Why Marketers Need to Fear Zombie Sites

October 31, 2017 — by Kyle Turner    

This Halloween, there’s a new threat that will send a chill up every marketer’s spine. In a scary year, a new threat has emerged to claim unsuspecting victims: zombie sites.

As detailed in a recent BuzzFeed story, a new type of ad fraud may have bilked as much as $20 million from more than 100 brands. The scam employed a redirect code that worked without the input of a human or bot. “Once caught in this web of redirects, the sites show a constant stream of video ads that are often barely interrupted by actual editorial content,” the article stated.

Marketers should be concerned, but such fraud is hardly unexpected. Kristin Lemkau, CMO for JPMorgan Chase, recently predicted that ad fraud losses would hit $16.4 billion this year, up from $7.2 billion last year. (Other estimates say things are actually improving. The ANA and WhiteOps predict that ad fraud could fall to $6.5 billion this year.) Such losses illustrate that digital advertising is prey for thieves. Marketers that hope to successfully navigate this environment need to work with a trusted partner.

A closer look at zombie sites

Zombie sites are made possible by a long-tail approach to digital media buying. There’s nothing wrong in theory to taking this approach. In practice though it’s rife for tampering.

In this case, fraudsters drew programmatic ad buys by snagging domains like and and then filling the sites with plagiarized and loosely rewritten content.

Fraud protection firm Pixalate dubbed those “zombie sites” because they were unlikely to draw an actual human audience on their own. BuzzFeed traced the sites to a publisher in Nashville who denied he was engaging in fraudulent activity.

More to come?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we have seen the last of zombie sites. As long as there is money to be made by tricking auction sites into buying garbage sites, advertisers will continue to find that what seems to be a good CPM rate is bolstered by junky sites that do nothing for the brand but waste money. Solving the problem means accepting a higher CPM with the knowledge that ads will actually be placed in front of real customers in brand-safe environments.

That’s where firms like MediaMath come in. Legitimate ad tech firms realize that the industry is in the grips of a fraud crisis. While law enforcement agencies can curtail some fraudulent activity, they often find that they’re playing Whac-A-Mole — as soon as they get one publisher to cease and desist, another one or two spring up.

“For advertisers then the only way forward is to work with trusted partners that offer placement with A-list publishers and can identify more brand-safe and legitimate long-tail content. At MediaMath, we take our role as a trusted partner seriously. That’s why we started offering proactive credits for brand safety issues this year.

That’s why marketers don’t need to tremble at the thought of wasting money on zombie sites this year. If you work with solid vendors then you can expect more treats and fewer tricks as well.


Kyle Turner

Kyle Turner is Senior Manager of Inventory Quality at MediaMath. Prior to taking over all things Inventory Quality, Kyle spent time working with the Channel Strategy team focusing on audio and DOOH strategy and also the Publisher Development team. His path to a career in AdTech at MediaMath is anything but ordinary as he holds a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University and an MBA with a specialization in quantitative analytics from Southern New Hampshire University with a five-year stint in NYC commercial construction sales in between the two degrees. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with family, golfing, and grudgingly rooting for the New York Jets during football season.