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There are Still Some Highly Questionable Publishers Hiding in Plain Sight on Google’s Ad Exchange

Vincent Flood  18 February, 2016

doubleclick_ad_exchangeAs things stand, ad fraud and traffic quality are problems that are impossible for ad exchanges to completely eradicate. Yet sadly it continues to kill off significant swathes of the digital media industry, while cheapening what’s left of the Internet in the process. Advertisers see part of their money poured down the sink and start to lose confidence in digital advertising. Then honest and legitimate publishers — the kind who invest in quality content and hold the powerful to account — receive lower CPMs for their hard-earned inventory. The only people who make serious profits are the fraudsters and those who turn a blind eye to their activities.

One of the companies that has been the most vocal on fraud has been Google. Just a few weeks ago, Sridhar Ramaswamy, SVP, Ads & Commerce, described in a blog post that Google invested in sophisticated technology and a ‘global team of 1,000+ people’ dedicated to fighting ‘bad ads’, and an Ad Age piece last year looked at Google’s hundred-strong ‘crack team’ of botnet hunters.

This isn’t just Google PR either, as various ad tech and agency sources have told VAN that Google AdExchange (commonly known as AdX) is cleaner than most. Pixalate’s Global Trust Rankings also rate AdX as the second most trustworthy exchange, just after OpenX:

Global Trust Rankings

While that’s all well and good, some buyers have complained to VAN that there are some highly questionable publishers hiding in plain sight on AdX i.e. these aren’t long tail sites, but are up there in the top publishers alongside the national press.

And these sites don’t just surface every once in a while, but they hang around in the top rankings for weeks, which is something we have been monitoring since the beginning of this month.

On 2nd February, this is what the top ten UK publishers on AdX (i.e. those with the most inventory available to buy) looked like. Click to open a larger version of the chart in a new tab:


Ever heard of CooktheFood.com? Don’t beat yourself up about it. It has an Alexa traffic rank of 2,620 for the UK, yet somehow manages to have more inventory available for AdX than the Daily Mail.

How about Startinghobbies.com, which was last updated on 1st December 2014. This one has an Alexa rank of 87,905 for the UK. Yet it had 6M impressions available for you to buy in the week ahead.

Perhaps those two were curve balls. What about Subjectboard.com, the site that teaches you everything from preparing your lawnmower right through to how to choose the perfect pair of jeans? No, we hadn’t either. And this site is even further down the Alexa traffic rankings for the UK, at 4,622.

Remarkably, all three of these sites appear supposedly have huge amounts of inventory available on AdX, putting them up there alongside top tier UK publishers like the Mirror, Zynga, and the Daily Mail.

So is it time to celebrate these unknown giants of the UK media industry, give them some awards perhaps, or is there something odd going on here? Let’s take a closer look at one of the sites in question – CooktheFood.com – and you can make up your own minds about the quality they’re offering their supposed readers and their advertisers.

In looking at CooktheFood.com, I borrowed a few of the research methods used by Mike Nolet in his epic post from last year about how a similarly questionable site – the now defunct michaelgolf.com – was also acting as highly visible and lucrative source of supply on AdX.

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CooktheFood.com, AdX’s Third Largest Available Supply Source at the Time of Writing

Below is a screen shot of the homepage for CooktheFood.com. Judging by the number of watermelon recipes on there, one would assume that watermelon is a HUGE hit with its UK-based readership. Here in the UK, wintertime=watermelon, apparently:

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 13.00.05

When I clicked on some of the videos, I saw ads for both Unilever and for Lynx, which is also a Unilever brand:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 19.56.33

According to AdX’s interface on 2nd February, the site can deliver 11 million views impressions per week (1.5M uniques), which at an average CPM of $13.85 could make the owners as much as $152,350 per week from advertisers (or just under $8 million per year). And that’s just from the UK. Any revenue generated would be split between Google and the owner of CooktheFood.com.

What about the authors on the site? Using Tineye’s reverse image search I decided to take a look at up the author image for Dr. Tom Lewandowski, but it appears that Lewandowski’s photo was actually just a purchased stock photo of a doctor holding up carrots.

