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The Six Companies Fueling an Online Ad Crisis

Suspect traffic vendors

Illustration: Jacob Thomas

As the controversy swirls over publishers selling advertisers bogus nonhuman traffic, many of the accused have screamed, “It wasn’t me! We bought bad traffic from somebody else!”

So, who are these traffic dealers? At Adweek’s request, close to a dozen industry experts—representing publishers, ad buyers, DSP and other ad tech execs—have identified six companies that they believe may be selling low-quality, potentially bot-generated traffic—starting at half a penny a click. They are AdOn, Adknowledge, eZanga, Jema Media, MGID and BlueLink Marketing.

One insider shared multiple URLs for bot-filled sites featuring AdOn as a traffic source. According to analytics generated by the firm SimilarWeb, eZanga and BlueLink are among the biggest referrers of traffic to Brightline Media’s InteriorComplex.com and CelebrityBabyCraze.com, as well as Bluefin Media’s GossipCenter—all bot-fueled sites identified in Adweek’s ongoing investigation. (It’s unclear whether these sites know where their traffic comes from.)

Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, who has tracked Web fraud for years, has cited Adknowledge for suspicious behavior in 21 different reports for his clients last year and six more this year. He’s flagged AdOn 10 times.

“Certainly AdOn, Adknowledge, Jema and eZanga sell plenty of non-user-initiated traffic, such as adware, popups, forced visits and the like,” he said. For most advertisers, this isn’t what they’re looking for. It’s the very opposite of targeted traffic.”

Edelman walked Adweek through an example of a site with ties to bots, Smartmomstyle.com, that received traffic from Jema and Adknowledge. In one case, the entire site’s home page, ads and all, was delivered to users within an iFrame—that is, the entire site was rendered invisibly as a user visited another site.

“Of course the advertisers and networks agreed to buy this traffic in anticipation of users being able to see the ads, click to visit advertisers’ sites, make purchases, etc.  None of that was possible here,” said Edelman.

Despite that example, the most infamous vendor of the bunch is AdOn, which last year was acquired by the British Web video firm Blinkx (which according to published reports has sold non-viewable ads in the past). “AdOn is just about the worst,” said one publisher victimized by bots.

“They are notorious for having the worst quality traffic in the industry,” said another publisher. “We worked with them very briefly several years back and dropped them immediately once we saw the overall quality. Just crazy traffic patterns, wildly inconsistent ad click rates, etc.”

Yet other vendors don’t have much better reps. “Adknowledge appears to be a total scam that is generating only fake impressions, whereas MGID is a legitimate blog network that seems to be juicing the numbers, maybe through leased bots,” said a DSP exec.

To be fair, Adknowledge does have its defenders. “They seem like a real company to me,” said one exchange buyer.

Adknowledge president Marco Ilardi emphasized that point exactly, noting that the firm has offices from New York to Shanghai. “We have 300 people and have invested millions in this business. We are not this company that is out there just trying to make a buck. In fact, we want to know about it if we have any traffic issues.”

Ilardi said that Adknowledge’s traffic can start at one-third of a cent but can run as high as 15 cents.

Illustration: Jacob Thomas

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