A new study from Ebiquity has found that almost 10% of programmatic ad spend in the US goes to low-quality, low-value websites designed to trick advertisers. The study analysed data from over 1,000 websites and found that 9.6% of ad spend went to sites with “ad fraud” or “non-human traffic” issues. Ebiquity estimates that this could cost advertisers up to $1.6 billion this year. The problem of ad fraud has been increasing in recent years as more and more advertisers move their spending into programmatic channels. However, Ebiquity’s study is one of the first to quantify the scale of the problem. The findings should serve as a wake-up call for advertisers, who need to be more careful about where their ads are being placed.
Between January 2020 and March 2022, Ebiquity found at least $115m was ‘wasted’ on MFA sites. That’s about 7.8% of their programmatic budget globally and 9.8% in the US. MFA sites are defined as those with little to no original content, little to no editorial oversight, and whose primary purpose is to generate revenue from advertising. While MFA sites are not necessarily fraudulent, they often provide a poor user experience and offer little value to advertisers. The findings from Ebiquity’s research underscore the need for brands to carefully consider where their programmatic ad spend is going and ensure that it is aligning with their business objectives.
MFA websites are a dime a dozen on the internet. They’re easy to spot, with their flashy headlines and abundance of ad banners. But what are they, and why are they so prevalent?
MFA stands for “made for advertising.” These websites are created solely for the purpose of ad arbitrage, which is the practice of making more money from ads than it costs to acquire the visitors in the first place. In other words, the publishers attempt to generate more revenue from a visitor clicking on ads on their website than it took them to acquire the visitor in the first place.
MFA websites typically provide click-bait headlines with low-quality content and an extremely large (almost abusive) amount of ad banners on page. This barrage of ads can be overwhelming and off-putting to users, but it’s all part of the MFA strategy. The thinking is that if they can get just a small percentage of visitors to click on an ad, they’ll still come out ahead.
According to the report, “Made For Advertising” is a class of ad-supported websites that thrive on the opacity of the programmatic advertising supply chain. Properties like 247mirror.com, definition.org, and parentinfluence.com bombard users with auto-refreshing display ads and auto-playing video ads, creating an experience that any rational marketer would avoid.
Also, many of the ads aren’t visible for a variety of reasons, but mainly on purpose to defraud advertisers. Ads that aren’t visible to the human eye are called “ghost ads,” and they’re a growing problem on the internet. Ghost ads are stacked beneath other ads or loaded inside a 1×1 iframe pixel, making them impossible to see. They can also be auto-refreshed at a very high rate, serving more impressions without the user ever knowing.
While browsing some of these clickbait sites, which have names like Adventure Crunch and It’s The Vibe, the website, Marketing Brew found ads for Nike, CVS, Disney, JetBlue, Best Buy, and other blue-chip brands.
While programmatic advertising is designed to make it easy for brands to show up on websites, many marketers are unaware of how the system works. Programmatic advertising relies on algorithms to place ads on websites, and the algorithms are often opaque. As a result, brands may not know where their ads are being placed. This can be problematic, as some programmatic ad networks include sites that are of questionable reputation.
Ok, you’re asking me: Why are these sites on programmatic exchanges?
Simply, most of the exchanges like the extra money and this provides them often with tons of cheap inventory that is highly profitable. It’s obviously a huge scam and shouldn’t be allowed – there’s little or no value.
Agencies should make it clear that this is fraud, and if their advertising is found on those types of sites, it means the buy is out. They need to be more proactive in protecting their client base, and invest in resources to prevent this.
One way to do this is to limit the placement of ads to certain categories or publishers. Another is to work with a programmatic platform that has strict quality controls in place – and this is limited to just a few larger ones.