Shawn Lim
Oct 31, 2023

Why 'made-for-advertising' websites are harmful to advertisers and how to avoid using them

A desire for low-cost advertising gave birth to made-for-advertising (MFA) websites and continues to fuel them despite efforts by agencies and verification firms to clean up automated ad platforms and curate for quality.

Why 'made-for-advertising' websites are harmful to advertisers and how to avoid using them

Made-for-advertising (MFA) websites have been allowed to exist for years within the digital ecosystem and have contributed to the disruption of user experience, devaluing content, and creating security vulnerabilities. 

Bad actors create MFA websites with the singular aim of diverting ad spending from bona fide publishers. They often feature low-quality content, which can include fake news, conspiracy theories, or dubious links.  

MFA websites employ strategies like pop-up ads, auto-play videos, and intrusive ad placements to maximise earnings for the site owner. MFA sites also make up 15% of ad spend according to the Association for National Advertisers (ANA) in the US.  

In fact, a damning report from the ANA is spurring many advertisers to reevaluate their long-standing programmatic buying practices. As more becomes known about the MFA website menace, more key industry players are scrambling to protect themselves from it.  

Source: Jounce Media

GroupM, the world's largest media agency, has enlisted the expertise of Jounce Media, a consultancy specialising in programmatic advertising, to help remove MFAs from its inclusion lists.  

Other agencies like Havas Media Group are pioneering curated marketplaces designed to meticulously filter out MFAs from quality inventory.  

In the adtech space, demand-side and supply-side platforms like Yahoo, Magnite, Pubmatic, OpenX and Sharethrough have started to take action against MFA websites.  

For example, Yahoo has worked with Jounce Media to audit its inventory for its Yahoo Backstage DSP. In contrast, OpenX worked with programmatic media consultancy MiQ to remove thousands of MFA domains from MiQ's direct deals bought from the marketplace. 

When approached by Campaign, The Trade Desk says it recommends clients not to use MFA websites, but does not stop them from using these sites should they wish to do so.

"The Trade Desk prioritises working with our publishing partners to make sure we can buy premium inventory in service of our clients. Our platform and key partnerships ensure that our clients do not advertise on MFA sites, unless explicitly targeted by the client," a spokesperson says.

Source: Jounce Media

However, the digital ecosystem's road to redemption is fraught with obstacles. The industry is grappling with a shortage of actionable data thanks to stringent regulations on cookies and mobile identifiers. Moreover, the allure of vanity metrics—those tantalising but hollow numbers like high viewability and completion rates—continues to muddy the waters, often making MFAs appear more effective than they indeed are. 

The absence of a universally accepted definition for MFAs further complicates matters, leaving the sector in flux.  

As the industry pivots towards a more curated and transparent approach, the question remains: Is this a fleeting trend or the dawn of a new, more responsible era in advertising? 

Campaign explores how the industry is grappling with these pressing issues, the quest for quality and transparency, and how the industry navigates this MFA quagmire. 

How is MFA hurting advertisers?

In a study released this past June, the ANA highlighted that a staggering 21% of all impressions from programmatic advertising are funnelled towards MFA websites, capturing 15% of the entire ad expenditure.  

A report by ad fraud platform DoubleVerify revealed that specific MFA platforms rack up hundreds of millions of monthly impressions. But the industry's lack of a standardised definition for MFAs has led to widespread confusion.  

A common misconception is that bots solely operate MFA sites and are entirely fraudulent. While such websites exist and are usually flagged by anti-fraud measures, most MFA traffic originates from genuine human interactions, frequently driven by paid avenues like social media and content recommendation platforms.

DoubleVerify categorises MFA sites as websites designed purely for ad delivery. Identifying these sites involves a multi-faceted analysis of their ad revenue strategies, traffic origins, and content creation methods.  

An MFA website would display a high ratio of advertisements to actual content, with frequent ad updates to optimise revenue from individual visits and a heavy reliance on paid traffic channels, such as social media and native ads, with negligible organic traffic. 

In addition, MFA websites also have content engineered to encourage perpetual scrolling or clicking within the same website. They will show content often replicated word-for-word across multiple platforms and sometimes even auto-generated through generative AI. 

Conrad Tallariti, regional vice president of sales for APAC at DoubleVerify, explains to Campaign with curation, brands can effectively reach consumers at critical stages of their purchasing journey, thus maximising the value they derive from their media investments.  

MFA sites can disturb user experiences, undermine the worth of content, and potentially diminish trust within the digital advertising ecosystem. 

"Although MFA websites deliver favourable results when assessed through specific metrics, it is unclear whether these sites directly influence business outcomes," explains Tallariti. 

