Ad Fontes Media is now rating Made for Advertising sites, but the industry needs real standards.
If you’ve been on the internet over the past two decades you’ve seen the headlines: “The 25 Hilarious Beach Photos That Raise Eyebrows;” “Your IQ Is 140 If You Can Name 10 Of These People;” or maybe, “Heart Surgeon Begs Americans: ‘Stop Doing This To Your Avocados.’”
Perhaps you’ve laughed about them (they’re funny!) or even clicked and ended up trapped in a slideshow, your computer fan kicking on as it struggles to contend with the barrage of ads on sites with names like Boredom Therapy, Buzzfond, or Health Dish.
These are Made for Advertising sites and new research from the Association of National Advertisers shows they’re no laughing matter: they’re big business. New ANA research shows advertisers are spending $13 billion on these sites each year, accounting for 21 percent of all ad impressions each year and 15 percent of the global $88 billion spent each year on programmatic advertising.
That is an astonishing tax on the ad industry and beyond the obvious waste it’s fueling an ecosystem that damages brands, creates excessive carbon emissions, spreads toxic health and extreme polarizing content, and competes with real news and information for clicks, search traffic and revenue.
But what’s equally astonishing is that there’s no set definition of what a Made for Advertising Site, or MFA, even is, let alone how to screen them out of ad buys. Existing methods used by DSPs and SSPs typically use technical metrics like volume of ad calls to identify MFAs, but that can also screen out legitimate news sources, such as local news struggling to stay afloat or, say blogs about motherhood or motorcycles (or both) that have valuable audiences but might be excluded unfairly due to their current ad loads.
A better way to identify MFA sites is by the intent behind the creation of the site and the content itself. With $13 billion on the line, and with apologies, here are 7 Ways to Know Your Ads Are Running on MFA Sites:
Does the content on the site have bylines? And, secondly, are those bylines real people? The first question is easy to answer, the second is harder as lots of MFA sites and networks of sites use fake, stolen, or AI-generated photos to create “identities” of writers. Sometimes, they are real people, but they only write for networks of MFA sites! Of all jobs to be taken by ChatGPT, that’s definitely one of the first.
Is the content innocuous and not especially current? A lot of MFA sites have sections or categories listed across the top menu, like you would see on a news or politics site, but explicitly avoid politics or news content (more on that below). Most have evergreen content that could run anywhere at any time, so no obviously recent content is a red flag.
Is the content original? Most MFA sites have content that reflects no journalistic effort beyond Googling or generated from a template that is pulling content from different sources. Others are just cut-and-paste or lightly paraphrased content from other sources, like academic studies; others are re-used on multiple sites or obviously generated by AI.
Are the headlines clickbait? With headlines like “1/3 Cup Of This Can Melt Your Body Fat While You Sit,” this one seems easy but it is deceptively nuanced because legit publishers and news organizations use “curiosity gap” headlines, such as CNN’s “Eating This Food May Be A Reason Why Some People Live to 100,” but a clue would be if the predominance of headlines were designed to trick the reader.
How are the pages and links formatted? Many MFA sites have infinite scroll to keep users on the page and more ads firing; many use extra large font and spacing, plus chunky image blocks, to make you scroll past more potential ad slots. Others only link to other MFA sites or networks or sites. You can find MFA sites quite easily from the “chumboxes” at the bottom and sides of mainstream websites operated by Taboola, Revcontent, Outbrain or MGID. All are signs that this is an MFA site.
Are the ads spammy? MFA sites do generally fire more ads—this is, after all, their entire reason for being—and tend to show multiple impressions of the same ads in the same window-length, as well as slideshows that take you to new ads. They refresh the same ad slots frequently, often under 10 seconds. And they show you every type of ad possible—video, banner, pop-up—in every location possible. Again, legit news sites, particularly local ones, sometimes do this as well, so this factor alone shouldn’t be enough to classify it as MFA.
Ironically, most MFA sites generate traffic by buying up the ad inventory on news and politics sites that have trouble selling to big brands due to overzealous brand safety practices. The MFA sites get this inventory on the cheap, then turn around and attract big brand ad dollars by touting its milquetoast content as “brand safe,” essentially arbitraging brand dollars to get a cut that the news publishers could have gotten directly.
MFA sites also buy up inventory on misleading, inaccurate, and outrageously polarizing political sites that brands intentionally block due to their values. But because those same brands let so much of their ad dollars go to MFA sites, they continue to fund these biased and unreliable sites anyway.
Ad Fontes Media has manually identified more than 600 such sites and networks of sites, but that’s the tip of the iceberg: there are thousands out there and with AI content generation in full swing, expect these sites to multiply exponentially in the months and years ahead.
Because MFA sites are ill-defined and often disguised as news, identifying them can be nuanced. That’s in part why Ad Fontes Media is now rating MFA sites for bias and reliability as we would any website, TV show, podcast, or radio program. Once we identify a site as MFA, we’ll tag it as such, and the maximum rating we’ll give it is 30, low enough that it can be easily excluded from ad buys but high enough that a brand could include some MFA sites if they fit the goals of the campaign
But the industry must do more. Formulating a standard for identifying MFAs will be complicated and labor intensive but we must do it. A standard should encompass both ad-serving metrics and content analysis to identify sites created solely for the purpose of skimming ad dollars out of the murky, complicated, programmatic landscape and distinguish them from sites created by earnest information providers and content creators who are just trying to fund their businesses.
Funding MFAs isn’t a victimless crime. Ads there fuel misinformation, pollute the physical and digital environment, sap ad dollars out of the pool for legit sites by both competing with them and arbitraging their inventory with spammy ad networks, and damage the reputation of brands appearing on these sites.
We can, and should, do better.
Vanessa Otero is founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media, maker of the Media Bias Chart, and dedicated to building a better internet by helping advertising find great content.