Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the United States, and many local news outlets are struggling to build a digital business. But one remarkable success story is the Albany Daily News, a website that clocked nearly 10 million pageviews in August, roughly five times that of the 160-year-old Albany Times Union newspaper, according to analytics service SimilarWeb.
The most popular news site in Albany has a simple secret to success: Fake just about everything and rake in the advertising dollars.
The Albany Daily News is an empty husk of a website filled with old content that for months was showered with questionable traffic as part of a digital ad fraud scheme, according to new research from Social Puncher, an ad fraud prevention consultancy.
The Albany site has a Canadian counterpart, City of Edmonton News, that’s generated more pageviews than authentic local news operations such as the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun, according to SimilarWeb. Those two were recently joined by another fake local site, the Laredo Tribune, which began receiving significant traffic in September. There’s also a now-dormant site called the Stanton Daily whose domain now redirects to the Albany site.
“It’s remarkable — who said local news is dead, right?” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, after examining two of the sites and their analytics for BuzzFeed News.
The Albany and Edmonton sites have not been updated in months, have no employees associated with them, and list no larger corporate entity. Their homepages are filled with bland, out-of-date rewrites of local stories first reported by real news outlets. Beyond the homepage, the sites are chock-full of old celebrity content that has nothing to do with the cities they supposedly cover. They do not have active social media accounts, nor do they list an office address or any contact details.
“You’d think they would do a better job of hiding their non-reality,” Benton said.
And yet, based on their traffic and digital ad rates, the Albany and Edmonton sites at their peak may have earned more revenue from programmatic ads than the leading news outlets in these cities.
The sites, whose ultimate beneficiary is unknown, provide yet another example of how the digital ad industry is being ravaged by dubious schemes and outright fraudsters who steal money from brands by causing ads show up on sites and apps with fake or manipulated audiences, among other techniques. The fake local sites also illustrate a painful irony that while authentic local news outlets in the US and Canada struggle with business challenges, there’s apparently plenty of money or influence to be gained by masquerading as one.
“The amount of reliable, verified, timely, independently produced local news is on the decline, and everywhere you turn you’re running into garbage like this,” said April Lindgren, a professor at Toronto’s Ryerson School of Journalism who runs the Local News Research Project.
A related trend is the emergence of local news sites in the US that are run by politicians or are closely linked to political causes or entities. Snopes revealed a network of local news sites being run by people closely associated with a PAC, while a Michigan newspaper recently reported on the emergence of a network of close to 40 new sites that present themselves as local news operations. During the 2016 election, Russian trolls also operated several Twitter accounts that presented themselves as local news outlets.
“It’s another blow to local news ecosystems,” Lindgren said.
Vlad Shevtsov, director of investigations for Social Puncher, told BuzzFeed News that sites like the Albany Daily News masquerade as local outlets in order to appear credible enough to be accepted into digital advertising systems.
“When these sites were created and their owners applied to join advertising systems, a proper audit should have stopped their attempts to monetize this fictitious media,” he said. “But ad tech companies approved the request, and the sites began to receive money right away. Even when their revenue grew to the scale of a large publisher, no one even tried to study them in more detail.”
Ads for Hilton, Sephora, Best Buy, and Microsoft were displayed during visits to the Albany site. The Edmonton site displayed ads for Home Depot, Geico, and Google’s Pixel phone and Chromebook computer. The Edmonton site’s homepage permanently displays what appears to be an ad for Air Canada but is actually just an image of an Air Canada ad and was not purchased by the airline. Similarly, the Albany site’s homepage shows a fake ad from a local Land Rover dealer.
“You’ve got to a whole bunch of advertisers who aren’t really paying very close attention,” Lindgren said. “It’s a license to pretend, and to print money.”
Google is more than just an advertiser on these sites. Its ad platforms are helping them earn money. The Edmonton and Albany sites make the majority of their ad inventory available via Google’s ad network, meaning the tech giant facilitates the programmatic sale of ads on the sites and takes a cut of revenue when ads are displayed. Along with Google, the sites also list their inventory with AppNexus, another large ad network.
A Google spokesperson said the Edmonton and Albany sites were not violating any of its policies and that they appeared to be receiving some of their traffic by placing ads on other websites via networks such as Taboola and Outbrain. AppNexus declined to comment specifically on the sites.
Taboola and Outbrain confirmed they ran ads for these sites, which could explain some — but not all — of the traffic they have received. Taboola declined to comment on the sites. Outbrain told BuzzFeed News it removed them from its network.
“It appears that although these two sites purchased ads through us, the sites did not meet the requirements that are listed in our guidelines. As a result, our content team removed these ads and they are no longer active in our network,” Brian Gallagher, the company’s director of corporate communications, said an email. (Gallagher subsequently left Outbrain for unrelated reasons.)
Messages sent to the publicly listed email addresses for the Edmonton and Albany sites also went unanswered.
Along with the fact that the sites are never updated, they also contain multiple glaring errors that a site owner trying to serve an authentic audience wouldn’t tolerate, according to Social Puncher. For example, the categories listed in drop-down menus on the Albany site don’t work, and the links that should go to social media accounts associated with the Edmonton site are blank.
“The fact that no one is trying to correct these errors suggests that real people do not visit this site, otherwise it would be fixed on the first day,” the Social Puncher report says.
The traffic statistics for the Edmonton and Albany sites throw up even more red flags. In the case of the Edmonton site, SimilarWeb found that more than 70% of its audience arrived “direct,” meaning people supposedly entering the name of the site into a web browser. This is a highly unlikely scenario given it’s only a few months old, does not offer new content to visitors, and has no brand recognition. The high number of direct visitors also shows that Taboola or Outbrain ads were not responsible for most of its impressive traffic.
Most perplexing for the Edmonton site is that SimilarWeb shows more than 63% of its audience came from the United States in recent months and just 9% from Canada. By comparison, the Edmonton Journal’s audience is 85% from Canada, according to SimilarWeb.
“A local news site would certainly expect to have an overwhelming majority of traffic coming from its area, its own country at least,” said Benton.
The Albany site receives a little more than 40% of its audience direct. This is more in line with a well-established news brand built up over many years, rather than a new site. The site’s pageviews increased from 6.7 million in July to 9.9 million in August, a massive increase, especially given that the site did not publish any new content during that time.
The Albany and Edmonton sites also received close to 100% of their visitors on mobile devices, yet another abnormal pattern, according to a SimilarWeb analyst who analyzed the sites for BuzzFeed News. (For comparison, just over 60% of visitors to the Albany Times Union’s site are on mobile.)
“The breakdown of mobile web and desktop traffic to these sites is also unique, with both thecityofedmontonnews.com and albanydailynews.com receiving over 98% of site visits from mobile web browsers, which is not something typically seen with news sites,” said Ilana Marks, a marketing insights analyst at SimilarWeb.
Based on these and other findings, Social Puncher concluded that a significant portion of the audience going to these sites is fake.
“Real people have no reason to visit such sites. And if we see on such sites millions of highly busy users, then this can only be advertising fraud,” it said in its report.
Lindgren of Ryerson said the ability of these fake local sites to make money only reinforces the challenges facing real local news operations.
“There’s red flags all over the place that says they’re just not real. The bigger issue here from the point of view of local news is they are further muddying the water as to what is real journalism and real news,” she said. ●
Added a note that Brian Gallagher no longer works at Outbrain.