads In Your App

Here is a toolbox of methods that will help you detect any bad ads in your app and take care of the problem before bad reviews start to come in.

See how ads affect users with session recordings

You can quickly get data on what ads users tapped and how many impressions an ad got, but those numbers will not tell you anything about the actual user experience of the ad. To understand your mobile ads’ UX, you need session recordings. User session recordings allow you to see your app the same way your users see it (and interact with it), by creating a video replay of individual user sessions and providing a play-by-play breakdown of every interaction. With this clear, real-time visualisation, session recordings allow app publishers like 365Scores to monitor for bad mobile ads proactively.

What bad mobile ads can you find by using session recordings?

  • Poorly placed ads — ads that interrupted the user journey, for example, an interstitial ad that shows up in the middle of a game instead of between levels.
  • Ads that cause the user to quit the game — sudden quits might indicate a problem with an offensive, abusive, or technically flawed ad.

Uncover bad mobile ads with touch heatmaps

As touched on earlier, bad mobile ads can suffer from common UI ailments such as poor resolution, sizing issues, misplaced buttons, and broken links. These issues are hard to pin down. Touch heatmaps help deal with the bad full-screen ads by showing an at-a-glance map of user interactions, superimposed on each of your app’s screens. By filtering the heatmaps to display specific types of interactions — such as first, last, or unresponsive gestures — you can easily monitor for bad mobile ads.

What bad mobile ads can you find by using touch heatmaps?

  • Technically flawed ads — ads where the button is missing, improperly placed, or leads to a broken link can easily be identified using heatmaps of screens with a high number of unresponsive gestures.
  • Low-quality ads — heatmaps display the ad precisely as the user sees it, and enable you to identify churn-inducing issues like low resolution or improper size.

Use an ad fraud console to blacklist bad ad providers

Ad fraud is a concern every app publisher faces when they choose to use mobile ads for monetisation, and it is not getting any better, according to reports from Adjust. Luckily, most of the monetisation tools leading the market include a fraud prevention feature. Ad fraud prevention tools analyse data from your app’s advertising campaigns to detect abnormal activity, such as too-high metrics, anonymous installs, and more. They then blacklist any offending ads that might cause your users to fear for their safety.

Bonus tip: Choose better ad formats with the Better Ads Standards

The Coalition for Better Ads was founded in the wake of the rise of ad blockers and aims to help improve ad UX. Better Ads Standards is the result of research the organisation ran with over 66,000 consumers. You can consult the Better Ads Standard to learn what ad formats users like the least. The Better Ads Standards are focused on desktop and mobile web, but the same insights can be applied to mobile apps as well.

Too Many Mobile Ads = Bad Mobile Ads?

Once you have got a method for keeping ad quality high, let us talk about maintaining ad quantity low. Yes, your app needs to bring you revenue. However, as you saw from the negative reviews above, the only thing users hate more than ads is too many ads. Do not pile ad after ad on the user, because that will only lead to interrupted user journeys, poor user experience, and app abandonment.

How many ads should you show? Well, there is no magic number, so it will take a bit of trial and error. This post by Google AdMob recommends a best practice for setting the frequency of your interstitial ads: start low and carefully increase the ad frequency until you find an optimal volume. How do you know when to stop? You guessed it — session recordings.


Bad mobile ads might worm their way to your app no matter what ad network or programmatic provider you choose. At the end of the day, your app is your baby: when it makes a mess, it is up to you to clean it up. The trouble with bad mobile ads is that you will not always get alerted to them right away, and in the meantime, they will turn into abandonment, churn, and negative reviews. At your disposal is a small arsenal of tools you can use to fight bad ads: user session recordings, touch heatmaps, and fraud detection tools. Remember, though, that your work is never really done. If you want to make these tools really work for you, keep using them regularly to scout out bad ads before they affect your users.

(Lead image: Depositphotos)

Qualitative app analytics lets you watch user session recordings and touch heatmaps for every screen, for a deep understanding of UX + user behavior.

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