Clickbait ad farms Made for Advertising

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 8 December 2023
Credit: Stephen Momot via Unsplash.

You’ll never guess what happened next. 

The internet is full of hard to resist clickbait and some of it can be found on Made for Advertising sites (MFA).

These, by design, take advantage of programmatic advertising on platforms where publishers sell and advertisers bid for advertising space. 

This is a similar setup to old village markets, where the local government authority or church charged a fee to sellers to set up stalls. The big benefit was the prospect of connecting with buyers, the safety (policing) of the area plus the facilities offered.

Today we have electronic markets: adtechs, ad exchanges, agencies and other networks  facilitating buying and selling of ad space.

But the efficiency, and the quality of the media on offer, depends on the platform.

Follow the money through the programmatic supply chain and see big buckets of cash leak to sites with high volume content, clickbait designed to attract ads.

These sites maximise the numbers of ads, using cheap or hijacked content. 

All this is legal and the sites make their owners a lot of money. 

And it’s getting easier to create these ad farms using AI to rewrite stories from premium content news websites.

GroupM, WPP’s media agency arm, has a partnership with Jounce Media, an expert in programmatic supply chain management, to protect against against Made For Advertising (MFA) websites and domains

The aim is to ensure that client campaigns don’t waste media investment and advertising presence in low quality environments.

“The challenges associated with MFA domains are likely to grow even more complex as the media ecosystem continues to evolve rapidly,” says  Rory Latham, GroupM’s senior director, Global Investment, Programmatic. 

Analysts say this time of the year sees an uptick in ads, part of major campaigns, ending up on made for advertising sites. Marketers, seeking to exhaust December quarter budgets, will allocate funds to many sites, some of them MAS.

A study by NewsGuard, a rating system for news and information websites, this year found 141 brands feeding programmatic ad dollars to low-quality AI-generated news and information sites operating with little to no human oversight.

In Australia 5% to 7% of wasted ad spend comes from these sites, according to John Vlasakakis, co-founder of independent digital and traditional performance marketing agency Next & Co. 

He says they mainly come from China, Thailand or Bangladesh. It is more of a network of devices performing a common objective rather than a specific site.

“But on the website they tend to be clones of other sites or look completely like a spam site with loads of irrelevant content and website links without a nice design,” he says.

“The best way to fight them is to install ad fraud software and calibrate it to detect these type of sites. Also add rules in the robots.txt file on your website to stop traffic coming in from these sites

“Also work with your agency on the common thread of these sites and setup rules to dispute and block any activity coming in from these sites to not be paying for it and logging it as invalid activity,” he says. 

“Saving 3% to 5% per month compounded will drastically improve your ROI.”

The waste is deep. The $US88 billion open web programmatic media ecosystem is riddled with as much as $20 billion in waste

This represents 23% of the total open web programmatic media investment by marketers, according to research, the Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study, by the US advertising industry's oldest trade association, ANA.

The ANA report also found the average campaign runs on 44,000 websites but advertisers can reach 95% of audiences using just a few hundred websites.

Scott Pierce, head of fraud protection at Integral Ad Science, says MFA sites have existed since the advent of programmatic advertising and have historically been referred to as “clickbait sites” or “ad farms”.

“MFA sites make their publishers a lot of money,” he told AdNews.

These publishers practise arbitrage advertising. They place ads across content recommendation platforms on a pay-per-click basis and monetise the resulting traffic by serving many ads. 

“It’s a very simple and effective model, and completely legal,” says Pierce.

“MFA site operators, for the most part, are not purchasing bot traffic. Real people visit these sites, so their model is not driven by invalid traffic. 

“Many MFA sites use plagiarised or AI-generated content instead to engage with users.

“Our findings, corroborated with research conducted by Jounce Media and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), show that advertising on MFA sites does not drive meaningful campaign results, like conversions and brand lift, and wastes ad spend.”

“Typically, MFA sites feature low-quality content created solely to serve ads. They are optimised to perform well against traditional verification metrics, such as viewability. 

“If you have ever clicked on a link to an article with a clickbait headline such as ‘Shocking secrets of the pharaohs!’ or ‘You won’t believe how much these actors make!’ and been redirected to a page littered with ads, you’ve visited a made-for-advertising (MFA) site.

“MFA sites are created with the singular aim of diverting ad spending from genuine publishers. These sites generally include fake news, conspiracy theories, or dubious links. These sites utilise strategies like pop-up ads, auto-play videos, and invasive placements to maximise earnings for the site owner.”

Imran Masood, country manager ANZ at DoubleVerify, which authenticates media quality and performance for brands, says MFA websites typically have substantial traffic originating from social channels or native ads, a prevalence of duplicated, outdated, or automatically generated content, limited transparency and use of generic templates.

Unlike websites flagged for Ad Impression Fraud, the majority of the regular traffic on MFA sites consists of real human users, not automated bots.

Masood says eliminating MFA sites from programmatic marketplaces is challenging. 

“Inclusion lists have their limitations as they can be infiltrated by MFA sites if marketers are not careful in deciding on the right metrics and criteria to define MFA sites,” says Masood. 

