Myspace — the iconic social network of the early 2000s — seemed to be experiencing a resurgence This kind of summer when millions of visitors flocked to its fresh video page, potentially generating a wave of ad revenue for the site’s troubled parent company, Time Inc.
nevertheless Myspace shut the page down This kind of week after a BuzzFeed News investigation revealed in which the surge in traffic came primarily through suspect sources in which racked up fraudulent ad impressions. Myspace says the item was completely unaware of in addition to didn’t profit through any fraudulent traffic or impressions, in addition to in which the video page in question was hosted in addition to managed by a partner in addition to not by Myspace itself.
“Myspace did not agree to, participate in or condone any ad fraud activity,” said Daniella Krieger, the VP of marketing in addition to communications for Viant, the Time Inc. subsidiary in which acquired Myspace in 2011 for $35 million.
The fraud on the Myspace video page was part of a larger scheme in which also found a home on GateHouse Media, a publisher of more than 0 local newspapers in 36 states. The video pages hosted on roughly 150 of its websites also saw a surge in suspect traffic in addition to associated fraudulent ad impressions. GateHouse told BuzzFeed News the item was not aware of any fraud being committed, in addition to like Myspace the item said the video pages in question were operated by a partner.
This kind of is usually the latest in an ongoing catalog of fraud in programmatic advertising in which continues to shake confidence inside digital media industry. Last week a BuzzFeed News investigation revealed in which ad industry insiders profited through a network of “zombie websites” in which used special code to trigger an avalanche of fraudulent views of video ads. The growing awareness of ad fraud among brands in addition to agencies is usually causing major advertisers to pull back budgets in addition to demand more accountability through their partners. Industry leaders expect more than $16 billion to be stolen by fraudsters This kind of year alone.
Prior to being shut down This kind of week, the Myspace video page — trendingvideos.myspace.com — streamed videos licensed through reputable publishers. nevertheless for months the ad fraud investigators at Social Puncher, a consulting firm, worked with BuzzFeed News reporters to track in addition to document significant amounts of suspicious traffic being referred to in which page as well as additional publishers.
Once on the page, This kind of traffic triggered automatic redirects in addition to page refreshes in which generated massive amounts of video ad impressions without any human involvement. the item’s similar to how the “zombie websites” generated ad revenue, in addition to represents a fresh form of ad fraud in which researchers say can rack up impressions quickly in addition to under the radar.
Audience data through web analytics firm SimilarWeb shows in which between May in addition to the end of September, trendingvideos.myspace.com received 9.7 million visits in which generated over 450 million pageviews. in which video page did not exist prior to April.
Fraud detection vendor DoubleVerify also independently identified the same scheme being run on Myspace in addition to GateHouse subdomains as part of a separate investigation, in addition to the company shared its findings with BuzzFeed News.
Alain Begun, the vice president of marketing for GateHouse, told BuzzFeed News the company is usually inside process of shutting down the relevant video pages on its websites in addition to was only made aware of the issue last week when DoubleVerify warned ad exchanges about the traffic on them.
“Fraud follows the money.”
“We take any alleged impropriety very seriously in addition to have been engaged in discussion with our programmatic exchange partners,” he said.
The focus on video ads in This kind of scheme reinforces how important video has become for publishers — in addition to how the item can cause them to launch questionable products inside hunt for video impressions in addition to revenue. Thanks to higher ad rates for video in addition to an appetite for the format among brands, many publishers have enacted a so-called pivot to video strategy to capture the audience in addition to ad dollars available. in addition to so have fraud operations, according Wayne Gattinella, the CEO of DoubleVerify.
“Fraud follows the money. Video CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] are much higher than display, so [fraudsters are] clearly focused on where the larger dollars go,” he told BuzzFeed News. This kind of particular fraud operation is usually designed “to capitalize on This kind of incredible demand for video,” he said.
