The [dis]connect between content “quality” and online advertising.

Jack Marshall
Digiday’s Jack Marshall

I really appreciate the work of Jack Marshall, a reporter at marketing e-zine Digiday, who is helping to expose and explain the “brave new world” of online display advertising and how it has evolved into something that’s rife with problems.

ad exchangesConsider a recent column of Marshall’s titled “Is this the worst site on the Internet?”

In it, he notes that for “legitimate” online publishers that rely on advertising as their revenue model, that model is becoming a more daunting proposition with each passing day.

And a big reason is the emergence of other websites that are “gaming” the online system – not to mention the ad tech middlemen that are their willing accomplices.

Essentially, what’s happening is that ad dollars are being siphoned away from websites that provide professionally produced content and are going to sites that are explicitly constructed to serve up as many ad impressions as possible.

These sites contain little or no original content.

Marshall’s “Exhibit A” is Georgia Daily News, a website which purports to cover “news, traffic, sports, politics, entertainment, gossip and local events in Atlanta.”

As Marshall contends, “What it actually features is content ‘curated’ from elsewhere on the web, and some it has simply stolen from other major news sites” such as the Daily Mail.

Sizable chunks of the website’s content have nothing to do with Atlanta.

GADailyNews home pageConsidering the type of general news site it purports to be, GADailyNews.com doesn’t attract very much traffic at all.  And why would it? — since it contains precious little information of value or interest to anyone who is actually “seeking news about Atlanta.”

But it sure does generate a lot of ad impressions.  According to Marshall, each article page on the site features seven display ad units – all of which refresh every 20 seconds or so.

In the two-minute span of time it took him to read an article about Katy Perry and John Mayer (content copied from an Australian news site), Marshall was served more than 40 ad impressions.

Marshall continues:

“One page has served me nearly 500 ads in just 20 minutes – and I couldn’t stop refreshing them even if I wanted to.”

[And these ads aren’t for B-list advertisers, either.  They’re for brands like American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Charles Schwaab and others.]

What’s happening here, of course, is that websites and ad tech middlemen have figured out that the algorithms of even the “quality” ad vendors like Google, AdRoll, and Bizo can be gamed pretty easily to serve ads on a low-quality site like Georgia Daily News, which is owned by a single-person entity called Integrated News Media Corporation.

It’s hardly the type of media vehicle that big-brand advertisers would normally wish to use for advertising.  But thanks to the vagaries and complexity of the ad exchange landscape, they are.

For every Georgia Daily News site, there are hundreds of others like it that cobble together seemingly valuable content with a passably convincing set of audience characteristics.

Put it together, and it adds up to problems on two levels.

First, advertisers are paying for impressions that are near-worthless.

Second, since there are finite ad dollars available, legitimate online publishers are losing out on those funds, which are far more important to their well-being than they are for sites that don’t engage in any true journalism at all.

As Jack Marshall concludes:

“Thanks to fraudulent traffic, dubious sites and middlemen with low quality standards, life is only getting harder for those publishers with expensive content teams to support.”