Made-for-Advertising (MFA) sites, and their sneaky approach continues to be a major issue when it comes to stealing online advertising dollars in the evolving world of digital advertising.

Despite assurances from Google and advertising programmatic networks assurances that they are tackling the problem, it is bigger than ever. With this continued rise of MFAs, a crucial question emerges: how can marketers sift through the noise, differentiate between genuine platforms and deceptive sites, and truly understand the impact of their advertising dollars?

Unmasking the MFA Phenomenon

At its core, an MFA site is a web platform made for the sole purpose of generating advertising dollars – generally with banner ads stretching the lengths of web pages and full of video ads and pop-ups. 

Why can’t ad buying algorithms detect MFAs?

While the seasoned web user might find such sites a bombardment to their senses, the algorithms governing ad buying view them as potential gold mines, offering cheap media placements that are highly viewable. But what seems like a digital El Dorado for advertisers soon reveals itself as a trap. The catch? The very foundation of these sites is based on taking advantage of programmatic advertising’s algorithmic vulnerabilities.

The problem with automated buying and selling in programmatic advertising

Programmatic advertising, with its automated buying and selling of ad impressions, has proven to be a double-edged sword. It has simplified media buying while amplifying its scale, but its automation can be exploited.

MFAs prey on the marketer’s quest for high-quality media at rock-bottom prices.  Realistically, such media does exist, but its discovery requires marketers to move past surface-level metrics like cost-per-viewable impressions. Sadly, not many are willing to delve deeper, providing fertile ground for MFAs to flourish.

Walking the Tightrope: Is It Fraud?

The MFA conundrum pushes the boundaries of what the industry defines as invalid traffic (IVT). These sites, despite their controversial nature, do cater to real users.

The caveat, however, is that user engagement is fleeting. Most traffic is driven through content recommendation platforms rather than organic reach.

Damon Reeve, CEO of the U.K.-based publisher alliance Ozone, aptly puts it, “MFA sites play on the metrics that the ad-tech industry has established. Despite the industry’s disdain for them, the money still flows their way.”

The Scale of the Challenge

Though the exact spread of MFA’s influence is ambiguous, the glimpses we get are alarming. 

A snapshot from the ANA’s study reveals that MFAs constituted a whopping 21% of 35 billion impressions in programmatic advertising, amounting to 15% of the $123 million spent by 21 advertisers. More worryingly, these sites are not limited to open auctions but have infiltrated private marketplaces—the supposed sanctuaries of premium ad inventories.

How do you avoid getting sucked in by MFAs and wasting a percentage of your advertising dollars?

Here at Walk Digital, we don’t do any automated programmatic buying, all our programmatic advertising campaigns are all done manually using lists of the most premium brands for each client that are relevant to their target market. This takes a little more time and effort, but it allows us to guarantee that there are no wasted advertising dollars and can show clients exactly where their ads were placed on these genuine high performing sites. 

Unfortunately across the industry, many agencies and marketers are not willing to undertake. Especially when the KPIs that come back from MFAs on paper allow the marketing agency to show “amazing” results to their clients. It demands a seismic shift in the industry’s approach and a willingness to discard outdated metrics.

While MFAs exploit the existing system, it’s an opportune moment for the industry to reconsider and realign. Adopting meaningful metrics, emphasising brand suitability over mere safety, and fostering an environment of trust can pave the way to a more transparent and effective digital advertising landscape.