But maybe he’s just camera shy, as CooktheFood.com assure us that, “Dr. Lewandowski has been passionate about sports and nutrition since he was young having being the captain of his football team in college. He is today a practicing cardiologist.” A cardiologist who likes to write articles with titles like ‘Great Uses for Watermelon Sticks’ in his spare time. Good for him.

According to Alexa, CooktheFood is quite good at retaining visitors. Each visitor to the site views 4.5 pages on average. And why wouldn’t they hang around when they can read articles featuring content like this (and I quote):

Chicken curry with tasty ingredients
Chicken curry recipe is a useful administration that is offered for flourishing of those individuals that are connected with business straightforwardly or in a roundabout way. This is reality that individuals are intrigued to acquire achievement in their social and sparing lifestyle however this is likewise a truth that those individuals that are utilizing fitting sources as a part of this matter of getting some particular intentions are numbered ineffective individuals and those individuals that are utilizing unpleasant and uncalled for sources are not attaining to their objectives and points in legitimate time span. In this way, individuals ought to utilize these sources with fitting directing in light of the fact that legitimate supporting is the privilege approach to embracing proper method for achievement in the social and business lifestyle.

Mmmmm. Chicken curry that is offered for the flourishing of individuals, just like momma used to make.

If you thought that most of that was gobbledygook, perhaps you noticed the reference to ‘individuals that are utilizing unpleasant and uncalled for sources‘, which as it happens dovetails nicely into the traffic sources for CooktheFood.com, which is mainly a collection of porn-sites and pop-up ad networks:

CooktheFood.com Traffic Sources

Interestingly, a few of these sources are the same as those used by ‘michaelgolf.com’, the site that Mike Nolet, wrote about last year:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 17.20.14

Strangely, just 0.50 percent of CooktheFood.com’s traffic comes from a search engine according to Alexa, meaning that only 1 in every 200 people find the site via a search engine. So maybe they’re one of those social-oriented sites, right? Sadly not, as very few of the articles we checked using SharedCount had any shares at all.

Enter Knowlera, Or ‘Envisiant’

When you watch a video on CooktheFood.com, at the end of the videos you’ll see the content is copyrighted by Knowlera Media, who have since rebranded as Envisiant:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 17.02.00

Knowlera – featured in an Ad Age story about ad fraud in 2014. The article stated that Telemetry found over 400 sites of connected ad fraud. Ad Age reported that when checking the SSL certificates — used to verify the site is secure — Telemetry found they were registered in bundles with some domains registered by Knowlera Media, who are a video content creator. Knowlera’s COO Will Jerro denied the claims and said that the domains were handed to a publisher partner immediately after creation, meaning the company never had control of them. “They were in essence, licensing the name,” Mr. Jerro told Ad Age. “Monkeysee.com and Knowlera.com are the only sites we’ve ever owned and operated”.

Last year Knowlera tried to make a libel claim against Telemetry over the Ad Age article, but the case was tossed by a judge in November. Knowlera.com now redirects to Envisiant, who according to their website are based in Mercer Island, Washington.

I emailed Envisiant to ask about their relationship with CooktheFood.com, but haven’t heard anything back.

Knowlera also supplies content to other sites that are enjoying similarly startling levels of success as the top publishers on AdX, such as startinghobbies.com:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 13.17.45

And on subjectboard.com:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 13.22.22

I have also been in touch with Google who say they will be happy to provide a response in due course, although they don’t comment on the cases of individual publishers.

Questions for Consideration

None of the above provides conclusive proof of bad behaviour, but there are some questions that we’d like to see answered:

  1. Does Google manually monitor the top publishers on the Google AdExchange?
  2. Are a site’s traffic sources one of the things that are taken into account when verifying the site’s audiences?
  3. How are sites that haven’t been updated in years taken seriously?
  4. Does Envisiant/Knowlera have a direct relationship with CooktheFood.com, SubjectBoard.com and Startinghobbies.com?
  5. Who are Google paying the cheques to?
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