Exposing a vampire website sucking ad dollars for years while no-one noticed

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 6 May 2024
Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya via Unsplash

The advertising world has just experienced a big gotcha moment, a scam so audacious and running for so long that it has left trust a mangled wreck and many speechless, or at least not wanting to comment.

A mirror website, in a play sometimes called domain spoofing, repurposed quality content found on a major publisher's site, forbes.com, and diverted millions in advertising dollars over many years while no-one noticed.

The blowback on this latest example of a made for advertising (MAS) site touches all points of the digital ad ecosystem, including media agencies and a string of programmatic platforms whose business it is to match advertisers with content.  

Insiders in Australia say the industry must stay vigilant to prevent such a large scale siphoning like this happening here. 

John Vlasakakis, the co-founder of Australian agency Next&Co, the AdNews Small Agency of the Year, who creates regular reports on ad wastage, said the Forbes site ran for at least seven years. 

“How can that go unnoticed?” he said.

“It’s inexcusable. Forbes should have checked for these copycat sites out there to see who is cloning their content and take action. Software exists to detect this and check it regularly.

“There are multiple clone/copy sites out there. Even our site was cloned in Georgia and we had to get international lawyers to get the site taken down.”

He recommends paying a few hundred dollars a month for software which scans the web to detect these sites. “It’s worth every penny,” he said.

In the latest case, advertising dollars went to a dark mirror, or ghost, of Forbes.com where ads, meant for the main publisher site, were served in stacks, recording views when no-one could possibly have given the commercials much attention.

Original Forbes articles were re-jigged into slide shows and other formats to enhance impressions. Audience was built through paid traffic acquisition sites including Taboola and Outbrain.

An investigation found the site, ww3.forbes.com, had been for years attracting advertising, via programmatic platforms, from major brands including Disney, car maker Ford and Microsoft.

A key, and so far unanswered, question is: Who got the ad dollars? 

The alternate site shut after Forbes was contacted by The Wall Street Journal, according to the financial news site.

Brands, or their media agencies, had no idea ads supposed to be displayed on Forbes.com ended up on the ghost site. 

Quality and transparency platform Adalytics found that a reader viewing an article on the normal publisher website would see three to ten ads in one article. On the www3 variant, a reader would be served 200 plus ad impressions in a single page view session. 

One consumer was shown 27 New York Times subscription ads and 201+ ads in total while viewing a 52 slide slideshow on the www3 subdomain. The New York Times paid an effective cumulative CPM of $60.39 to serve ads to that one consumer.

"Forbes contacted Adalytics on March 20, 2024, after Forbes itself was contacted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ)," said Adalytics. 

"Several days later, Adalytics and other analysts could no longer observe any Outbrain ads directing audience traffic to the 'www3.' subdomain of Forbes.com."

The ghost site has been taken down but an archived video recording can be viewed HERE and HERE.

The Forbes case is just one example. Almost a quarter (23%) of the total open web programmatic media investment by marketers is wasted, according to research, the Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study, by the US advertising industry's oldest trade association, ANA.

Gai Le Roy, CEO of IAB Australia, agrees the Forbes situation is possible in Australia.

“The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is less likely in the same way,” she said.

“The Australian digital advertising ecosystem is obviously smaller than the US with more local industry awareness of publisher offerings and a higher level of scrutiny on quality from local buyers.”

Le Roy points to the IAB’s Ad Fraud Handbook released last year.

“Buyers of digital inventory need to ensure they have processes and resources allocated to minimising inclusion of any unwanted and undesirable sites in their buys,” she said.

“Once the money stops flowing it removes the incentive for the development of these sites.”

Index Exchange, a programmatic ad marketplace for media owners and marketers, strictly prohibits made for advertising (MFA) sites.

“We’ve conducted thorough audits over the last two years, employing both automated and human-vetting methods to remove these sites,” said Adele Wieser, regional managing director, APAC, Index Exchange.

“We leverage shared intelligence between industry groups like Jounce (Media) and Scope3 to validate our methodology in removing MFA but understand that not all reports use the same methodology.  These gaps demonstrate the need for industry standardisation in the definition. 

“While we request media owners to remove us from their ads.txt files when we terminate them, some may be slow to update these files leading to inaccurate and out of date information. We continue to conduct regular audits and terminate MFA sites when they are found on our exchange. 

“If a new MFA site (like Forbes’ alternative version) were to find its way on our exchange, it would be terminated immediately. We believe that is a fundamental difference between us and our peers.”

Justin Ladmore, managing director, media, at Enigma has implemented verification processes and stringent vetting of the domains where ads are placed.

“We only partner with trusted ad tech vendors with a proven track record of ethical operations, transparency and use tech to track and verify ad placement URLs,” he said.

“Outside of the tech and the tools we use it really comes down to humans. You need to build a culture of ethical media buying within your agency. 

“We prioritise these practices within the agency early on in our media academy, training our staff on media ethics, clear policies about handling suspected fraud, processes to identify it and how to report on unethical practices without fear.”

Danny Molyneux, general manager, Claxon, said building direct relationships with publishers can also help reduce reliance on opaque ad networks. 

“Regular monitoring of ad performance metrics will help detect anomalies or discrepancies in placements, ensuring effectiveness,” he said.

“Clear contractual agreements with publishers and ad networks should define placement terms and verification processes. 

“These measures collectively safeguard advertising investments and foster trust with target audiences, aligning campaigns with intended audiences and maximising ROI while minimising risks associated with fraudulent or unintended placements.” 

Angus Beven, performance executive, The Media Store, said the frustrating part of this problem is that even with ad verification tech widely adopted, advertisers were still displaying ads on this ghost website for years, undetected. 

“This indicates the need for not only innovation in the ad verification space, but adjustments from a trading sense,” said Beven.

“To combat running against MFA and fraudulent inventory, as an agency we’re starting to move towards site inclusion lists, rather than exclusion, to run our display ads only on vetted, trusted domains.”

Alfie Lagos, director at Melbourne digital agency Lexlab, said the Forbes issue isn’t just a singular case of mismanagement or oversight.

“It’s indicative of a broader, more pervasive issue in our industry - transparency,” said Lagos.

The issue highlights how easily trust can be eroded in the digital ecosystem.

“Deceptive ad placements like these significantly undermine brand credibility and ultimately advertising effectiveness,” said Lagos.

“When ads are relegated to sites engineered for maximum exposure rather than genuine engagement, brands risk association with low-quality content, damaging their reputation. 

“Such placements typically yield poor user engagement and inefficient ad spend, where perceived visibility does not translate into valuable exposure, leading to diminished ROI. 

“This not only erodes trust between advertisers and publishers but also between brands and consumers, potentially harming long-term brand loyalty.

“In response to this and similar cases, it’s essential for the industry to advocate for and implement robust measures against such deceptive practices. We owe it to our clients and to the integrity of digital advertising to ensure that every ad dollar spent is an investment in genuine, valuable audience engagement.”

Lagos recommends programmatic traders use inclusion and exclusion site lists.

Lexlab maintains an updated made for advertising (MFA) site exclusion list, which helps avoid known sites and ensures ads are displayed in contexts that match client expectations. 

“As industry professionals, we need to champion the cause of transparency and Accountability,” Lagos  said.

“It’s not just about avoiding MFA sites; it’s about fostering an environment where every participant in the digital advertising chain - from publishers to advertisers-upholds the highest standards.

“We must push beyond the allure of superficial efficiency metrics that have historically masked quality and effectiveness issues. Instead, our focus should be on meaningful metrics like viewability, engagement, and genuine human interactions.” 

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