Fighting a new wave of ad-fraud: how to recognise ghost sites?

Tim WhitfieldSo-called ghost sites are part of a new wave of fraudulent websites argues Timothy Whitfield. How do marketers and agencies spot and avoid them? 

If I needed money for a new kidney then I would get into ad-fraud! It’s lucrative, easy and completely legal. 

There is a new type of ad-fraud on the market. It’s called “ghost sites” and they are the next generation of fraud sites. They are designed to bypass the tech filters from the traditional ad-fraud tech vendors. These fraud sites are clean, crisp and clear and have have no issues with Brand Safety or Viewability. In fact, verification tech vendors usually give these sites a clean bill of health.

Ghost Sites have great viewability metrics as they only have 1 x ad-format and it’s at the top & middle of the page. The ad-format is usually medium to large player size so they aren’t being caught by technologies focused on finding small (300×250) players.

Brand Safety ad-tech vendors aren’t picking these ghost sites either because these sites don’t contain any Hate Speech, Adult content, Download content etc… Also, search engines love these sites as they have the perfect keyword density so that they rank highly on the search engines.

In fact, these next generation of fraud sites look great. So, how does one tell a ghost site from real site?

  • Content is outdated & no site interactionNormal sites have a range of content that is updated frequently. However, ghost sites have old / boring content that’s never updated. For instance they are often “How To: Garden for weeds” or “How To: Cook Mac and Cheese”. The content is usually months old. All the content on the site is usually updated at once and then the site isn’t touched ever again. Normal sites have some type of social feedback. These Ghost Sites don’t usually have anybody responding to the articles. If somebody is responding then it’s with comments that have been obviously added by the same person.
  • Template designs: e.g. WordPressOne of the biggest and easiest ways to identify these Ghost Sites is that they all start looking exactly the same. They are often built using Word Press because of the low cost associated with building a template site. These template designs all have the same look and feel for their widgets and after a while you can tell a Ghost Site from a mile away.
  • Web site hosting information (e.g. name servers etc…)Another common element between all Ghost Sites is that they seem to be using cheap Web Site Hosting solutions such as GoDaddy. Another key factor is that you can’t contact the site owner. They usually hide their presence on the internet with services like DomainsByProxy. This service is popular with Ghost Sites because you can mask your identity. If the FBI wanted to find the owners of all the Ghost Sites then they would only need to subpoena providers like GoDaddy and DomainsByProxy to get the real names of the people behind these sites. This would put an end to Ad-Fraud:Ghost Sites in one foul sweep
  • Irregular growth patternsLastly, but not leastly, look for irregular growth patterns. Sites that have been recently created and grow from 0 imps per month to 20 million imps per month is quite common with Ghost Sites. Fortunately there are services like SimilarWeb out there that monitor site traffic on the web. For free you can type in any domain into Similar Web and they will show you the site traffic for that domain. They will also show if the traffic has grown organically or if they have paid for their traffic growth. Specifically, you can see if these Ghost Sites are buying traffic from the likes of Click Farms.

All these Ghost Sites have something in common. Here are some of the common patterns.

You may be wondering about this size of this issues. Please note that article is not intended to “name and shame” specific sites or exchanges however I’ve personally observed this issue existing on a large number of global video ad-exchanges and I’ve personally seen cases whereby almost 60% of their inventory being sold on exchanges was Ad-Fraud. When I presented my findings to the exchanges it was clear to me that the problem was so new that even their ad-fraud teams didn’t know anything about it.

In summary: Ghost sites may look very nice and clean but they could be wasting your money.

  • Timothy Whitfield is director, technical operations at GroupM

This piece is republished with the author’s permission from Linkedin.


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