Myspace in addition to GateHouse both point to audience vendors, video platform partners, in addition to external malicious actors as those accountable for any fraud taking place on the video subdomains. The partners in turn say their traffic was verified by reputable verification companies in addition to in which they too are unaware of any fraud taking place, or any system in which triggers automatic redirects or similar behavior.
nevertheless Social Puncher, DoubleVerify, in addition to a third independent ad fraud researcher separately documented the malicious automatic redirects in addition to refreshes taking place on these websites. Social Puncher alone recorded more than 0 hours of video of ads being fraudulently displayed on the Myspace in addition to GateHouse subdomains. This kind of footage often shows multiple video players playing at once on 1 page, redirects happening between different websites without any user action, in addition to/or editorial content being cut off by automated page refreshes in order to display more ads. All of the aforementioned activity is usually fraudulent because the item takes place without any human activity.
“You’ve got websites in which are getting some sort of inbound traffic in addition to then This kind of begins a cycle of autoplaying videos with ad pages refreshing in addition to sometimes redirecting to additional pages,” Roy Rosenfeld, DoubleVerify’s VP of product management, told BuzzFeed News.
This kind of video shows what the experience looked like on the Myspace subdomain:
Social Puncher recorded ads being shown during fraudulent sessions for major brands such as Coca-Cola, Fios (Verizon), State Farm, Hershey’s, the Home Depot, Chase, in addition to at least 14 brands belonging to Procter & Gamble, such as Tide in addition to Always.
Krieger of Myspace told BuzzFeed News the trending videos subdomain was set up in addition to hosted by a company called ScreenRush in order to test driving paid traffic to the site. The traffic was to be sourced through a website called Swagbucks in which enables people to earn reward points for engaging in activities such as watching online videos.
“We contracted to purchase a limited test of traffic specifically through Swagbucks through a company called ScreenRush,” said Krieger, adding in which the video subdomain “was natively hosted by ScreenRush in addition to integrated into the Swagbucks site.”
Myspace’s goal was to pay less to acquire traffic through Swagbucks than the item could earn by showing those people video ads.
This kind of week BuzzFeed News in addition to Social Puncher provided Myspace with information, including data through SimilarWeb, showing in which hundreds of millions of pageviews had been generated on the video site through sources additional than Swagbucks.
“After reviewing all of the information you provided combined with our own internal review, we have suspended the test with Swagbucks in addition to ScreenRush, effective immediately,” said Krieger.
Similar to Myspace, Begun told BuzzFeed News in which Tout, an online video platform, operates the video subdomains attached to roughly 150 of its websites. Begun said GateHouse is usually inside process of ending its relationship with Tout.
“We’ve been working to wind down our relationship with Tout for close to a year based on player performance issues in addition to a poor user experience including slow load times which affected overall page load times,” he said.
As part of the relationship with Tout, GateHouse earned revenue through the ads being shown inside Tout video player. Begun said the traffic on the Tout video pages was low, as was the resulting revenue. Both GateHouse in addition to Myspace say they were not aware of any significant spikes in traffic on these pages.
“We aren’t privy to how traffic is usually driven to those pages,” Begun said. “in which’s probably a question better fielded thru Tout.”
“Nobody wants to disclose or be responsible for where the money of these advertisers went.”
In statements to BuzzFeed News, Tout in addition to ScreenRush both say the traffic coming to the video pages they manage is usually verified by multiple reputable traffic verification companies, in addition to they too deny any knowledge of, or participation in, fraud.
“We work closely with our publishing partner sites, brand safety vendors in addition to multiple 3rd party verification services to confirm in which Tout inventory consists of real users in addition to is usually of premium quality,” wrote Trinh Bui, Tout’s vice president of client services, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Tout said the item sourced some traffic for the GateHouse websites through ScreenRush, creating the latter the only source of paid traffic for both Myspace in addition to GateHouse video pages.
The finger-pointing between publishers in addition to partners once fraud has been uncovered is usually common inside industry, according to Vlad Shevtsov, the director of investigations for Social Puncher. His company has been publishing fraud investigations at SadBotTrue.com for more than a year.
“Nobody wants to disclose or be responsible for where the money of these advertisers went,” Shevtsov told BuzzFeed News.
