‘Crack cocaine’ for publishers: Insiders reveal what they really think about MFA

‘Crack cocaine’ for publishers: Insiders reveal what they really think about MFA

Under anonymity, a roundtable of advertising and media executives discuss who’s to blame for made-for-advertising sites and what can be done, if anything, to minimise them.

“It’s like crack.”

Made for advertising (MFA), the practice of creating websites that exist primarily to host ads rather than offer valuable content, has become so seductive as a media tactic that it resembles a highly addictive narcotic.

That was one of a range of candid views about MFA discussed at a private IAB UK event in London this week. The Media Leader was invited to this discussion as an observer, on the condition that the 13 participants would not be identified.

While MFA is nothing new, the scale of its use is opaque given the complexity of the online media buying system. It’s more commonly known as “made for arbitrage” in the US and this is probably a more appropriate description, since MFA leverages normal consumer expectations of online publishing (web pages that are designed to show ads as secondary to information content) and instead deliver quite the opposite (web pages crammed with ad units and/or ad units that refresh at a high velocity to maximise views).

However, there are rare occasions in which some of the sheer brazenness of MFA is laid bare.

That happened in April when online researchers Adalytics revealed detailed findings that showed Forbes had operated an MFA scheme for seven years on a shadow domain, www3.forbes.com. It was clearly designed to exist away from the watchful eye of ad exchanges that operate safety-conscious “white lists” — whereas advertisers could officially buy ads on www.forbes.com, the web recommendation platform Outbrain was sending online users to www3.forbes.com, even though the shadow site was not visible to anyone running a Google search or even to anyone who manually typed the website address into their internet browser.

All the companies that took part in the discussion are well-known in the media industry and represent news brand publishers, supply-side platforms, online measurement platforms and network media agencies.

Impact of MFAs on advertisers and publishers

Outbrain and its rival Taboola are famed for doing deals with major online publishers in which they provide minimum revenue guarantees (MRGs) in exchange for tenancy on their sites. Many UK publishers use these recommendation engines by featuring them on article pages, below the main content.

According to a technical lead at a major UK publisher, their company is getting paid so much money by one of these platforms that the platform is likely losing money, such is the cache of having its name among its roster of clients.

“Yes, most people have MRGs with them and they pay a horrendous amount of money. We are acutely aware that, from a number of perspectives, it’s not good. The way that it works is if you’re a large publisher, they give you an upfront amount of revenue, but usually it’s exorbitant and they’re actually losing money.

“So then they go through a series of practices themselves, which then potentially do more damage to you in terms of generating more requests; doing, you know, dodgy stuff with respect to, like, what sort of ads they’re allowed to run.

“The difficulty is that they prepay publishers so much money… then to get rid of that, the question is: how else am I going to make that back? That creates maybe a seven- or eight-figure hole in my budget for a given year.”

Speaking to The Media Leader last year, News UK executive Dominic Carter, executive vice-president and publisher of The Sun, criticised Taboola and Outbrain for sending readers to potentially “some nefarious site with a clickbait headline”. The news brand has replaced some inventory from Taboola and Outbrain in recent years with content from its own, in-house recommendation platform.

‘Zero trust’ relationships?

The publisher representative at the IAB event insisted that “we are trying to be as transparent as possible” so that brands can make informed decisions about what content they’re advertising against.

“We’ll communicate clearly what’s coming through Outbrain to then give people on the buy side, if they choose not to buy it, the ability to do so.

“The larger issue is when that isn’t available and therefore buyers are basically being tricked. I think that’s probably one that we focus more on. So if I’m a good actor, I’m trying to give you as much information to make informed business decisions yourself. Then I feel as though I’m doing my job.

“If I’m not doing that, then why not? We might need to operate with a ‘zero trust’ method here. If that information is not coming from publishers, how do we codify it or change the spec so that it has to come through? So the buyers have all the metrics and fields and data available to them, so they can make informed decisions.”

According to a global technical lead at a major media agency, MFA is “not as big a problem for” its bigger advertisers because they receive more protection from filters for quality benchmarks and a “media responsibility” index.

“We have had to constantly put measures in place from a sort of quality and whitelisting point of view to make sure the environment is being delivered. We have so many restrictions from our advertisers,” the executive explained.

“It’s more [an issue] towards attention as a quality environment. And then, ultimately, are you getting the impact and the effect because obviously everything, for us, comes down to: are we delivering from a brand response point of view? It’s more of a qualitative feel.”

Strategies and solutions to combat MFA

One of the major challenges with making advertisers informed about MFA is that “there is not enough robust” methodology to define it, according to someone from a global adtech vendor that provides measurement services.

Even the defining characterstic of MFA — having a heavily skewed ads-to-content ratio — is “pretty difficult” to measure, this person explained.

“We can count the number of ads on the page, but not necessarily the content ratio, they continued. “We can count the number of ad slots in the page, not necessarily which of those slots or ads. Then there are things like syndicated news content — we don’t know whether that’s legitimately syndicated news or it’s just stolen. We don’t know if it’s AI-generated.”

Incidentally, the same practitioner explained that MFA specifically does not include websites that have been found to have generated content from AI: “Anything that is not human is not MFA. MFA is specifically humans — potentially bored humans who are looking at, for example, what a celebrity looks like now.”

‘They suck the lifeblood out of the industry’

However, an executive at a leading supply-side platform (SSP) said MFA is a problem that the sell side of online media “should own and sort out”.

Their business has identified that “50 or 60” people or companies are responsible for “pretty much all of the MFA sites” in the world and the company has removed them from its ad exchange.

“We’ve kicked them off the exchange because they suck the lifeblood out of the industry,” this person said, insisting that this did not result in a loss of revenue because it was no longer “receiving shitty bid requests”.

They explained: “When you’re an SSP, you’re sending out bid requests to the DSPs [demand side platforms]. The DSPs only have so many bid requests that they can handle. So with every exchange, they say: ‘Hey, we want this many millions of queries per second [QPS].’

“And you would adjust what they want: they want more mobile, they want more video, whatever… you dial up and down those things. When you take out the shitty MFA bid requests, you end up making sure that X million of QPS that they can handle are good open requests, good inventory.”

‘Damage has been done’

However, are there the incentives to root out MFA? According to the publisher representative, “the damage has already been done” to the industry by the impact of taking money for MFA.

Forbes has been going on for however many years and publishers have seen that decline, that race to the bottom, with respect to eCPM for many years, especially off the back of the first-price auctions.

“This then means the publishers add more ads to the page… and then seeing the gains coming off the back of this MFA stuff, it’s a bit difficult because we then have to contend with [criticism about] multiple ads in view — and these are all quite subjective things.

“[Even when] we fix the MFA problem, we then have publishers like ourselves being targeted by people like Jounce [the programmatic advertising consultancy], saying that we’re ‘in breach’. So it’s not super helpful. We want to help with stopping the fraud but, now, we’re being targeted for the practices that we’ve had to employ to basically pay our journalists and keep the lights on.”

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