by Andrew Casale (VP Strategy)
A growing trend is brewing in the digital publishing world where brand new sites that no one has ever heard of are posting astronomically high numbers of unique visitors per month. Popping up in various exchanges on a seemingly daily basis, the sites appear to be running ads from major brands, but these sites are obviously questionable to any person that might accidentally stumble upon them. They tend to have generic domain names, aggregate all of their content, lack any kind of corporate or social media presence, and focus on high value vertical markets like automotive, home & leisure and career building. There are a variety of methods used to fraudulently “create” traffic, allowing bad actor sites to give the impression that they are valuable to brands. This type of fraud leads to the theft of brand advertiser dollars, takes money away from reputable publishers, and needs to stop for the sake of both the digital publishing industry and the health of the digital advertising ecosystem.
Hundreds of sites have popped up over the last year in this format, and when one shuts down, another takes its place. This is creating a problem for buyers who find themselves chasing a moving target. And so without having to sift through every site available, how can ad buyers more easily qualify sites? My advice on one way to help expose this kind of fraud is to examine the registration date of a site’s domain.
On our platform we vet all sites that request to make their impressions available through our exchange thoroughly and far in advance. This gives us a unique looking glass into the good, the bad, and the ugly. And so without naming names, let’s take a look at the statistics from two bad actor sites that we found. The first is a job listings site, with a domain registration date of June 2012. The site had no audience in August 2012 yet two months later in October 2012 it was posting 400,000 unique users. Two months later, an auto news site with a registration date of December 2011 clocked in just over three million unique monthly users. Unless you’ve spotted these sites in your traffic reports and questioned them for being there, I guarantee that you have never heard of them, let alone visited them.
Those responsible for this activity all tend to follow the same pattern; they’ll register a domain, and within a handful of months the domain’s traffic skyrockets. To show how bizarre this pattern really is, let’s examine the rise of Pinterest.
Pinterest sets the bar high as today’s best example of an incredible rise to digital fame. After passing the 10 million unique monthly users milestone, Pinterest was crowned as being the fastest growing standalone site ever by comScore. According to comScore, Pinterest was able to leap from 418,000 unique monthly users in May 2011 to 11.7 million in January 2012.
To point out again just how suspicious these bad actor sites are, Pinterest registered its domain name in December 2009, a few years before anyone knew how addictive pinning images would be. As is typical with most new online ventures an idea is first hatched, a domain is purchased, site development begins, then a beta test, then a public opening, and over a stretch of time a loyal audience is built and grows. This organic process generally takes anywhere from six months to a year or longer. In the case of Pinterest, it was started as an idea in 2009, development commenced later that year, and a closed beta was conducted in March of 2010. Nine months after launch it had gained its first 10,000 users! That’s a far cry from 3MM users in 2 months.
A red flag should and generally would immediately go up to a buyer when they find themselves advertising to a significant degree on a site they’ve never heard of, one that is eclipsing the growth rate of Pinterest, has nearly the same unique monthly users as say Business Week or Rolling Stone, yet was registered a mere few months ago.
The cost of ad space, audience/intent, and unique reach are three of the key ingredients that help determine what impressions to buy. The benefits to working in a programmatic environment and using real time bidding as a method of purchasing digital advertising is that the buyers can automate the purchasing process and place ads on sites that fill the criteria they are looking for, ensuring that they are getting the best value for their ad spend at incredible scale. The trouble is all three of these variables can also be exploited when bad actors price themselves at a discount, poison cookies to create the appearance of high value audience, and generate reams of scale out of thin air.
Humans can spot obvious differences between a fraudulent site and a reputable publisher, but machines can’t as easily because they are only going by the numbers. So in my view we need to be feeding the machines more data that can help them better analyze the options available, and this is where the registration date of a domain name comes into play. There should be a maximum allowable tolerance of a media budget that can be directed towards a site that is new. And while this method is by no means perfect – you might say hold back on buying more of the next big thing – it will for the time being help keep this issue at bay. Or at least help surface the gravity of this issue. And if nothing else, as a buyer if you push a larger share of your budget towards sites with more established history, you will likely find yourself in better company.