Ad buyers are joining the fight against the "fake news" that many people blame for misinforming voters during the presidential campaign.
Although the focus intially fell on Facebook and Google, where made-up headlines became easy to find, pressure has also come to bear on lesser-known companies that provide the financial motivation for fake news. Programmatic advertising, which automates the process of buying and selling digital ads, lets publishers tap marketers' budgets when they draw audiences, even with false stories.
Now ad-fraud fighters, usually hired to prevent scam artists from stealing ad budgets with fake traffic, are being asked to help brands avoid websites with real audiences but fake stories.
"It's definitely caught the ear of our customers," said Wayne Gattinella, CEO and president of DoubleVerify. "The money follows the traffic and these sites are generating a heck of a lot of traffic. And traffic generates media dollars."
"Now, all of sudden, the media spenders are turning around and saying to us, 'Hey, where are our media dollars going?'" he said. "So, it's a relatively new event and one in the last few weeks that we're getting a lot of questions about from our customers."
DoubleVerify plans to roll out an offering Dec. 1 designed to keep marketers' ads off fake news sites.
GroupM, the world's largest ad buyer, is among those seeking help from fraud fighters.
"It's certainly something we are asking them to do," said John Montgomery, exec VP of global brand safety at GroupM. "These are the guys we are looking to for technological solutions. Of course, it is quite hard. This is not the same as detecting a bot."
The solution to combating fake news sites may lie in having centralized data that would share any bad actors found in the digital ad economy, similar to central clearinghouses for information on ad fraud scams, Mr. Montgomery said.
Several other anti-fraud vendors have recently begun offering or planning products to screen for fake news sites.
"This is an impossible problem, but in practice, it is actually rather straightforward for an advertiser to avoid advertising in this context," said Michael Tiffany, CEO of WhiteOps, which has teamed up with the brand-safety services firm AdMantx. Systems that have been available for quite some time already let marketers avoid certain topics or publisher profiles, he said.
Fake news sites are also pretty far down the food chain, Mr. Tiffany added, suggesting that targeting larger sites would help keep marketers safe. "This is exclusively a long tail problem and it's exclusively a problem of where buying against the long tail intersects with the current limitations of the contextual analysis that are powering brand safety," he said. "On a dollar-adjusted basis, this is a fairly small problem."
Still, many brands simply don't want their ads appearing on fake news sites. Marc Goldberg, CEO at Trust Metrics, said his team uses a combination of technology and human intervention to flag fake news sites. The company began focusing on fake news well before it gained widespread coverage by the media, he said. To date, it has flagged thousands of websites.
"I'm actually a little disappointed that fake news is just about Google and Facebook and that it's just their problem," Mr. Goldberg said. "Fake news, which is a byproduct of the clickbait economy, is the same thing as other fake sites that are just sending bots. It's the same thing because they're both designed to steal advertising dollars."
"Brand safety" online has historically involved making sure ads don't appear on pornographic or vulgar websites. That's changed, as fake news sites have found themselves working with nearly every major player in ad tech.
Ad Age visited dozens of fake news sites and used Ghostery's Trackermap, a tool that shows what's under the hood of any given website, to see what companies their publishers are working with. The websites are bloated with ad tech, to levels not often seen by Ghostery, whose business is to analyze ad tech for website operators.
One story on fake news site Clash Daily had 196 ad tags alone. For comparison, a typical political story on The New York Times will have 50 to 60 ad tags.
Some of the fake news sites even used relatively advanced technologies like header bidding, which savvy publishers use to make sure they get the highest bids possible for the inventory.
"This a new frontier in the fraud war and it came out of a weird place," said Scott Meyer, CEO of Ghostery. "And it's going to be a challenge for these companies for exactly that reason."