“While a standard set of parameters serves as a good starting point, it is often difficult to trace the source and quality of traffic accurately. This causes agencies to struggle with differentiating MFA sites from legitimate traffic sources. 

“Agencies should be wary of focusing solely on certain metrics that MFA sites boost - such as high viewability and high completion rates -  in order to prevent inclusion of such websites during the curation of a marketplace and avoid purchasing ads on them.” 

Investment bank Jefferies, in a note to clients, says there has been a rise in the amount of web auctions that are happening on Made for Advertising websites over the last three years.

These sites are low-quality supply sources designed to maximise ad revenue.  

Jefferies was briefed by Chris Kane, the founder of Jounce Media which advises advertisers, publishers and technology providers on programmatic advertising.

Jounce studies and monitors about a million websites, a half a million mobile apps, and 50,000 CTV apps, each of which gets monetised through a set of direct and indirect supply chains.

“Rebroadcasting cheap reach made for advertising and premium rebroadcasting in short is the bad kind of reselling,” Chris Kane says. “Cheap reach is chronically non-viewable.”

He gives the example of a person on a real premium site such as CNN reading a high quality piece of content. 

“In this case, let's say it's about Wimbledon, reaching the end of that article and finding a variety of clickbait links, content recommendations, widgets,” he says. 

“Some of them are just irresistible. You click on the link, you need to know about the things that are normal in Japan, but strange elsewhere. And so you click on that link and a second tab opens in your browser.”

The content recommendation site gets paid and a bit goes back to the original content owner, in this case CNN.

This new tab on the browser has the clickbait content, surrounded with high density auto refreshing display ads. The Made for Advertising site soon gets back, and more, what it paid to the referring site.

“And if you do that aggressively enough, you as a publisher can capture an arbitrage opportunity,” Kane says. You can generate a page for 5 cents and monetise it for more than 5 cents.

“And if that math works, you rinse and repeat and do it over and over again.”

He says the widgets only make up a small piece of referrals for MAS. More than three-quarters of page views that happen on made for advertising publishers were the result of ads running on social media platforms, primarily Facebook.

But why do brands keep buying? Because it looks good and it’s cheap. But these sites rarely deliver quality leads or sales.

Research by DeepSee says MAS offer little with low-quality content, bad design, poor usability, high ad densities, rapid ad refresh rates and are primary visited inorganically through clickbait, clickjacking, paid traffic and other nefarious paths.

“These fraudulent pages often host low-quality or stolen content to appear more legitimate. Combine that with a website that is overloaded with advertisements jockeying for position in front of the user, and you end up with a chaotic and unpleasant viewing experience for anyone visiting the page,” says DeepSee, which also works with Jounce Media.

“Placement on these sites is often relatively inexpensive, making it an attractive option for advertisers looking to get the greatest number of impressions out of their budget. These pages boast high view counts and completion rates due to non-stop ads but, unfortunately, the organic traffic to these websites is usually minuscule and inconsequential.”

Another reason these sites keep attracting money is that the metrics can look good.

Kane at Jounce Media says research found viewability was higher for both display and video with the cost per viewable impression for display and video 30 to 40% more attractive on made for advertising sites than on the rest of the web.

“And so made for advertising inventory continues to grow as there's demand to support it,” he says.

But brands beware.  DeepSee says these sites are designed to trick measurement, exploit metrics and sell ad slots. 

“And what we were, what we know now is that the arbitrage opportunity is best when demand is richest and demand is richest at the end of each calendar year when marketers are pushing those holiday budgets and year end budgets and then demand pulls back in January of each year,” says Chris Kane. 

“We all know this experience campaigns launch late, they're smaller budgets in January, and so the arbitrage math is less attractive in January of each year. As a consequence of that made for advertising, publishers buy less paid traffic and occupy a smaller portion of the bid stream.”

On a sales conversions score, Kane says the 10 lowest indexing publishers is a who's who of made for advertising publishers where cost per viewable impression cost per completed video view might be extremely attractive, but the likelihood of those ads being attributed with driving a sale is almost impossibly low.

And MFA sites emit a disproportionate amount of carbon than other domains, according to  June Cheung, head of JAPAC at Scope3, which has a mission to  decarbonise media and advertising.

“On average MFA inventory has 26.4% higher emissions, Cheung says. “It is also a waste of advertiser money.”

Ebiquity and Scope3 conducted a joint study into more than US $375 million of digital advertising spend for 116 billion  display ad impressions from brand advertisers across 11 markets. It found 15.3% of advertising spend is wasted on inventory that generates no value to their business while generating excessive amounts of CO2 emissions.

The same study also showed reallocating investment to high quality journalism can boost ad effectiveness and lower emissions. gCO2PM, short for gCO2ePM, or grams of CO2e (carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gases) emissions per 1000 advertising impressions on Trusted News Websites’ is 52% lower than on MFA websites, creating a strong case for brands to cease wasteful MFA spend.

“Because the advertising industry can now quantify carbon emissions across websites, markets and categories of media, we believe gCO2PM should be widely adopted as a core metric,” says Cheung.

“It should be used to influence decision-making and lead technology and media partners to optimise for sustainability. This would ultimately help de-fund MFA sites as their ‘supply’ of ads would be cut-off.”

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