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Clickbait, Native Advertising and the Digital Marketing Ponzi Scheme

While looking through the analytics of a website I manage, I noticed an unusual amount of traffic from and a ton of its subdomains.  I immediately thought this was link spam, but something about it didn’t seem quite right.  I hesitantly copy and pasted the URL into the search bar to see if this site had been reported by any of the SEO forums I follow and at first glance, it seemed like a “legitimate” website.

I took a deep breath and entered the site, hoping I wasn’t exposing my computer to a virus or my co-workers to a porn site with autoplay videos.  To my surprise, Buzzlie was just a simple poorly written celebrity gossip blog with a lot of racy yet completely PG-rated photos.  This seemed odd to me since my client is an upscale travel destination with a target audience of affluent, highly educated men and women between the ages of 30 and 65 years old, so I went back to Google Analytics to investigate further.

Buzzlie Scam

After filtering my Source/Medium traffic to only show traffic from Buzzlie, I noticed that the medium was Referral.  Usually, this means a direct link from another site, but why would links to our site be linked from this totally unrelated blog? The answer came when I added the second dimension of Destination Page.

Although the medium was tagged as Referral, it was easy to see that without exception all of the traffic from Buzzlie landed on the pages specified for our native advertising campaign. After questioning our marketing firm about this unengaged and irrelevant traffic, I stumbled upon a scam happening throughout the world of programmatic marketing.

The Rise of the Computers

On paper and algorithmically, Buzzlie is a great investment. Common-sensically however, who would visit this poorly constructed and written website? Well according to Quantcast, 12.5 million visitors each month.  One would think that a popular celebrity gossip blog would have a ton of followers on twitter, right? At the time when this post was written, @BuzzlieNews had a total of 44 followers on twitter. Curiouser and curiouser.QuantCast-Buzzlie

The Scam: Bogus blogs use native ad servers like Outbrain to display clickbait articles with sexy or outrageous images that link back their site from popular and respected websites.(See below image.)  Since these blogs update their posts regularly and have link affiliations with highly ranked sites, the programmatic ad servers see them as reputable because according to the algorithms that dictate SEO best practices they are.

Typical Native Advertising with clickbait. Retrieved from on 22 Dec. 2015


Next, the blog sites convince a different programmatic marketer like TripleLift to buy space on their blog for native advertising. The data-controlled marketing platform sees the high traffic, yet bogus, blog as a perfect place to provide a ton of relevant impressions for their clients and a potential goldmine since their clients pay per thousand impressions.

Finally, the bogus blog displays our agency’s native ads on its journalistic-integrity-free pages and uses what I assume is a mix of traffic bots and impulsive internet users to deliver an industry accepted number of clicks to our site.  Considering that many smaller agencies rarely have the staff to check their traffic analytics in detail and most larger corporations don’t have the time to funnel down to each traffic source, this is a perfect crime and ta digital marketing Ponzi scheme.

In the age of data-driven marketing decisions, human oversight is necessary to avoid a common Digital Marketing Ponzi scheme, which could easily cost your company thousands of dollars. Even though programmatic marketing platforms have created efficiencies that make competing in a crowded and global marketplace cheaper and easier, we need to remember that in all industries and disciplines the tool is only as good as the craftsman.

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