Be no fool: Securing your ad budget against made-for-advertisers (MFA) websites

The primary concern among advertisers revolves around brand safety, as MFA sites often feature or aggregate content without regard to its quality or relevance, potentially placing ads next to undesirable content.

By  Laura QuigleyApr 1, 2024 1:27 PM
Be no fool: Securing your ad budget against made-for-advertisers (MFA) websites
Contrary to some assumptions, the majority of traffic to MFA sites is legitimate, with real users visiting these pages rather than bots. (Representative Image: Mathieu Stern via Unsplash)

MFA sites have flown under the radar for years because they’re highly optimised 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.

Research undertaken by entities such as Jounce Media and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) underscores the inefficacy of advertising on such sites, revealing negligible impacts on conversions, brand lift, and notably, the squandering of advertising budgets.

The ANA study released last June, highlighted that MFA websites comprised a startling 21 percent of study impressions and 15 percent of spend.

The report also showed a high percentage of spending of MFA sites with private market deals at 14 percent. 

The Economic Incentives Behind MFA Sites' Existence

The existence of MFA sites can be attributed to their profitability for creators. Through a process known as arbitrage advertising, these publishers strategically place ads on content recommendation platforms that operate on a pay-per-click model, thereby generating revenue from the influx of traffic by displaying numerous ads. This straightforward yet lucrative approach is entirely within the bounds of legality.

Contrary to some assumptions, the majority of traffic to MFA sites is legitimate, with real users visiting these pages rather than bots. This indicates that the success of MFA sites isn't reliant on deceptive practices like purchasing fake traffic. To attract and engage visitors, these sites often resort to using content that is either plagiarism or generated through artificial intelligence, ensuring a steady stream of user engagement without the need for original content creation.

Eluding Detection: The Stealth Tactics of MFA Sites

MFA sites have successfully evaded detection for an extended period, primarily because they are meticulously optimised to align with conventional ad verification standards, particularly in terms of viewability. These sites often present themselves as devoid of fraud, safe for brands, contextually appropriate, and boast higher-than-average viewability rates due to strategic placement of ads in highly visible site areas.

To further dodge detection, MFA sites employ tactics not commonly used by premium publishing sites. The appearance and user experience of these sites can drastically change based on the mode of entry. Visitors arriving via links from content recommendation platforms are met with a plethora of ads, whereas direct visitors might encounter minimal to no advertisements, especially on the homepage. This adaptive strategy helps MFA sites to pass partner audits by presenting a more sanitised version of themselves when scrutinised.

MFA operations are not isolated but are part of vast, interconnected networks. A single publisher may manage numerous MFA sites, strategically directing traffic among them and sharing content to optimise ad revenue. When ad bids for a site begin to decline—often a result of advertisers blocklisting the site—the traffic is seamlessly redirected to another site within the network, or the site may be temporarily deactivated only to be relaunched later. This ongoing cat-and-mouse game resembles an endless cycle of evasion and adaptation.

Obstacles Faced by Marketers in Navigating MFA Landscapes

The primary concern among these advertisers revolves around brand safety, as MFA sites often feature or aggregate content without regard to its quality or relevance, potentially placing ads next to undesirable content. This not only threatens the integrity of the brand but also dilutes the impact of the advertising efforts by failing to engage the intended audience meaningfully. Moreover, the wasted expenditure on ads that do not result in meaningful engagement or conversions is a significant issue, prompting advertisers to seek more efficient ways to allocate their budgets towards reputable and effective channels. Compounding the challenge is the diverse digital landscape of APAC, characterised by a multitude of languages and cultural contexts, making the detection and avoidance of MFA sites particularly demanding. Advertisers are increasingly calling for greater transparency from ad networks and programmatic platforms, emphasising the need to know precisely where their ads are placed and ensuring they avoid MFA sites. 

Safeguarding Your Ad Budget from MFA Website Drain

Advertisers must evaluate if MFA sites meet their brand's standards for content and user experience, and decide on their inclusion in campaign inventories. Balancing the pursuit of cost-effective programmatic inventory with ad quality—viewability, fraud prevention, and brand safety—is crucial. The cheapest media options often don't lead to the best outcomes, highlighting the need for a focus on context within advertising strategies.

The industry is increasingly turning to collaborations with tech providers such as IAS to utilise advanced analytics, AI, and machine learning for better MFA site detection. Efforts are also being made to introduce regulatory measures and set industry standards to address MFA challenges, complemented by educational efforts to inform about their risks. Additionally, there's a major shift towards valuing quality and performance metrics over mere ad exposure, emphasising real user engagement and conversion rates to ensure advertising investments are both secure and fruitful. Advertisers should  exclude MFA websites from a media buy unless they are specifically wanted or needed.

IAS analysis from over 40 global agencies and brands found traffic served on sites classified as non-MFA have a +278 percent better conversion rate than traffic served on sites classified as MFA. Further analysis by IAS found that quality media was more cost efficient than sites classified as MFA, delivering lower cost-per-conversion by 63 percent.

Laura Quigley is the SVP - APAC at Integral Ad Science. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on Apr 1, 2024 1:27 PM

More from Storyboard18

How it Works

EXCLUSIVE: Elections will drive exponential growth in news viewership: Havas Media's Uday Mohan

EXCLUSIVE: Elections will drive exponential growth in news viewership: Havas Media's Uday Mohan

How it Works

Bournvita among drinks to be removed from e-commerce platforms' "health drinks" section, says Govt

Bournvita among drinks to be removed from e-commerce platforms' "health drinks" section, says Govt

How it Works

How sneakers made their way into corporate culture

How sneakers made their way into corporate culture

How it Works

2023 EV battery market growth exceeds that of EVs, Chinese dominance continues

2023 EV battery market growth exceeds that of EVs, Chinese dominance continues

How it Works

OnePlus products to not be sold by retail chains starting May 1

OnePlus products to not be sold by retail chains starting May 1

How it Works

SEBI says 'no action' against Zee's Subhash Chandra until April 30

SEBI says 'no action' against Zee's Subhash Chandra until April 30

How it Works

Premji Invest to fund $50-$70 million in Canva

Premji Invest to fund $50-$70 million in Canva

How it Works

Apple assembles $14 billion worth of iPhones in India in fiscal 2024

Apple assembles $14 billion worth of iPhones in India in fiscal 2024