In order to execute the scheme, the suspicious traffic flowing to the video pages on Myspace in addition to GateHouse sites was directed to special URLs in which download code, which tells a web browser how long to stay on the page, when to refresh to start fresh ads, or when to trigger a redirect to another site inside fraud scheme so the item can show video ads. The result was in which the pages generated a massive number of video ad impressions with no human interaction. in which’s fraud, according to definitions through the Media Rating Council, the key industry body.
The scheme is usually set up so a regular user visiting the websites in question is usually not exposed to the automatic redirects. A visitor to trendingvideos.myspace.com, for example, was shown a normal video player in which displays ads only after the editorial content is usually completed. This kind of is usually where the real traffic through Swagbucks or additional reward sites was directed, researchers say.
“No user could actually spend time looking at in which. A human being will not sit through This kind of.”
nevertheless when the special URL is usually accessed on these subdomains, the experience is usually completely different. BuzzFeed News used URLs identified by Social Puncher in addition to DoubleVerify to trigger the redirect scheme. In one case, the browser was redirected to trendingvideos.myspace.com where a video ad began to play. Over the ensuing minutes, ads played for Gillette, Spectrum (multiple times), the University of Phoenix, in addition to for the upcoming Thor movie through Marvel Entertainment. The page automatically refreshed to show another ad before editorial content played, in effect creating a near-constant loop of ads. At times, more than one video played at the same time, further increasing the money being stolen.
“No user could actually spend time looking at in which,” said Rosenfeld of DoubleVerify. “A human being will not sit through This kind of.”
At the core of the scheme is usually technology in which enables the item to eliminate the need for human activity or even complicated bots in order to trigger ad impressions. Once a page is usually loaded the sites go on autopilot in addition to rack up ad views in a constant loop until being redirected, or until a browser crashes.
the item’s the same on GateHouse sites. Social Puncher in addition to DoubleVerify separately analyzed the traffic flowing to the video subdomains on these sites in addition to found they are benefitting through the same fraudulent traffic as Myspace. These video pages are in some cases responsible for the vast majority of traffic going to the entire site, though GateHouse says the item does not factor This kind of traffic into its audience reporting. (Myspace also said the item did not install analytics tracking on its video subdomain due to the fact in which the item was controlled by ScreenRush.)
Still, the traffic is usually being measured by external analytics services. For example, the videos.salina.com page for the Salina Journal in Kansas is usually currently responsible for 92% of its total traffic, according to data through SimilarWeb.
Alexa, another web analytics service, shows a similar percentage. The chart showing the site’s Alexa traffic rank also illustrates how a recent surge in traffic to the video page led the Salina Journal to become one of the top 5,000 most-visited sites inside US:
To put in which into perspective, Salina carries a population of just under 50,000 people, according to US Census data.
inside case of Myspace’s trending videos page, the influx of fresh traffic helped the site temporarily reverse an ongoing decline in its traffic rank:
Notably, the vast majority of This kind of fresh traffic to Myspace came through desktop users, which had previously made up a minority of Myspace’s visits. These fresh visitors also watched a huge number of videos in addition to, by extension, ads on the videos page.
SimilarWeb found in which through its launch to the end of September the average visitor to trendingvideos.myspace.com spent over 23 minutes in addition to viewed more than 58 pages. To put in which into perspective, SimilarWeb’s data for YouTube shows the average user spends 20 minutes in addition to views an average of just under 10 pages. This kind of means the Myspace video page run by ScreenRush almost instantly became more addictive than YouTube in terms of average time spent, in addition to caused people to view more than a few times the average number of pages.
Along with the high session time in addition to number of pages viewed, SimilarWeb found in which these fresh desktop visitors were referred through the same group of websites, in addition to accounted for close to 100% of Myspace’s referral traffic through May to September.
These sites had not previously referred significant traffic to Myspace. As a result, they provided the path in which ad fraud researchers in addition to BuzzFeed News followed to identify where the traffic is usually coming through. This kind of helped determine whether the item was the result of humans engaging with Myspace in addition to additional sites, or fraudulent traffic according to industry standards.
