What Are MFA Sites and How Do They Affect the Media Landscape?  

Robert Lawrence, Head of product marketing
Made-for-advertising sites, or MFAs, have infiltrated the programmatic supply chain over the past few years. While the concept has existed since the beginning of digital advertising, the term “MFA” is more recent. As these sites grow in prevalence, the industry is increasingly confronted with a need to combat them. Robert Lawrence, head of product marketing at Index, looks at how MFA sites affect the publishing and advertising landscapes and how we can eliminate them

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Understanding MFA sites

As MFA sites grow in prevalence, the programmatic industry is increasingly confronted with a need to combat them. Let’s take a look at just how MFA sites affect the publishing and advertising landscapes.  

MFA sites are created solely for ad arbitrage. These websites focus their efforts on aggressively generating traffic through bought or purchased traffic sources for a lower cost than they make by selling ad space—a practice known as traffic arbitrage.  

Basically, they’re websites overrun with ads, lacking the quality content and journalism produced by legitimate publishers. If you’ve ever found yourself on a website with 20 different ad-heavy slide show pages, you have likely experienced an MFA site.   

MFAs undermine the very foundation of programmatic advertising and the publishing industry it aims to support.  

But keep in mind MFA sites are not labeled as fraud or invalid traffic—they purchase real human impressions, which means they technically represent viewable inventory. In some cases, they’ll even deploy deceptive tactics to avoid detection, such as MFA domains that drive traffic to a subdomain of a website that is jammed with ads and has a negative user experience, but the root domain appears normal.   

So, marketers are reaching actual audiences on real websites, but it comes with a terrible user experience, and the duration of engagement is usually very brief. Essentially, marketers are investing in ads that yield little impact on consumer behavior.  

A 2023 report from Association of National Advertisers found that 23% of the $88 billion spent on programmatic advertising is wasted, accounting for about $20 billion in lost ad spend, largely on MFAs.  

Why hasn’t the industry eliminated MFAs?

The first aspect in the attempt to eliminate MFAs is defining exactly what an MFA site is. Currently, there is no agreed-upon industry-wide definition, but a consortium of four leading ad trade associations want to rectify that.   

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) have agreed on a common set of characteristics.  

They’ve defined MFA sites as those that:  

  • Have a high ad-density-to-content ratio;  
  • Rapidly auto-refresh ad placements;  
  • Have high levels of paid traffic sourcing, like social or display ad traffic (think 80, 90, or 100% percent of traffic coming from paid, non-organic sources);  
  • Provide generic, non-editorial, templated, or otherwise low-quality content; and 
  • Are designed poorly, usually using templates.  

Some have advocated for reclassifying MFA to mean “made-for-arbitrage,” urging the industry to focus on websites that deliberately game programmatic monetisation through ad arbitrage.   

There are companies that are also working across the industry to quell MFAs by developing industry exclusion lists. However, while most MFA sites are arbitrage, some media companies could be mistakenly categorised as MFA, making it important for ad tech platforms to closely evaluate publishers and ensure they are not misclassified.  

Another reason MFA hasn’t been eliminated entirely yet is that some ad tech platforms may not be motivated enough to do so, as the revenue is enticing. Similarly, buyers can all too often be incentivised to buy cheap media based on vanity metrics.  

There’s more transparency in programmatic than ever before. However, companies need to leverage the tools available—like sellers.json, which verifies programmatic sellers—to remove MFAs and prioritise genuine business outcomes rather than focusing too much on hitting KPIs that may be of dubious value.   

Unfortunately, the ecosystem has been stuck in a loop—even though SSPs may remove MFA sites from private marketplaces or curated inventory, if MFAs are still available on exchanges, they’re going to be enticing. Buyers will continue to buy, and MFAs will continue to exist.   

This loop leads to inefficiency and wasted spend, not to mention the wasted energy of the computing power required to serve ineffective ads.   

What steps can the industry take to eliminate MFAs?

MFAs harm the overall trustworthiness of the programmatic advertising industry, as well as the publishing industry and legitimate publishers. We need to agree that traffic arbitrage and MFA websites are not publishers, and they do not belong in the programmatic supply chain.  

SSPs need to remove MFA sites from their exchanges and redirect that ad spend to legitimate publishers. Specifically–they should not just block domains, but block the originating sellers.json node from transacting across their platforms.  

We also strongly advocate that marketers and agencies move from domain block lists to publisher allow lists, also powered and facilitated by sellers.json. It should be hard to obtain access to a marketer’s ad spend, and this will create a level of friction that will diminish any possibility of future infiltrations from emerging so easily.   

To maintain the integrity of the programmatic ecosystem, we need to ensure we’re driving ad spend to premium media owners while maintaining a premium and brand-safe environment that facilitates a positive consumer experience and aligns with the priorities of marketers.  

Overall, the industry needs more meaningful, concerted action and follow through.  

We always invite the opportunity to review data on this topic, learn from each other, and collaborate to foster a more transparent ecosystem. 

Learn more about our commitment to eliminating MFA sites and fostering quality journalism. 

Thank you to Azma Gohar, senior director of compliance at Index, who also contributed to this video.

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