One minute, you’re reading a dense political explainer about rumblings in Washington, or checking the weather in your zip code. Before you know it, you’ve clicked on a headline about pool noodle hacks that will completely change your life.
If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes online, then this is probably a relatable experience. It’s clickbait, otherwise known as “made for advertising” inventory, a term used to describe websites that earn most of their eyeballs through sponsored placements tied to chumbox ads. Using content recommendation platforms like Taboola or Outbrain, these publishers place ads on legitimate news sources like USA Today, goading people with patently ridiculous headlines to click through to their sites.
Once users click, they’re taken to these sites that are rife with ads—hence the “made for advertising” moniker—but lacking in substance (unless you consider “Vintage Photos of Women Getting Tattoos” to be particularly informative).
Publishers like CNN, Vox, Huffington Post, and countless others have a hard time saying no to platforms like Taboola, as few want to turn down the revenue. On the other side of this clickbait wormhole is a potential billion dollar industry across the globe, as these sites suck up programmatic ad dollars.
While browsing some of these clickbait sites, which have names like Adventure Crunch and It’s The Vibe, Marketing Brew found ads for Nike, CVS, Disney, JetBlue, Best Buy, and other blue-chip brands. The mechanisms of programmatic advertising make it easy for brands to show up on these sites, whether marketers realize it or not. While they’re created for the sole purpose of raking in ad revenue, to what extent these sites are “brand suitable” is up for debate.
According to one marketplace specialist at a digital ad software company, who responded to Marketing Brew questions on background, “The number one thing keeping money out of legit publishers hands today isn’t fraud or misinformation…The number one issue is the made for advertising ecosystem.”
The Magellan Times, which we found linked on USA Today, is just one example of a “made for advertising” site. As you can see in the screengrab below, ads for Best Buy, Paramount, and New York City’s tourism arm take up as much—if not more—real estate than the article itself.
This type of inventory is snapping up as much as 12.3% of global programmatic web display ad spend, according to Jounce Media, which reviewed spending on more than 2,000 sites it labeled as “made for advertising.”
- According to eMarketer estimates, programmatic digital display ad spending will surpass $115 billion in the US alone next year. That means billions of programmatic ad dollars are spent on sites like Magellantimes.com, Itsthevibe.com, and Adventurecrunch.com.
So, how did Best Buy end up on this site? The ecosystem of spray-and-pray programmatic advertising may result in billions of dollars directed away from publishers that offer more traditionally vetted news toward a Wild West of crap content.
Most agencies, which handle programmatic ad buying on behalf of marketers, get paid by spending their clients’ money. They’re incentivized to find the lowest possible CPMs, and bill on the dollars they push through the system.
For their part, brands reliant on programmatic advertising—especially when retargeting—want reach that’ll capture as many eyeballs as possible, as cheaply as possible. These low-quality sites provide a cheap price and a huge audience, even if their content is questionable.
“These provide a perfect storm for bad actors to profit on the need to spend,” said Matt Barash, SVP of global publishing and platform partnerships at customer data firm Zeotap. An agency “might turn a blind eye to an environment, or might not be as discriminating about where those ads are running in a programmatic world as they would be in a one-to-one relationship.”
- Demand-side platform The Trade Desk requires media buyers to explicitly “opt-in” to this kind of inventory, Jud Spencer, principal software engineer at the company, recently tweeted.
The clickbait sites drive down CPM prices, forcing traditional news outlets and publishers to compete with “fake operators that have now flooded the market,” explained Shailin Dhar, CEO and founder of Media Method Intelligence, a digital ad measurement firm. “There’s definitely a correction due for realistic CPMs. If you take out all the garbage and the waste, there’s going to have to be a reset.”
Sites like The Magellan Times sustain themselves via what some in the industry refer to as ad arbitrage, the practice of buying web traffic through sponsored posts, hoping clicks to their content will generate enough programmatic ad revenue to make a profit.
According to analytics firm Similarweb:
- Magellan Times gets 39% of its traffic through display advertising, but only 6% directly.
- A similar site, Elite Herald, gets 87% of its traffic through display.
These sites rarely post anything like hot-button political content. But some of them, like Elite Herald, push content in Swedish, English, French, and Spanish. Most rely on infinite scrolling, cramming in as many ads as possible. Though most give bylines, few of these authors are easy to find or contact on the internet. None of these sites responded to emails from Marketing Brew.
Chris Kane, founder and president of Jounce Media, said this type of inventory often meets “minimum standards” for advertisers, low as they may be. “It checks all the boxes that the industry cares about. It’s not fraud, it’s brand safe. It’s viewable, and it’s cheap.”
Plus, the content doesn’t necessarily break any of the policies laid out by Taboola and Outbrain, the main vehicles that direct traffic to these sites. Taboola prohibits pornography, fake news, work belonging to other publishers, and threatening or criminal content, according to its own publishing policy. Outbrain has a more robust policy, including the requirement of an About Us section and actual bylines on content.
With such loose guidelines, “made for advertising” inventory can flourish. Even so, some in the industry don’t think these sites are places where marketers should be spending their money.
“These sites ‘are not really publishers’ in that they have a brand, a loyal audience, or anything resembling a content strategy. They’re just vessels for the convenient monetization of 3P cookie data; it’s nothing but a numbers game for them,” said Myles Younger, senior director of data practice at Media.Monks.
