Cam Dinnie (above), operations director at Kargo APAC, reflects on the growing scourge of made-for-advertising websites that suck funding away from deserving publications and waste client ad dollars.
There’s a new TLA (“three letter acronym”) that’s crept into a lot of media buying conversations lately — MFA. Have you ever clicked on an enticing headline, hoping to find valuable content, only to be bombarded with a barrage of ads and fake stories? This frustrating experience has become all too common, and it can be attributed to the increase in Made-for-Advertising (MFA) websites.
To understand the challenge posed by MFA websites, we need to define what constitutes MFA. MFA is a combination of paid traffic, clickbait traffic and other incentivised traffic that is engineered to create ad impressions, and ultimately generate revenue. New sites pop up virtually overnight with millions of impressions, sucking up ad dollars and hurting campaign performance.
MFA websites operate on a simple principle: arbitrage. They focus on generating traffic, often from search engines and social media platforms. Their goal is to attract traffic at a lower cost than they can make by selling ad space. They achieve this by creating filler content, crafting clickbait headlines, interlinking their network of websites, and producing multi-page articles, all aimed at increasing the number of display and video ads presented to users.
MFA Driving Performance
According to research by Ebiquity, MFA websites appear enticing due to their high viewability rates, reaching 77 per cent on average compared to the World Federation of Advertisers’ digital media benchmark of 63 per cent. These sites also offer a CPM 30 per cent to 40 per cent lower than non-MFA websites. In short, they perform “well “when viewed against basic campaign metrics.
However, despite high viewability, MFA websites deliver low-intent click-throughs, often resulting in wasted ad spend. The content and user experience on these sites are far below what advertisers would typically expect. Users are bombarded with ads, subjected to confusing navigation buttons, and exposed to deceptive tactics—all with the sole purpose of maximising ad impressions, not driving real campaign outcomes.
How Menacing are MFA SiteS?
Media analytics ad-tech firm Ebiquity, in partnership with programmatic research firms Jounce Media and DeepSee, found US$115 million (AU$178 million) in ad spend went toward spammy, made-for-advertising (MFA) sites — that’s 7.8 per cent of the programmatic budget globally and 9.8 per cent in the US. The sample was drawn from $1.47 billion (AU$2.29 billion) spent by 42 Ebiquity clients between January 2020 to March 2022.
MFA sites are capturing ad budgets at the expense of premium publishers. Ad dollars that would otherwise be spent across premium, professionally curated sites are directed towards MFA sites. So not only are ad budgets wasted but publishers, and ultimately, users suffer.
In recent efforts to thwart MFA activity, companies have been implementing new safeguards. The Media Rating Council (MRC) published the MRC IVT 2.0 Standards in June 2020. One of the tenets of the new standard was for DSPs to provide buyers with reporting information about whether publisher traffic is purchased or not.
DV360 is in the midst of updating its RTB spec to allow publishers to pass organic/non-organic flags in the bidstream. Once it hits critical mass and has “seen enough,” you bet it will be adjusting the way it bids.
Additionally, The Trade Desk started to push back on MFA publishers and over the past few months has already blocked multiple MFA sites and continues to block more and more daily. Jud Spencer of The Trade Desk, recently tweeted: “Publishers, your traffic sourcing practices permanently impact your reputation. If you are doing any form of ad-arbitrage or undisclosed rewarded traffic you are going to find it very difficult to transact on our platform.”
Looking for Signs of MFA
The Trade Desk is starting the conversation, but brands need to do their part and think about their holistic approach to inventory across all of their partners. Brands can and should become aware of the signs of MFA sites and play a more active role by creating media buying requirements that minimise exposure. Obviously, any site that is suddenly a top-volume site that no one has ever heard of is suspect. Real publisher sites build up their user base over months, years, and even decades. Sure, a huge story, a great social media campaign, or the launch of a hit show can spike traffic on a site. But it’s important to investigate. More often than not, a no-name site that’s consistently drawing millions of views without any good reason is suspicious.
Understanding how pageviews are generated by publishers can be critical in helping buyers track for MFA and better prioritise their media buys. Buyers can do their due diligence by evaluating publishers’ inorganic traffic through a simple domain report. While inorganic traffic can be valuable, understanding the percentage of a publisher’s traffic that is inorganic is a good idea. A very high percentage of inorganic or paid traffic can point to trouble.
Buyers can look at a site’s UTM parameters (the little pieces of data that publishers add to their URLs to see where different traffic comes from) that publishers use to track ROI on their paid traffic efforts. Through this UTM string, publishers commonly pass the source (more often than not, a recommendation vendor or social network) as well as the campaign ID that will match back up to revenue on the back end.
In one instance, when we looked at this website’s UTM parameters, we saw that almost 99 per cent of the site’s traffic was from paid (i.e. inorganic) sources — a clear signal the site is pushing performance campaigns to generate views.
Measuring the Right Metrics
To be fair, many large, high-quality publishers generate traffic using tactics that aren’t completely different from MFA sites. The difference is that they have built-in social audiences who are engaged with the brand and don’t need to spend large sums of money just to drive traffic to a subpar article. They also have great content and a goal of engaging users once they get on the page. Most MFA sites don’t have the same standards. The majority of MFA visitors don’t actually hang around, and MFA sites tend to have huge drop-off in traffic after the first-page load. Brands can use attention metrics and other deeper insights to make sure their dollars go to good traffic. While impressions and viewability won’t necessarily pick up on MFA traffic, any metrics that measure activity past the first second or two should do the trick.
Brands can set an attention requirement for more than two seconds, look at click and conversion data, and even test a site by bidding for impressions on the second-page load, so that they aren’t the first ad someone sees on the site. If there are very few second-page loads, chances are that the site isn’t creating a lot of value for visitors.
Be selective about who you partner with and where you buy inventory. A number of SSPs, like Kargo, have excelled in addressing MFA websites, emphasising a premium approach over scale. In recent Jounce Media research, Kargo stood out as the sole major SSP with 100 per cent premium inventory, certified as MFA-free. This certification assures advertisers of a brand-safe environment, enhancing ROI and precision. While this approach may not fit all SSPs, it showcases a quality-first model that benefits advertisers and publishers.
Putting In the Work
There are many ways to attack this epidemic for buyers, publishers and broader supply chain of SSPs and DSPs. Once a buyer has a hit list of the sites they want to investigate further, it’s time to ask the publisher the hard questions:
- What are the traffic sources?
- Can they provide GA screenshots to prove where the traffic originates from?
- Where do they land on the Jounce RTB Supply Path Benchmarking Report?
Brands want their ads to be adjacent to quality content, and they want their audiences to be engaged when they spend money on an ad impression. Right now, MFA is getting in the way of those goals. A more proactive stance against MFA will ensure that more partners prioritise organic traffic and minimise the amount of media budget wasted there.
As a publisher, be selective about the partners you work with. Make sure your inventory and hard-earned audiences are not positioned within the same exchange environment as these MFA sites. Ask your SSP partners about their inventory quality policies and approach, including, do they support and enable these MFA sites? Do their policies and procedures reflect the type of environment you would want your inventory circulated then make a deliberate decision on who you partner with.
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