Gannett advertisers hit by domain spoofing, highlighting programming issues


Diving brief:

  • According to independent researcher Braedon Vickers, who posted the findings on his blog, brands serving ads on Gannett properties have been affected by domain spoofing, a practice in which advertising inventory is misrepresented as coming from from a different site than where it is actually performed. The Wall Street Journal was first to report the news.
  • Gannett owns USA Today and a wide range of newspapers and uses header bidding for its online ad auctions. Vickers dug into the code informing this process and found that articles on sites like Detroit Free Press sent requests to multiple ad exchanges that tagged the page as a different room in USA Today.
  • This issue was prevalent in Gannett and went about nine months undetected by watchdogs and ad-tech exchanges, Vickers concluded. Beyond Gannett’s potential credibility, the issue speaks to ongoing transparency issues in the programmatic supply chain.

Overview of the dive:

Vickers noted in his research that domain spoofing is seen in some circles as a lesser problem than it once was thanks to industry solutions such as IAB Tech Lab’s ads.txt, a tool that publishers can implement that only allows authorized parties to sell inventory on their sites. While ads.txt can help prevent the intrusion of fraudulent third parties into the bidding process, the story is different when the spoofed sites are owned by the same publisher and share direct ad accounts. Vickers called the scenario “authorized impersonation,” though he refrained from describing it as a deliberate move on Gannett’s part.

In one example, an advertiser looking to market around a sports story in a publisher with national reach – USA Today – might have appeared in a regional newspaper on abused dogs, a less brand safe topic.

However, many advertisers may ask the publisher questions about why their ads were misplaced. Sears, Nike and Adidas were among the top marketers who were affected by the domain spoofing, according to Journal reports. Gannett is considering whether to issue refunds, the newspaper said.

The issue shows how programmatic media buying continues to experience gaps in transparency that could lead to wasted ad spend and trigger red flags for brand safety. As marketers grapple with moving away from third-party cookies, a key ad targeting tactic, many are embracing alternative methods like contextual targeting, where ad placements are informed by factors like keywords and topics. . More than half (52%) of marketers surveyed by Winterberry Group last fall said they plan to increase their spending on contextual targeting over the next 24 months. Gannett’s domain spoofing was more nuanced than simply misrepresenting the domain page, taking into account information such as article subsections, keywords, and brand safety measures.

As the impending cookie changes have upended digital marketing, some publishers have expressed optimism. Sixty-four percent of those in the industry polled by DoubleVerify said they expect an increase in revenue because the transition could encourage more advertisers to negotiate direct relationships. Gannett’s domain spoofing dust suggests that many brands will still need to be on their toes and keep a close eye on where their ads actually end up online.


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