Criteo and Steelhouse legal spat escalates

Legal case between ad retargeting vendors in the US

The legal dispute between ad retargeting vendors, Criteo and SteelHouse, has gone up yet another notch after Criteo filed papers that feature several SteelHouse customers claiming to have been deceived by its rival.

The papers filed on 15 August include sworn testimony from several of SteelHouse’s clients claiming the vendor went against established marketing measurement practices, along with industry expert commentary that Criteo claims demonstrates SteelHouse’s unacceptable industry conduct.

Criteo launched legal action against its ad tech competitor on 13 June in the California District Court, claiming both click fraud as well as a misrepresentation of its services. Specifically, is alleges SteelHouse used a counterfeit click fraud scheme to trick e-tail clients into thinking that Internet users had clicked on SteelHouse-placed ads when they did not. It also claims SteelHouse subsequently took credit for online sales attributable to Criteo and other online marketing vendors as well as e-tail clients’ own direct Internet traffic.

Criteo alleges the practice, which has disadvantaged partners and competitors and which SteelHouse has used to inflate its performance, has been running since at least May 2015. Both companies operate on a pay-per-click model.

In July, SteelHouse filed a counterclaim, alleging Criteo had “resorted to gamesmanship and unlawful tactics” in a bid to both discredit SteelHouse as well as shield its own artificially inflated click count numbers.

“By falsely inflating its click count numbers, Criteo has deceived its own customers, and diverted actual and potential customers from SteelHouse by promising inflated click rates,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Criteo has compounded that behaviour by making false, misleading and malicious statements about SteelHouse, directly to its customers, prior to the filing of any lawsuit. These false allegations have not only caused SteelHouse substantial harm by damaging its reputation in the ad tech industry, but have also resulted in loss of actual and potential clients, and loss of revenue.”

Criteo returned the sally on 25 July, saying it will continue to prosecute SteelHouse and calling the latter’s claims both baseless and a deflection away from its own misconduct.

“SteelHouse’s counterfeit click fraud scheme has harmed and continues to harm both Criteo and the online advertising industry as a whole and should be enjoined,” it stated in its latest documents, filed 15 August.

The question of views versus last-click attribution

Among the latest papers filed are several testimonies from purported SteelHouse and Criteo customers, along with industry experts, supporting Criteo’s claims and criticising SteelHouse’s practices. Several of these refer to SteelHouse’s use of an algorithm to claim impressions and views from end consumers that directly contradicts the last-click attribution model used by many of its former customers.

The declarations of Leah Bliss, a senior specialist in external marketing at Vistaprint, and Elyse Burns, lead for channel marketing at Vistaprint, states that the company worked with both vendors prior to the legal dispute.

In a statement, dated 10 August, Bliss said Vistaprint terminated dealings with SteelHouse after it allegedly discovered SteelHouse had “used malicious code to make it appear as though an Internet user clicked on a SteelHouse-placed advertisement event though no such click occurred”. The practices also contradicted to the last-click attribution model uses to evaluate marketing vendor performance at Vistaprint.

“In its Opposition, SteelHouse asserts that its code was meant to allow SteelHouse to receive credit for ‘view throughs’ or impressions,” the statement reads. “SteelHouse apparently believes it should receive credit for views even though there was no click.”

Another testimony, from paid-for industry expert witness, Hugo Loriot, media technologies director at fifty-five SA, alleges “SteelHouse is manipulating Google Analytics to falsely attribute conversion credit to SteelHouse instead of Criteo”.

“SteelHouse’s manipulation does not allow e-tailers to fairly and correctly use attribution models being applied by Web analytics systems like Google Analytics,” Loriot claimed in his testimony. “SteelHouse’s code is interpreted by Google Analytics as an Internet users clicking on a SteelHouse advertisement, where no such click occurred.”

The hearing on the Motion for Preliminary Injection is up before the Californian District Court on 12 September.

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