Questionable Web Domains Boasting Huge Traffic Numbers Could Be Costing Online Ad Industry as Much as $400 Million a Year | Adweek
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Suspicious Web Domains Cost Online Ad Business $400m per Year

Full of hot air

DevicePlanet.net and PerfectRecipes.net
Who owns these brands? It’s tough to tell. And yet, they share 50 percent of each other’s audiences. (Interestingly, Perfect Recipes is littered with ads and elaborate disclaimers regarding cookies and privacy policies.) Each boasts huge traffic, though Device Planet recently disappeared from the Internet.

Bluefin Media
On its LinkedIn page, this Perrysburg, Ohio-based company claims it is “ranked in the Top 25 companies on the Internet” and that its GossipCenter Network “is one of the Top 3 entertainment news networks on the Internet,” with more than 25 million unique visitors in the U.S. It says its “loyal visitors generate over 2 billion page views per month consuming premium content ... people spend 5 million hours/month watching video on our sites.” Meanwhile, sites like Gossipcenter.com and Celebrity-Gossip.net appear on multiple blacklists and share 40 percent of their traffic with the likes of Womenshealthbase.com and InteriorComplex.com.

And there are many more suspect sites out there. (See sidebar for a few examples.)

One might wonder whether this is simply par for the course in an online ad business that becomes more automated by the day. “Bots are part and parcel of the programmatic landscape,” RadiumOne’s Napierkowski points out. “The pirates move on. It’s really hard to catch these people.”

But who is at fault? Some blame media buyers for being negligent. Others point to middlemen involved in the online ad equation, the DSPs and supply-side platforms (SSPs) that look the other way. For example, many of the sites listed in this story are readily available via The Rubicon Project’s inventory pool.

"We need to understand that this is an industry-wide problem, not an automated advertising problem," said Rubicon CEO Frank Addante. "It affects everything, including direct sales, search and analytics. We invest many millions of dollars and have an engineering team dedicated to developing security and protection technologies to continually protect buyers and sellers. This is part of the reason we need to exist...This is not a problem that can be solved in the manual world."

Still, others maintain all this is the fault of exchanges that cannot police themselves. In our initial report, Google’s exchange was cited by many as the cleanest and safest. Yet last week, Adweek was made privy to the inventory supply available via Google’s buying platform Invite Media, and many of the most suspicious publishers were present there too, indicating that Google isn’t as vigilant as one might expect.

"We strive to maintain the highest quality standards on our Ad Exchange and in AdSense with systems honed by years of work on this front," said a Google spokesperson. "We're working to bring this same level of rigor to the newer parts of our business as well."

But nailing suspect publishers will only get you so far, according to Andrew Pancer, COO at m6d. “Avoiding botnet traffic requires more than just blacklisting suspect sites,” Pancer says. “Additional tools need to be deployed to identify infected browsers and not serve ads to them even when they are visiting legitimate sites.”

Could legitimate sites truly be innocent victims? Are they all just buying traffic from a bad guy no one will name, a traffic vendor that employs the same bot?

According to an analysis by RadiumOne, there are 1,724 Web domains that share at least 10 percent of their audience with a group of worst-offender sites uncovered by Adweek, and 254 domains have an overlap of greater than 50 percent. Among the companies showing up include Fox Networks, Glam Media, Burst Media, 2Blue Media, Gorilla Nation, AudienceTV and MyPod Studios. The botnet or nets would appear to run deep.

But while some see victims, others claim publishers must be aware of the kind of traffic they’re driving.

“They know what they are buying,” says Brian Fitzgerald, co-founder of Evolve Media. “When you buy clicks for a third of a penny per click, you know it’s not real.”

Adds Heights Media’s Thomas, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

The industry appears to have arrived at the consensus that the time to act is now. Adweek has learned that the Interactive Advertising Bureau has organized a task force to address ghost sites and fraudulent traffic. The group, called TOGI (Traffic of Good Intent), is being headed by Federated Media CEO John Battelle and m6d president Penry Price. Many believe, in fact, that a third-party seal of approval for publishers is the only chance for real change. The alternative is that the medium will continue to be dogged by the perception that it’s just not safe for brands.

“Right now you have many clients trying to get more budgets for the Web,” says Doug Chavez, vp of marketing at RadiumOne. “Brand managers don’t understand this—they rely on us and others to do the right thing. These guys go and fight for the dollars, saying, ‘Digital works.’ If we don’t fix this, this is going to come home to roost.”

Until then, it may be best to follow Fox Mulder’s lead: trust no one. Unless you want to believe in ghosts. 

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