Have you ever clicked on a link to an article with a clickbait-y headline such as “Shocking secrets of the pharaohs!” or “You won’t believe how much these actors make!” and been redirected to a page littered with ads? If so, you’ve visited a made-for-advertising (MFA) site.
MFA sites have existed since the advent of programmatic advertising and have historically been referred to as “clickbait sites” or “ad farms.” Unlike premium ad-supported sites with quality journalism, MFA sites exist solely to serve ads. MFA sites are low quality sites with a terrible user experience, which reflects poorly upon the brands that advertise on them. Research from Jounce Media and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has shown that advertising on MFA sites doesn’t drive meaningful campaign results, like conversions and brand lift, and is a waste of ad spend.
Biometric research conducted by IAS, The Ripple Effect, highlights the risk for brands advertising on low quality sites:
- 81% of U.S. consumers find it annoying when a brand appears next to low quality content
- Of those consumers, 52% feel less favorably toward a brand that does this
- 62% will stop using the brand altogether if its ads appear adjacent to low quality content
Why do MFA sites exist?
Simply put, MFA sites make their publishers a lot of money. MFA publishers practice arbitrage advertising—they place ads across content recommendation platforms on a pay-per-click basis and monetize the resulting traffic by serving a ton of ads. It’s a very simple and effective model, and completely legal.
MFA site operators, for the most part, are not purchasing bot traffic. Real people are visiting these sites, so their model is not driven by invalid traffic. Many MFA sites use plagiarized or AI-generated content instead to engage with users.
How have MFA sites avoided detection?
MFA sites have flown under the radar for years because they’re highly optimized and purpose-built to perform well against traditional ad verification metrics—especially viewability. MFA sites tend to be fraud-free, brand safe, contextually relevant, and, given they stack ad placements above-the-fold, have above average viewability rates.
In an effort to avoid detection, MFA sites take unusual steps not taken by premium publishers. For example, the look-and-feel of the site can be completely different to a visitor depending on how they got to the site. If the visitor was directed to the site after clicking on a link promoted by a content recommendation platform, they’ll see the site littered with ads. However, if the user visits the site directly, they will see very few ads, and sometimes no ads on the homepage. MFA publishers do this to pass audits when partners inspect the quality of their sites.
MFA sites are not operated in silos, they are operated in large, coordinated networks. A publisher will own many MFA sites and will rotate traffic across their sites. They will also share content across these sites. Once the publisher notices a decrease in bidding activity on a given site (due to buyers putting the site on exclusion lists), they will move traffic to another site. They may even temporarily shut down the site and relaunch it again in the future.
It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.
What are the qualities and attributes of MFA sites?
The ANA, along with the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), recently published a list of characteristics associated with MFA sites:
- High ad-to-content ratio
- Usually at least twice the Internet average, e.g., ad-to-content ratio of more than 30% for desktop
- Rapidly auto-refreshing ad placements
- Numerous refreshing banner ads
- Autoplay video ads flood the site
- Slide shows forcing visitors to click through multiple pages to access content, with multiple ads
- High percentage of paid traffic sourcing
- MFA publishers often have little-to-no organic audience and are instead highly dependent on visits sourced from clickbait ads that run on social networks, content recommendations platforms, and even on the websites of reputable publishers. Buying paid traffic is the primary cost driver of operating an MFA business. Overcoming paid traffic acquisition costs requires MFA publishers to engage in aggressive monetization practices and arbitrage
- Generic content (non-editorial or templated, low-quality content)
- Often syndicated, dated and non-unique (articles regurgitated)
- Usually poorly designed, templated website designs
How can IAS help?
IAS’s new MFA measurement product leverages AI to identify MFA sites. It supports the definition above, and goes beyond this list of characteristics to effectively identify MFA sites.
The IAS MFA product completed alpha testing in early October 2023, and is available now as a beta measurement offering for select customers. General availability is expected to expand to all customers in early 2024.
For more information, check out our press release and reach out to your IAS representative.