The dangers of made-for-advertising websites (MFAs)

One of the most hotly debated topics of this last summer was the burgeoning impact of made-for-advertising websites (MFAs). These sites are having a significant impact on the online ads ecosystem, and on the health of the web in general. But what exactly are they? And in what ways are they causing damage to the online ecosystem? 

In this blog we will dive into those questions and the importance for advertisers and publishers in staying vigilant and not feeding into these sites.

What exactly is an MFA?

As we know, publishers sometimes sell inventory directly to advertisers, in particular for high-value placement such as a website home page. Other times, however, inventory is acquired programmatically through the open marketplace, the principle here being to aggregate inventory from various sites.

A made-for-advertising website is essentially a website designed to maximize the number of ads shown to users. They include numerous ads on each page and offer manipulative user journeys that prompt users to click through various pages to access content. MFAs will use clickbait headlines to draw in users, only for them to realize that these sites mainly consist of ads rather than quality content.

The concept here is “maximization.” It’s not unlike the emergence of uncontrolled advertising, that ‘wild west time’ before the advent of tempering methods like ad blocking, where sites became more and more aggressive with pop-ups and videos trying to optimize monetization. Here, however, we are talking about a more subtle play, where the sites are technically offering advertisers what they want, but in a deceptive fashion. 

MFAs in the real world

Say in the process of searching for inventory, advertisers or marketers have a top-priority checklist, with requirements like good viewability metrics, or cheaper inventory. Well, that’s technically what these MFA sites are giving you, though not in the way you imagined.

In their recent blog, “WTF are made-for-advertising sites (MFAs),” Digiday equates these sites to “junk-food salad,” their point being that these sites exist (and thrive) due to a loophole. Digiday uses the example of a hamburger and fries to depict how “what we ask for” can be given to us in misleading ways. Wanting a healthy meal with all five food groups represented, that’s cheap and mostly made of vegetables can technically be represented by a burger and fries: potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce for the vegetables, grain from the bun, meat, and dairy from the cheese. Yet it’s not the healthy meal any of us imagined when we laid out the criteria.

According to Adotat, these websites “exploit the intricacies of online advertising metrics, masking their malicious intent beneath a veneer of legitimacy.” They do this by buying traffic through content recommendation widgets, which brings in real audiences. This workaround presents interesting traffic numbers and these sites skirt being qualified as fraud. 

Many of us in the industry are getting what we asked for (our metrics are being satisfied), but the result is not positive or healthy.

Controversy and impact on advertisers

So where exactly does that leave us? Do these sites really play an impactful role in how ad buying works? I mean, so many trends come and go, right?

As AdMonsters points out in a recent blog, “Major brands are paying for advertising on these low-quality sites, almost certainly without their knowledge. The number of these sites is likely to increase as AI-generated content continues to be more commonplace and as the industry phases out the use of third-party cookies.” 

Adotat goes on to describe these sites as thriving off of sensationalism, clickbait, and provocative content, thus luring in unsuspecting visitors. And yet, as mentioned above, they are becoming increasingly prevalent. This content is finding its way into most buyer’s inventories, again either by presenting itself as a good option through their superficial metrics, or through inventory aggregation and flying under the radar via a loose veneer of credibility.

At the current moment, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has shared some disturbing findings—MFA sites account for 21% of impressions and a staggering 15% of advertising spend. These numbers represent, respectively, a fifth and a sixth of total industry numbers, and speak of an emerging force that has the potential to change how the online world operates

These sites damage the internet ecosystem by overwhelming users with low-quality ads resulting in lower-quality clicks; ruining brands’ reputations by being associated with sites that essentially look like spam; and contributing unnecessarily to higher carbon emissions (approximately 26% more, according to Sharethrough).

MFAs’ negative impact on publishers

If advertisers are in danger of being part of a poor user experience, suffering in reputation, and negatively impacting the environment, what are the potential risks for publishers? 

At the current moment, MFA publishers are taking a significant percentage of advertising revenue away from legitimate sites. They acquire clicks to generate advertising revenue, even if their sites are often little more than spam. Yet, that impact is felt, as they represent an ever-increasing market share. Digiday notes, “we are seeing lower prices and less competition for inventory. This means we spend less to promote content, generate fewer page views and make less money.”

Thus, in addition to the detrimental effects on the ecosystem as a whole, there is also a drain on publisher revenue that will only be increasingly felt as these sites rise in prominence.

What can advertisers do?

According to AdMonsters, one of the most proven and effective tactics in dealing with MFAs involves setting up “exclusion lists to prevent bids from reaching sites that are known MFAs.” They go on to note advertisers should place more emphasis on actively seeking out higher-quality sites, even if the inventory is a bit more expensive. The end result is worth it by avoiding association with what is essentially a blackhole market niche. 

Ad tech partners are also part of the equation and should not shy away from blocking these types of sites. It’s important to actively avoid association where possible. Like most things in the online ads ecosystem, if it’s “too good to be true,” it probably is, i.e. a “junk-food salad.”

And publishers?

Of course it can be difficult to spot MFAs in the supply chain. One important development, however, is that the market is offering more and more solutions, like PMPs (private marketplaces), to help buyers connect with high-quality media.

Also, with SPO (supply-path optimization) strategies being more en vogue of late, there is a chance to take advantage of the process and go one step further, checking and updating contextual and quality controls. As AdMonsters puts it, “MFAs rely on outdated systems to dupe advertisers into buying low-quality content.”

In the end, though, it is difficult to avoid the impact of these sites due to their pervasiveness. As mentioned in the previous section, it’s important to educate buyers and find ways to identify such sites and limit their participation in the open exchange.

Cost versus value

Made-for-advertising websites, while over-indexing on metrics that could in theory help advertisers, are actually harmful and are becoming ubiquitous, eating into the available ad spend. They harm brands through association with what are essentially spam sites that have little interest in user experience, relying on deceptive methods to gain user engagement.

Moving forward, awareness is key. Buyers must pay more attention to where they get inventory, and how the supply chain works on the publisher side. As Adotat mentions, “low-cost inventory must be countered with a commitment to quality. The balance between cost and value is not a mere dichotomy; it’s a moral imperative.

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