"By disabling the MFA supply in a curated marketplace, buyers can redistribute their advertising spend to better-quality websites and ensure their ads sit near quality content. While there is no strict rule against MFA sites, brands and agencies must understand the advantages and potential drawbacks to making informed decisions." 

James Leaver, founder and chief executive of Multilocal, agrees that the latest concerns around MFA strengthen the curation proposition.  

"Ultimately, curation helps advertisers reach the inventory they want to arrive at, at the scale needed to deliver their KPIs without navigating the potential risks of the open market," he tells Campaign.

Excluding from inclusion lists

With the recent release of new guidelines for defining MFA sites by the ANA, advertisers can use this benchmark to measure and address MFA challenges.  

For example, in every market where it operates, GroupM has added safeguards against MFAs on all its approved lists of publisher sites. These lists guide where advertisers allocate their programmatic ad spend.   

To scrutinise the publisher domains on its approved lists, GroupM now cross-references them with a daily-updated MFA list from Jounce Media, a firm specialising in programmatic supply chain management. This list, governed by six key performance indicators, has gained broad acceptance within the advertising sector as a substitute for an industry-wide standard definition. 

On DoubleVerify's part, it has expanded its brand safety and suitability solution to enable advertisers to monitor and have the option to avoid MFA sites. 

"This is achieved through a method that combines both human scrutiny and machine learning-based evaluation," says Tallariti. 

"For the rapidly emerging MFA sites, facilitated by advanced AI tools, the machine learning component is crucial for global brands to swiftly identify, evaluate, and bypass potentially problematic MFA material, thereby optimising marketing outcomes." 

Tallariti adds: "Clients can activate this feature directly within their brand safety profiles for monitoring and measurement and pre-bid exclusion. The methodology allows for a detailed and nuanced assessment, minimising the risk of incorrect categorisation and false alarms." 

Source: Jounce Media

However, enforcing inclusion lists is not as easy as it sounds due to issues like domain spoofing and delays in checking block sites against millions of bid requests in real-time bidding (RTB) platforms. 

Niraj Nagpal, a fractional adtech/martech consultant who used to work at Amazon, tells Campaign a scalable best practice is establishing an opt-in list of approved domains, continuously vetted and expanded over time.  

While competition and CPMs on these approved sites may be higher, it gives marketers greater confidence in their purchases, he explains. 

Nagpal advises marketers to go as direct as possible to a premium publisher via insertion orders (IOs), private deals or direct integration into their DSPs/SSPs hybrid of choice.  

"While this might involve paying a premium, it offers peace of mind. It allows you to leverage the advantages of programmatic advertising, such as data management, frequency capping, attribution, dynamic creative, and more," explains Nagpal. 

"Agencies will likely create lists to differentiate themselves in new business pitches and as part of their supply path optimisation (SPO) efforts. However, this approach doesn't address the root issue in the industry, which is the misalignment of incentives between marketers, agencies, and publishers." 

There is also a common misconception on the buy side that programmatic means cheaper inventory or better performance, although what 'better performing' means remains unclear. 

"To truly progress as an industry, we must ask and answer the more challenging questions. This will help us break free from the cycle of seasonal challenges and return to using this," says Nagpal. 

Curating ad inventory

Eliminating MFA sites from programmatic marketplaces is a challenging task. As discussed above, inclusion lists have their limitations, as MFA sites can infiltrate them if marketers are not careful in deciding on the right metrics and criteria to define MFA sites.  

While a standard set of parameters serves as a good starting point, the lack of transparency in the programmatic advertising ecosystem makes it hard to accurately trace the source and quality of traffic.  

"This causes agencies to struggle with differentiating MFA sites from legitimate traffic sources. Agencies should be wary of focusing solely on specific metrics that MFA sites boost - such as high viewability and high completion rates - to prevent the inclusion of such websites during the duration of a marketplace and avoid purchasing ads on them," explains Tallariti. 

Alexander Taylor, head of partnerships at Picnic, tells Campaign, ultimately, publishers who have built MFA domains are incredibly clever in how they do it.  

For example, If one were to search for a known MFA domain via a search engine or directly within their browser URL, they would end up describing their experience as 'brilliant', Taylor argues.

Source: Jounce Media

Taylor explains the site layout would be spacious, with a maximum of three ads per page with some engaging content within the article.  

As agency planners would approve this domain without questions, this example does not state how creators have set up MFA domains to manipulate potential buyers. 

"MFA domain owners have a brilliant understanding of three core components of site monetisation: SEO, advertising performance metrics and price point arbitrage. Your experience is seamless when you go directly to an MFA domain from a search engine or browser because that's what they *want* you to see," says Taylor. 

"The actual version of their site (and what most of their traffic sees) is if you end up on the domain via a social link or native advertising link or go direct but get three to four pages into the site. This is where the publisher has now loaded with pages with as many highly viewable video and display placements that hit all ad tech's vanity metrics: viewability, dwell time, view-through rates, etc, and at a price point significantly lower than any competitor publisher." 

