Advertisers turn to programmatic advertising for its efficiency and data-driven targeting capabilities. Broadly speaking, it’s site agnostic. The focus is on reaching relevant audiences wherever they are online, as opposed to advertising directly on a specific website or app. And while restrictions can be applied to ensure ads are appearing alongside brand-safe content, a recent study suggests there’s a growing problem you need to be mindful of as a programmatic advertiser.
You know them when you see them. You may have had your interest piqued by a headline that promised a stunning revelation (You’ll never believe what happens next!) or life-saving advice (Something every parent needs to know to keep their kids safe!)—only to end up on a site that doesn’t come close to delivering on the headline’s promise, is confusing to navigate, is riddled with ads and, if you’re particularly unlucky, takes you on a journey across a million different pages to reach the unsatisfying conclusion of an article.
These are made for advertising (MFA) websites.
In a June 2023 study, the Association of National Advertisers estimated that 15% of all programmatic ad spending ran on MFA sites. That’s a high figure—certainly not a rounding error or minor variance. So how has the programmatic machine let this happen?
For starters, MFA sites do not technically qualify as driving invalid/fraudulent traffic, as they reach real users who fit the target criteria. By design, MFAs perform well in terms of media efficiency metrics—ad placements are cheaper, they’re highly viewable (though often barely hitting minimum thresholds to qualify) and typically have high click rates due to accidental clicks and high video completion rates due to autoplay. And while measures have been taken to detect and limit spending on these sites, the proliferation of AI-generated content has made rigorous enforcement a challenge. It’s a game of MFA whack-a-mole: for every site that’s discovered and blocklisted, two or three more pop up.
Last month, four leading ad trade associations collectively released the core criteria defining MFA sites:
- High ad-to-content ratio—
- Usually at least twice internet average, e.g., ad-to-content ratio of 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 precentage of paid source trafficking
- Often have little-to-no organic audience and instead are highly dependent on visits sourced from clickbait ads that run on social networks, content recommendations platforms, and even on the sites 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
Source: Association of National Advertisers, American Association of Advertising Agencies, World Federation of Advertisers, Incorporated Society of British Advertisers
Clearly labeling what constitutes an MFA site is a great start. It should allow for more specific protections to be enabled, while also keeping the industry on its toes. Still, it will take some time to get to a place where protections and protocols are universally effective. MFA sites will continue to exist, or modified versions will sprout up to circumvent the classification and blur lines.
To mitigate their brand’s exposure on low-quality MFA sites, advertisers must be diligent and proactive in their programmatic campaigns. Below are some actions to take to address the issue:
- Pay up for PMPs—Though more expensive, PMPs (or private marketplaces) offer premium inventory with reputable publishers. Eliminating the vast ocean of low-quality sites accessible through an open exchange will greatly reduce the risk of running on MFAs.
- Monitor campaign performance closely—Keeping an eye out for suspicious activity can help cut things off before they go too far. Abnormally high media performance metrics that don’t align with a brand’s own site performance are a red flag.
- Work with trusted partners—When evaluating a media partner, be sure to inquire about ad fraud or brand protection parameters that can be leveraged. Is there anything specific to MFAs being offered? Can the partner provide details on where your ads ran? That level of transparency is important, especially if you’re looking into suspicious performance results.
- Site safelists—Common efforts to prevent brand ads from appearing next to questionable content include leveraging (or creating) a site blocklist. However, there are some downsides to this approach. One, many MFA sites aren’t necessarily considered unsafe for a brand. The content is fine, and the site properly showcases the ad. Two, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the ever-growing abundance of MFAs. If scale and budget allow it, creating a master list of sites that are both safe and high quality could be the answer.
- Be thorough in the setup—Whether utilizing a self-serve DSP or a managed service, there are several steps you can take during campaign setup. Frequency capping is one important filter to apply, as MFA sites are notorious for serving the same ads repeatedly. For minor incremental CPM increases, various brand protections can be integrated into a campaign as well. These could include supply path optimizations like targeting direct publisher relationships, identifying various page signals to block (like ad clutter), or even explicit MFA blockers—a relatively new protection.
MFA sites were designed to deliver high-efficiency performance metrics that have always been so greatly valued. On paper, they’ve done that to a degree. But taking a step back, it becomes pretty obvious that that is all they are delivering—media metrics for the sake of media metrics, and not the ideal environment to reach and engage with audiences in meaningful ways. The recent attention on the issue should not only help spur change and encourage active prevention steps, but also serve as a reminder there’s a delicate balance between media efficiency and business results.