This past spring, a site called Freestreams.com was one of the fastest growing video properties on the Web. It had come from out of nowhere to reach 7 million unique users a month. Suddenly Freestreams was popping up on the top video ad exchanges—first a few hundred thousand impressions a month, then over 11 million a day in May, per sources.
The question is, how does a low-profile website that bills itself as a corporate information hub for a “software and services” firm for radio and TV stations suddenly get so big? How does a site that simply lists various TV and radio stations, exhibits a design straight out of the 1990s, houses a sports channel featuring Jeremy Lin in a Knicks uniform, and delivers autoplay video featuring cover images of random spaghetti westerns, attract so many viewers so fast?
Well, here’s one way Freestreams seems to be boosting its traffic. On sites like Vodly.to, where fans can find links to lots of movies currently in theaters (like, say, Despicable Me 2 or Pacific Rim), there are tons of Web ads hidden within the fabric of the page. It's the old (or new) hidden banner trick. When users click on the site itself (not on a banner or a piece of content but on a blank part of its Web page) they inadvertently click on an ad that triggers a pop up.
Sometimes those pop ups implore a user to download the latest version of Flash—and these ads look an awful lot like a typical software update messages from Adobe. But they’re not.
On occasion, some of these pop ups purport to be from MacKeeper, a company claiming to help users clean up their computers. These companies are not likely to be affiliated with Apple, and many Web users warn against installing their software.
In recent months, many of the pop ups served on Vodly appeared to be delivered by an ad network called Direct Rev, such as:
Others looked like this:
These sites host an iFrame containing Freestreams' URL. In other words, users accidently click on a blank space on a site delivering links to copyrighted material, and they are accidentally directed to Freestreams.com—whether they ever actually see the site or not. That’s probably not what advertisers such as Honda, American Express, Progressive Insurance, CNBC’s The Profit and Ikea—all of which delivered auto play video ads on the site—had in mind.
Certainly, it's possible that Freestreams' traffic surge can't entirely be attributed to this hidden ad tactic. But experts say it's unlikely that such rapid traffic growth could be achieved from pure organic growth means. In a recent Adweek column, Jay Miletsky, CEO of Sequel Media Group, spoke about the need for many mid sized publishers to buy Web traffic. "Great content alone won’t drive traffic," he wrote.
John Williams, CEO of Freestreams, declined to comment for this story, saying only “We are still developing our Internet radio and television software services business and we are not looking to do publicity at this time. Our platform competes with large, existing service providers and we are not ready to promote it yet.”