Taylor continues: "Whether or not a site is MFA is highly subjective - so the best way to avoid MFA domains is to use a partner who audits all of their publisher partners for the following key MFA indicators: the percentage of non-direct traffic, ad density, user bounce rates, average pages per visit, and notably emissions." 

Next steps for agencies

Agencies should prioritise authentic engagement metrics to start the journey away from MFA sites. No performance metric is perfect in silo. Therefore, they should look to combine several metrics to paint a clearer picture of MFA domains.  

Agencies can also look at meaningful clicks and share of voice as both metrics comprise a combination of data points to help tell a straightforward story on the quality of a particular engagement.  

For example, when looking at a share of voice, agencies can specifically look at how many ads were onsite during a user's journey and break that down into an ad density score. With that, they can look at predicted attention and viewability per ad placement to understand the users' advertising experience.  

"A page with all three indicators indexing highly compared with the overall domain's average (or peers in its vertical) would suggest that the onsite advertising has been set up to maximise revenue from that user," explains Taylor. 

Tallariti stresses the need for agencies to educate internal teams, and consistently updating them on emerging tactics is vital to keeping MFA sites from infiltrating ad campaigns.  

In addition, agencies need to prioritise reputable publishers and platforms or vetting them before starting an engagement can help ensure healthy levels of transparency.  

"Ensuring transparency in data management is also critical - agencies can provide clients access to campaign data, including traffic sources and performance metrics. This includes using reporting tools and platforms allowing clients to verify campaign data independently," explains Tallariti. 

"Investing in advanced ad verification and fraud detection tools that can identify MFA sites and traffic is also worthwhile. To maintain accountability, it is essential to conduct regular audits of ad campaigns to assess the legitimacy of traffic sources and to detect any signs of MFA interference." 

Source: Jounce Media

Agencies must also remember that MFAs cannot manipulate outcomes fake incremental brand, behavioural, or business outcomes. The only caveat is that MFA can game attribution measurement but not incrementality measurement.)   

Chris Kelly, chief executive of Upwave, says that is what an ad campaign delivers–not views but an outcome at the top, middle, or bottom of the funnel. He compares it to NFL yardage, where a campaign does not necessarily need to get a team into the end zone on every play but needs to move them down the field. 

"Why is this? Let's take sales lift–a lower funnel outcome–as an example. Sales lift measurement uses exposed groups (those who saw the ad) and control groups (similar people who didn't see the ad). On premium media, the exposed group had 5% of people who saw the ad buy the product," Kelly explains to Campaign

"Then, say the control group had 2% of people who didn't see the ad buy the product (i.e. they would buy it anyway!). In this case, the premium media added incremental purchasers. But, an MFA exposed group would likely also be at 2% since they didn't incrementally add purchasers. 

So, despite having killer reach and viewability metrics, the MFA inventory would be exposed as worthless if the campaign's goal was to drive sales." 

The future of MFA

Media buyers need to vote with their wallets to drive change, and the recent spotlight on MFAs and the ANA report will likely prompt media buyers to prioritise transparency and cost-effectiveness. In addition, media buyers' partnerships with vendors adhering to industry standards will gain prominence.  

It is also important to note that MFA websites create more carbon emissions than the average site. That is because they have many ads per page and indiscriminately make ad calls to as many SSPs, DSPs, and ad networks as they possibly can. According to Scope3, MFA sites are 26% higher in carbon emissions than non-MFA inventory.

Source: Jounce Media

Taylor is hopeful media buyers will wield their budgets strategically, channelling investments towards accountable and ethical programmatic ad campaigns, promoting a shift towards greater transparency and improved industry practices. 

"Also, advertisers will scrutinise fees, opting for transparent platforms and demanding clear metrics," explains Taylor.  

"Key indicators will include verifiable data on brand safety, percentage of MFA sites and meaningful clicks - something we're looking to develop at Picnic to prove the power of our user-first (and <1% MFA!) marketplace." 

While Kelly calls for tighter exclusion lists and programmatic guaranteed deals, he acknowledges that decisioned media can still thrive in a world infiltrated by MFAs if optimised in real-time to achieve outcomes.   

"Even on upper-funnel, brand-building campaigns, outcome signals now exist that allow the campaign to be as optimisable as direct response campaigns are with click or conversion signals. Savvy advertisers talk about putting a performance lens on brand campaigns. This is what they mean," says Kelly. 

Advertisers must proactively identify and track MFA websites using machine learning-powered models and thorough analysis. Using existing brand safety and suitability solutions, they can now work with partners to monitor, block or avoid sites classified as MFAs. 

Campaign Asia

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