Prior to May, Myspace’s biggest sources of referral traffic were Wikipeda in addition to PeekYou, an online people-search tool. “They were responsible for an average of 27% of the site’s referral traffic between September in addition to April,” according to a SimilarWeb report for BuzzFeed News. (Roughly half of Myspace’s total traffic comes through search, in addition to another close to 30% of visitors go directly to Myspace.)
nevertheless in June in addition to July, Wikipedia in addition to PeekYou only accounted for a tiny percentage of all referral traffic because This kind of fresh network of referral sites suddenly began throwing millions of desktop visitors in addition to pageviews at the Myspace video page. (The company told BuzzFeed News its internal traffic logs in addition to comScore reports did not reflect This kind of increase in referral traffic. As noted, the video page was operated by ScreenRush in addition to did not have Myspace analytics tracking installed.)
The biggest group of these fresh referrers is usually more than 20 online arcade websites in which were registered on similar dates in addition to are clones of one another. They offer the same games in addition to largely use the same website template, albeit with different colors. The source code of each site also includes the same boilerplate text inside description, “Welcome to SiteGenerator.” This kind of shows they were all created using the same product.
Traffic rank data through Alexa also shows in which many of the arcade sites share identical patterns, suggesting they are receiving the exact same visitors at the exact same times, which researchers say is usually a telltale sign of fraudulent traffic. (Identical Alexa traffic rank patterns were also present inside sites exposed by BuzzFeed News last week.)
In June, 21 arcade sites were responsible for over 70% of all referral traffic to the video page on Myspace, according to SimilarWeb. in which month also saw referral traffic account for 44% of all traffic going to the site, a huge increase through the typical range of 10% to 12%. The referral traffic again increased to 48% of all Myspace traffic in July, in addition to was 41% of total site traffic in August. the item began to fall off in September.
“The site sees an abnormally high traffic peak in June in addition to July, in addition to This kind of is usually driven by a handful of referral sites in which account for 0% of the increase,” Gitit Greenberg, the director of digital insights for SimilarWeb, told BuzzFeed News.
Greenberg also noted in which the trending videos subdomain specifically saw a massive spike in referral traffic through these sites.
The arcade sites all have private domain ownership records, in addition to the item’s unclear who owns them. nevertheless after conducting a detailed analysis of the the traffic flowing through the sites, DoubleVerify concluded in which the item is usually fraudulent. DoubleVerify believes the traffic is usually either generated through malware installed on personal computers, or comes through surreptitious popunder windows in which are loaded on unsuspecting users.
After flowing through the arcade sites, the traffic either went straight to Myspace, or was redirected through a group of additional domains in which connect back to ScreenRush, the company Myspace partnered with.
Researchers say a complicated web of referrals between ScreenRush domains in addition to arcade sites helped mask the fact in which a comparatively smaller amount of real human traffic was actually coming through Swagbucks.
Two key referral domains are Adioio.com in addition to ScreenRush.com. The websites for both companies say they offer products in which deliver traffic to publishers. Adioio says its service has been verified by top traffic verification vendors in addition to shows the logos of Moat Analytics, Integral Ad Science, DoubleVerify, Nielsen, in addition to comScore.
DoubleVerify told BuzzFeed News the item has no relationship with Adioio, in addition to the company’s false claim of association was one reason DoubleVerify began looking into the traffic flowing via the Adioio website. IAS in addition to MOAT also told BuzzFeed News they do not work with Adioio in addition to have never heard of the company. Along with creating false claims about working with these verification companies, Adioio’s site incorrectly refers to “MRCC Brand Safefy [sic] Vendors.” The correct acronym for the industry accrediting body is usually MRC. The site also misspells the word “safety.” (Nielsen in addition to comScore did not reply to email inquiries through BuzzFeed News.)
Adioio’s site does not list anyone who works for the company, nevertheless the item does cite 15 websites in its “Publisher Network.” These sites focus on lucrative niches such as parenting, sports, in addition to entertainment. Many of them consist of content in which appears to have been automatically aggregated through additional sources. Some of them are powered by the Paper.li content curation system.
