Suspicious Web Domains Cost Online Ad Business $400m per Year

Full of hot air

Photos: Joshua Scott

If your therapist thinks you have trust issues, you might just work in online advertising.

That’s because it’s getting harder and harder to know what’s real and what isn’t on the Web. And if you don’t believe in ghosts, maybe you should.

On March 19, published a story titled “Meet the Most Suspect Publishers on the Web.” In the piece, we brought to light the issue of so-called “ghost sites,” seemingly innocuous content pages responsible for massive amounts of traffic on various ad exchanges but exhibiting little evidence of actual human audiences. Upon further examination, many of the sites we uncovered, including Alphabird’s and Precision Media’s, contained little in the way of substantive content.

A large number of the sites in question are suspected of getting huge chunks of traffic from bots—that is, nonhuman traffic delivered by machines designed to mimic users and inflate audience and traffic numbers for publishers while stealing from advertisers.

In fact, as our investigation was coming to a head, a British company,, dropped a bombshell: A botnet dubbed Chameleon had infected more than 200 Web domains, many of which corresponded with the sites Adweek had been examining. Spider believes Chameleon is costing the industry $6 million a month.

As it turns out, we may have just scratched the surface.

Since our initial story, numerous industry sources have stepped forward to help us unearth still more suspect publishers. Some have blamed traffic vendors or affiliate brokers for peddling bogus traffic, implying that certain questionable publishers could be innocent. That has only served to muddle the picture, and further erode the industry’s trust.

Since our story, the data-driven ad targeting firm Media6Degrees (m6d) has noticed 500-plus dicey new sites popping up on various exchanges—and collectively, 40.5 million bid requests. One site, says Alec Greenberg, vp, media operations at m6d, exhibits more than 50 percent user overlap with 463 other known exchange pubs. “I’m pretty sure that’s a new record for us,” he says.

Another buyer estimates that hundreds of millions of bogus impressions have been traded on ad exchanges in the weeks since our story. “Put another way, at least 15 to 20 percent of all real-time bid requests are probably fraudulent in some way,” he says.

Seni Thomas, CEO of Heights Media (previously known as Audience Amplify, a heavy exchange buyer that we reported on in our original story), says he and his team have since identified a new group of suspicious publishers—sites that have suddenly seen their exchange traffic soar by 10 million to 80 million impressions per day. It seems the botnet may have shifted.

The social ad data firm RadiumOne, which also spends a lot of time in the exchange world, estimates that ghost publishers, shady Web crooks and their bot-employing associates are stealing a staggering $400 million a year from the online ad business.

Experts say it’s impossible to catch all the bad guys, especially since many are said to originate from outside the U.S. (India, Israel, Eastern Europe). Containment is the more realistic goal.

Following are more suspicious publishers we have homed in on:

This video site is backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, the venture capital firm behind Twitter, Path, Zynga and others. Yet according to numerous sources, including Radium-One, Mevio is suspected of being flooded with bot traffic. It also shares huge portions of its traffic with other sites. Mevio officials were unavailable for comment.

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