CVS recently plastered its ads on It’s The Vibe. Matt Blanchette, manager of retail communications at CVS Health, told Marketing Brew that the company has “strict protocols in place” to ensure its programmatic ads meet the company’s “high brand safety standards.” While he didn’t comment on this ad placement specifically, he said although “the industry as a whole has come a long way, there are still some gaps which can lead to content appearing in an unintended location.”
It’s The Vibe
It’s pretty apparent that these clickbait sites don’t want people to know their schtick. For starters, if you visit honesttopaws.com directly, you’ll see few ads. But if you come through a sponsored content box, it’s littered with them.
In July, digital marketing consulting company DeepSee published a blog that details why. According to DeepSee, supply-side platforms (at least reputable ones) are less likely to accept publishers that are primarily filled with ads. So, the owners of clickbait sites try disguising the fact that they’re literally made for advertising.
“In order to protect themselves, the arbitrage specialists design sites in such a way that advertising analysts who click around their home page wouldn’t find anything objectionable,” the blog reads. “Once they do make it into a reputable ad-network, that’s when the problems begin.”
These sites aren’t one-off operations, either. According to marketing research tool Adalytics, which was asked by Marketing Brew to analyze a list of suspected “made for advertising” publishers, many share the same layout and even content. Adalytics found that at least 88 shared Google Analytics IDs.
- Plus, at least 32 sites using similar advertising IDs as The Magellan Times were telling Google not to surface their pages in search results, which is not against Google’s advertising policy, helping them stay under the radar.
“The analysis here shows that some of these websites are not standalone instances, but parts of clusters of many related and similar websites,” Krzysztof Franaszek, founder of Adalytics, told Marketing Brew. “Even if an eagle-eyed media buyer decides to avoid buying on one specific site, it is still quite likely that their media buy will go to other similar websites in such publisher clusters. This leads to a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ for buyers who desire to avoid purchasing ads on such websites through programmatic media channels.”
Many of these publishers—including Elite Herald and The Magellan Times, which are operated by Battery Media Group— are owned by Perion, a publicly traded Israeli ad-tech company. Perion went on a shopping spree in 2020, acquiring clickbait site owners Pub Ocean—which lists Gary Vaynerchuk as an investor—and Content IQ.
- “Our digital portfolio is inspired by the themes and topics that users are most interested in. These brand-safe properties give advertisers the ability to reach relevant audiences with high-engagement content that continually surprises and delights users. At enormous, efficient scale,” says Content IQ’s homepage, without actually detailing who’s in its digital portfolio.
- Battery Media Group’s founder and CEO, Robert Levy, was a former sales director at Outbrain. He declined to comment to Marketing Brew.
Though not listed on their own sites, Pub Ocean and Content IQ are the operators of about 80 sites now owned by Perion, according to the company’s VP of investor relations Rami Rozen, who responded to Marketing Brew’s questions over email. When asked about the company’s editorial strategy and if Perion was concerned with meeting general publishing standards, he did not respond.
Perion made $109 million last quarter and is on pace to make $430 million this year.
“No algorithm can do it”
As we mentioned earlier, clickbait sites manage to make their way to supply-side platforms. For instance, according to EliteHerald’s ads.txt file, which lets you see which ad tech firms a publisher works with, PubMatic is among the list of supply-side platforms bringing ads to Eliteherald.com.
PubMatic forbids publishers from using “content of little to no value to the users,” including “copied stories, content written by fictional authors, boilerplate information,” per its minimum content requirements.
Hmm…When Marketing Brew asked PubMatic why Elite Herald appeared on its platform, it said “this site does not meet our quality bar and we have therefore stopped monetizing it.”
Here’s what else was in the PubMatic statement: “Enforcement of this policy can’t be done without deeper investigation as no algorithm can do it. PubMatic regularly reviews and removes sites whose quality signals indicate that additional scrutiny is warranted…Additionally, buyers receive full reporting on every site they are buying from the PubMatic platform, and if they find the site objectionable, they can add it to their exclusion list to avoid further exposure.”
Similarly, Google’s ad placement policies explicitly forbid “pages with more advertising than publisher-provided content.” And yet, sites for which Google is placing ads can look like this:
After sending a list of 129 clickbait sites, Google spokesperson Michael Aciman told Marketing Brew that it was “reviewing the sites shared and will take appropriate action on any that violate our policies,” and that action was taken against “several of the sites” shared, although didn’t say specifically which sites action had been taken against.
Jill Casey is director of publisher platform partnerships at Xandr, which operates both a supply-side and demand-side platform, and can be found on the ads.txt of many of these sites. Casey said it’s not a supply-side platform’s place to determine publisher quality.
“We try to stay sort of agnostic to what people on the internet might like to read,” she told Marketing Brew. “Brands may not want to think that’s where people are, but a lot of the internet is celebrity gossip and things that feel clickbaity…Consumers keep these sites alive, and brands want to be cost effective, so they go there.”
Others don’t see it that way. Joshua Lowcock, EVP and chief digital officer at media agency UM, said, “The supply side of the ad tech ecosystem has been incredibly poor at vetting sites,” which is why he thinks clickbait sites manage to stay afloat.
“Every site they reject reduces the potential income stream to themselves. So they are in effect incentivized to continue adding inventory,” he added. “My clients are being forced to pay for lazy, slipshod incompetence from others.”
His advice for marketers? “I would prioritize an ad tech partner that went out and made public efforts to clean up their ecosystem, expose the extent of the problem, and commit to never let it happen again, forcing others to act,” he explained. “There’s a benefit to being a first mover and getting this right.”