OCTOBER 12, 2009
Web Ads Get Tangled in Cloak of Invisibility
By EMILY STEEL
Wall St. Journal
Kraft Foods, Greyhound Lines and Capital One Financial have bought some strange ads on the Internet lately. What's so strange about them is that they're invisible.
The companies might not have known about their invisible display ads—the kind that are supposed to appear alongside content on Web pages—if not for Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies Internet advertising.
Mr. Edelman says his research shows that all three marketers, and many others, have fallen victim to Web sites that use such ads as a way to sell more ad space than they have.
The Web sites can get away with it, he says, because online advertisers don't always audit their campaigns for proof their ads are appearing. It isn't clear how common these ads are or how much they cost marketers.
Mr. Edelman and other Internet-security experts say the ads are created with the use of computer code that makes it look to marketers as though their ads are showing up on legitimate Web sites. But consumers who visit those sites can't see the ads because they have been placed on invisible Web pages.
In one example, visitors to a site called MyToursInfo.com saw an ordinary-looking Web page with one ad for Verizon Communications and another for a weight-loss product. But, Mr. Edelman, who studied the site in January, said software code running behind the scenes opened more than 40 Web pages, each including three ads from marketers such as Domino's Pizza and Capital One, which were invisible to visitors.
Mr. Edelman's analysis of the code was confirmed by computer-security experts at Symantec and McAfee as well as online-ad advisory firms DoubleVerify and Anchor Intelligence.
MyToursInfo.com has since shut down, and efforts to identify its operators were unsuccessful.
Domino's Pizza says it is aware of sites like MyToursInfo.com and is taking steps to protect against them by buying display ads it pays for only when a consumer clicks on them. Capital One said it wasn't familiar with the situation but said it keeps "a close eye" on its online ads.
Verifying that ads appear is an issue that has long plagued traditional media, particularly commercials on local TV stations. But a single online ad campaign can appear on thousands of Web sites, making verification even harder.
Advertisers often buy display ads based on the number of times they are loaded onto a page, rather than the number of clicks they get. Over the past, year, an increasing number of scams have sought to take advantage of that pricing system as advertisers have started buying more of their online ads via middlemen called ad networks, instead of directly from the Web sites themselves. These networks sell ad space at cheap rates across thousands of sites, and they don't always weed out illegitimate players.
Several such networks, including Burst Media and Tribal Fusion, sold ads that appeared on the MyToursInfo.com site, Mr. Edelman says, according to his analysis of computer code.
Tribal says MyToursInfo.com isn't included in its network now but can't say whether it was in the past. Burst says MyToursInfo.com was included in its network earlier this year but isn't now part of its network.
The ad networks say they use a combination of high-tech scans and manual processes to ferret out unscrupulous sites.
"Unfortunately, these bad actors are kind of like ants at a picnic. You constantly have to be vigilant," says Chuck Moran, Burst Media's chief marketing officer.
"It is one of the big challenges of running a network," says Toby Gabriner, president of Tribal Fusion. He said his company now is working with Mr. Edelman to help detect possible fraud across its network. Mr. Edelman does similar consulting work for clients including Time Warner's AOL and Microsoft.
Ads are typically rendered invisible by manipulating computer codes called iframes that determine how a Web page appears on a visitor's computer screen. Iframes allow one Web page to be built inside another, the procedure used to make display ads. But, programmers can also make iframes invisible, so that computer users don't see anything contained in them.
Mr. Edelman, who trolls the Web for examples of invisible ads, says ads for Kraft Foods and Greyhound Lines recently ended up buried on invisible pages on a site called MyProfilePimp.com, which offers games, photos and other ways for consumers to personalize profile pages on social-networking sites like Facebook. Mr. Edelman says a visit to the site in June opened a series of invisible pages on the visitor's computer with as many as 46 ads. He says none of those ads could be seen.
MyProfilePimp.com declined to comment.
Kraft says it monitors its online ad purchases but wasn't aware of the MyProfilePimp.com ads. "We are looking into it as we would with any other possible violation of our agreements," it said.
Greyhound was similarly unaware of the case and said that the site shouldn't have been included in any of its ad-network buys. A spokeswoman says the bus line is working to "safeguard against fraudulent activity moving forward."
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page B1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB2000142 ... 90026.html
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