Beware the Dot-Com Tollbooth

When planning an online ad campaign and shopping for media buys, every media planner has a fairly standard set of questions to ask publishers. They typically concern web site traffic, cost, pricing models, available inventory, and user demographics. Finding the right match for your goals can be challenging and time-consuming, but the time and effort pay off when you find the perfect placement.

However, when looking for media buys, media planners sometimes overlook one crucial question: where the publisher’s site traffic comes from.

Consider this scenario. You’re planning a client’s campaign targeting sports enthusiasts. Out of the blue, you get a cold call from a sales rep at footballbaseballbasketballhockeysoccertennis.com (fbbhst.com for short). Never having heard of the site, you go check it out. It’s an average sports site with a decent layout, average content, and advertisements galore. It appears to be highly relevant to your client’s target audience, so you talk for a while.

The publisher gives the standard spiel about the site’s features, writers, promotions, and audience. Then you, the potential buyer, start asking about traffic and pricing. To your surprise, the site’s traffic is through the roof and footballbaseballbasketballhockeysoccertennis.com appears to be one of the most popular sports sites on the web.

Being a sports enthusiast yourself, you wonder how you somehow missed hearing about what seems to be a really popular site. How do people even know about this site? This is when it’s time to question where this site’s traffic comes from. Has the site been popular for a while? Has it been advertising a lot? Is its server counting page views properly? Or is incentive-based traffic feeding the site?

If you’ve never heard of “incentivized clicks” or “incentivized traffic,” it means a site is advertising in places where users have some sort of incentive to click through on ads. Generally speaking, the incentive is either money or points that can be redeemed for prizes once enough accrue.

So, what’s wrong with this? Incentive and loyalty programs have been central to our daily lives for years, from frequent-flyer programs to coffee cards that are stamped each time you buy a latte.

But incentive-driven clicks are different in that the advertiser – say, for example, fbbhst.com – has agreed to pay the publisher – say FreeRide – a small fee for every time a user clicks on fbbhst.com’s ad, resulting in a page view on fbbhst.com. Now, fbbhst.com takes the purchased page views and tries to sell them off to different advertisers (such as my sports client) at a premium.

There is no deceit in the sense that the page impressions with the ads purchased get registered. But most users simply hit the “back” button on their browser after clicking on ads and repeat the process to generate more points or money. Very often, there isn’t enough time for the fbbhst.com page to load with the ad.

If this sounds like dirty business to you, you’re right! Basically, garbage traffic comes in very cheaply and gets sold off for more. Sites that run on this money cycle are what one of my colleagues has cleverly nicknamed “tollbooth sites,” as the money just flows in and out.

Media buyers are usually very careful to make sure that their cost-per-click buys are not incentivized. By the same token then, we should recognize a site whose traffic is built upon incentive-based clicks. Dollars allocated to these sites are being thrown away, since very few users will even get to see your ads.

So how can we recognize these sites? The following are some key points to look out for:

  • Examine traffic patterns for the site (for larger sites try PC Data Online). Look for a highly irregular growth in traffic from one month to the next.

  • Measure unique visitors rather than total page views. Very often, incentivized traffic results from a disproportionately small number of individual users because they continue to click banners and return to repeat the action. Seeing how many unique visitors a site has is usually a better measurement because it tells you about your potential audience.

  • Look for the possibility of traffic fraud. Although click-through rates are dead as a stand-alone measurement, a ridiculously low CTR (say, below 0.1 percent) could indicate traffic fraud, especially if the ads are highly targeted with strong call-to-action creatives.

  • Finally, get page view counts for each major page on a side apart from the home page. It is only natural that most user sessions would begin at the home page, but when all the traffic is there, it is quite obvious that people are arriving to the site and quickly leaving. This can be a good indicator of incentive-based traffic.

It is crucial to truly understand the sites you deal with and build relationships with vendors before buying to avoid being tricked into these “tollbooth sites.” From personal experience, I have even seen vendors selling incentivized clicks and tollbooth traffic without even being aware of it! This is reason enough to build a relationship with your salespeople to know exactly whom you’re dealing with and what they sell. Always give yourself time to ask questions – before you end up making a buy that leaves your client alone and unnoticed on the side of the road.

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