Nearly all of the sites also have an active video subdomain just like Myspace in addition to others inside scheme. The subdomains on the Adioio sites account for over 95% of traffic going to them, according to data through Alexa. SimilarWeb, DoubleVerify, in addition to Social Puncher also found in which the sites also act as referrers of traffic into the scheme.
Domain registration records show in which a man named Daniel Aharonoff owns a few of the sites. He is usually a longtime entrepreneur in addition to consultant inside online video industry, according to his LinkedIn profile. Aharonoff is usually also the general manager of ScreenRush, in addition to he told BuzzFeed News in which Adioio in addition to ScreenRush are part of the same company.
Aharonoff said the traffic he was contracted to provide Myspace came through rewards companies like Swagbucks in addition to others like the item.
The Watch section of the Swagbucks website invites users to view videos in addition to earn reward points in which can be redeemed for gift cards. During a recent visit, BuzzFeed News was offered the chance to earn reward points for watching a collection of 20 news videos through AFP. (Swagbucks opens the content in a fresh window in addition to informs the user when they can advance to the next video inside playlist. the item required the user to click to play the next video.)
Aharonoff said the ScreenRush platform facilitates real-time bids for traffic through sources like Swagbucks to secure audience at the right cost point. In Myspace’s case, he said the item was willing to pay up to $6 per thousand impressions for users who spend at least 45 seconds on the site.
The use of Swagbucks to generate traffic for both Myspace in addition to GateHouse seems to explain why a key referrer to Myspace (in addition to at times to GateHouse sites) in recent months is usually Entertainmentcrave.com, a domain owned by Prodege LLC, the parent company of Swagbucks. SimilarWeb’s data shows in which in July Entertainmentcrave.com became the single biggest referrer to Myspace, sending 43% of all referral traffic to the site. the item was not even among the 25 top referrers the month before, when Myspace also saw a massive traffic increase.
Researchers at Social Puncher in addition to DoubleVerify both say there is usually likely some real human traffic flowing through Swagbucks to Myspace in addition to the GateHouse sites. nevertheless they found This kind of traffic does not access the secret site URLs in which unleash automatic redirects in addition to constant ads. Importantly, they also found the majority of traffic coming through Entertainmentcrave.com does not originate at Swagbucks or additional incentive sites.
Data through SimilarWeb in fact found in which the majority of traffic flowing through Entertainmentcrave.com through April to September came through the through the highly suspicious arcade sites in addition to Adioio.com. As for Adioio, SimilarWeb found in which just over a quarter of its traffic is usually through the arcade sites, too.
in which means the arcade sites are passing traffic to both Entertainmentcrave.com in addition to Adioio.com, in addition to in some cases Adioio then passes in which same traffic through Entertainmentcrave.com. Then the item is usually sent along to Myspace or the GateHouse sites to trigger the video impressions.
Aharonoff disputes This kind of conclusion. He said the traffic he sources for publishers, in addition to in which advertisers place ads against, has been cleared by multiple traffic verification vendors before ending up on a site like Myspace.
“the item isn’t uncommon for different leading vendors to score traffic inconsistently, nevertheless the advertiser makes in which decision based on their own [key performance indicators],” he said.
Aharonoff is usually correct in which the item’s common for different verification vendors to score traffic differently in terms of how much is usually invalid versus real. However, real-time traffic scoring is usually not the same as the weeks-long investigation undertaken by DoubleVerify to analyze the traffic going to Myspace in addition to GateHouse sites, in addition to to track the item back to its origins, according to the company. Social Puncher also spent months tracking the traffic in addition to ads being shown.
BuzzFeed News contacted Prodege, the parent company of Swagbucks, to ask if the item was aware in which arcade sites identified as malware by DoubleVerify were passing traffic through its Entertainmentcrave.com domain. Similar to Aharonoff, Prodege’s senior vice president, Stacey Olliff, said by email in which all traffic going through in which domain is usually verified by multiple vendors. (Aharonoff was a consultant for Swagbucks for several years, nevertheless left to work on ScreenRush, Olliff told BuzzFeed News.)
