The Anatomy of a Suspicious Viral Publisher

Though viral content isn’t necessarily an indicator of ad fraud, our data science team has come to see it as a warning sign that something might be amiss. Looking across the digital ecosystem, our experts have found that low-quality viral publishers are most at risk for non-human traffic.

In order to create a safe environment for brands, AppNexus applies vigorous scrutiny to the viral publishers on our platform, using automated and human detection methods to ensure our sites are acquiring their traffic organically.

We found that suspicious publishers typically use a handful of cheap tricks to pass themselves off as legitimate websites. Here are a few red flags to look out for.

“Borrowed” Content 

Overt plagiarism is a pretty glaring sign that a publisher might have questionable ethics. For instance, on the site depicted above, every article is lifted from a mainstream publisher and filed under tabs for NPR, The New York Times, and Science Daily.


Awkward Formatting

A tell-tale sign of lifted content is that parts of the story look out of place on the offending publisher’s website. This happens when fraudulent viral publishers scrape a story off another site without reformatting it to fit their own design. For instance, the story above was lifted from NPR. It also has photo captions shoehorned into the regular article text.


Partially Scraped Content 

In some instances, fraudulent publishers don’t even bother to lift an entire article. The article shown above contains just a single sentence after the headline.


Out-Of-Place Links

Links to random, unrelated pages are also common on suspicious, viral content sites. For instance, the page above has a link at the bottom bearing the text “happy wheel.” When you click it, you wind up on a landing page that contains boilerplate writing about a free online game called Happy Wheels.


No Author Pages

Real websites have real writers, and most of them contain author pages where readers can learn more about the site’s contributors. Stories on sites like the site depicted above, which plagiarizes content from ESPN, are published without bylines.


Heavy Ad Loads

Quality publishers balance their desire to generate ad revenue against their concerns that an ad-saturated user experience will drive away their audience. But if you’re not expecting human beings to actually consume your content, you don’t have to worry about showing them too many ads. As such, these sites will often look like the one depicted above, which is overflowing with autoplay videos and other intrusive ad units.


Missing Sections 

Low-quality viral sites frequently come off as if they are still in the process of being built. For example, take a look at the site above. It’s built to look like a conventional online newspaper, but it only posts lifted stories and low-quality viral content. When you click a link to its sports section, nothing comes up.


Reliance on Embedded Video 

Embedded videos are a nice way for publishers to present viral content without having to do much work. Because legitimate publishers serve their own ads beside their videos, they sometimes do not place restrictions on other sites who want to republish their content. As a result, sites like the fake newspaper depicted above are full of viral videos packaged alongside shoddy, slapdash writing.


Learn to read the signs 

Any one of these characteristics on their own is a red flag, but not necessarily a guarantee that a site is engaged in fraudulent activity. But even so, these behaviors call for increased scrutiny, especially if a site is engaging in more than one of them. If you want to learn more about shady viral publishers and the role they play in issues around ad fraud and fake news, download our latest white paper on inventory quality!

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