“We are mystified as to why DV or the additional consultants you mentioned could conclude in which traffic coming out of in which domain is usually non-human traffic or otherwise invalid traffic,” he said. “We think the item is usually extremely implausible in which IAS, Pixalate, Forensiq in addition to the additional leading vendors scoring in which traffic are not accurately classifying vast quantities of traffic, in addition to the parties you are relying upon for contrary information are in fact the only ones accurately detecting non-human traffic.”
BuzzFeed News contacted some of the vendors Olliff said verify the traffic on Entertainmentcrave.com.
“We do not verify traffic for entertainmentcrave.com for anyone, including Prodege,” said Tyler Loechner, the marketing manager for Pixalate. He also confirmed in which they saw an increase in invalid traffic going to trendingvideos.myspace.com over the summer.
A spokesperson for IAS told BuzzFeed News they flagged Entertainmentcrave.com “for high brand risk across either one or several of our brand safety categories.”
For his part, Aharonoff said his system acts as a “clearinghouse” for traffic coming through incentive sites in addition to additional sources, in addition to in which verification companies consistently rate the traffic as authentic. He questioned why he is usually “required to go by all the rules in addition to support half a dozen scoring providers in addition to still get slapped on the [wrist] because they can’t agree on the definitions.”
When asked why Adioio.com listed the logos of traffic verification vendors who told BuzzFeed News they don’t actually work with his company, Aharonoff said he listed them because the vendors he sources traffic through use these companies.
“As you know loyalty partners filter supply before they offer us to bid on the item,” he said.
Yet Aharonoff said he doesn’t know anything about the 21 arcade sites in which provided the lion’s share of traffic in which flowed through his system in addition to onto the Myspace video page, as well as the GateHouse pages. “We tap into several supply partners in addition to I don’t know what the sites you are referring to are,” he said.
“in which’s kinda like a pack of coffee labeled Kona, nevertheless only 5% is usually real Kona coffee, the rest being cheap filler.”
To gain an added layer of verification, BuzzFeed News provided the referral websites sending to traffic to GateHouse in addition to Myspace to Dr. Augustine Fou, a respected independent ad fraud researcher. Without being told about their existence, he quickly identified the automatic redirects in addition to page-refreshing taking place on websites receiving ScreenRush traffic. Regardless of the origin of any traffic, he said in which these mechanisms on the pages alone are fraudulent.
“the item’s This kind of additional form of fraud where the item’s forced navigation, or auto-nav, where the pages just keep going forward by themselves,” Dr. Fou said.
He also concluded in which the massive number of visits in addition to pageviews being generated at video subdomains on Myspace in addition to elsewhere align with the fraudulent redirects in addition to refreshes, in addition to not real traffic coming through Swagbucks.
“The Swagbucks thing is usually plausible in addition to may even have actually happened,” Dr. Fou said. “nevertheless in which’s kinda like a pack of coffee labeled Kona, nevertheless only 5% is usually real Kona coffee, the rest being cheap filler. Some of their traffic may be accounted for by real humans getting points to watch videos; nevertheless the rest may be just auto-navigation, stacked redirects, etc. in which drive up the impressions manyfold.”
Myspace says the item received none of the fraudulent revenue generated on the subdomain run by ScreenRush. As far as the item knows, the video page only generated 1.3 million video impressions in addition to earned roughly $13,000 in revenue during its life, according to Krieger. Those figures appear to align with the amount of real traffic being sourced through Swagbucks.
Krieger said someone else made money through the traffic in which triggered the redirects in addition to auto-refresh experience on the video page.
“Based on your stated experience, someone else was benefiting through This kind of activity (in which wasn’t Myspace),” she wrote in an email.
Dr. Fou believes there’s a lesson for all publishers in how This kind of played out for Myspace in addition to GateHouse.
“When publishers are desperate they are going to try anything, in addition to when someone comes in in addition to offers you free money through video the item’s too tempting to resist,” he said.
“nevertheless the item’s their reputation in which’s going to get ruined.” ●
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