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Sham news sites make big bucks from fake views

BBC Technology 30 Nov 2019 12:50
By Vivienne Nunis Technology reporter, BBC News
ForbesbusinessinsiderImage copyright Getty Images

Forbes and Business Insider are both well-known news sites. So is forbesbusinessinsider.com a new spin-off?

No. It has nothing to do with either Forbes or Business Insider.

In fact, it's a site that copies and pastes entire articles from other publishers and reposts them with very slight changes.

There are 350 million registered domain names on the internet. Experts say it's impossible to count how many are sham news sites.

But just like legitimate websites, they earn money from the major tech companies that pay them to display ads.

Billions of dollars

Amazon and Google are two of the world's biggest players in the digital advertising industry.

They bring in billions of dollars a year from selling access to ad space across the internet.

When the BBC recently viewed forbesbusinessinsider.com, it saw ads promoting major brands including Sephora and Vitality insurance.

The site was created by a web design firm based in Karachi, Pakistan. Designer Shahzad Memon told the BBC his company built forbesbusinessinsider.com as a test to find ways of increasing search engine optimisation - the ability to make a link to a site appear high up in search results for certain queries.

"As long as you know a little bit of code, you can build a basic website using templates."

The laredotribune.com website also - at first glance - appears to be a regular news site for a city in south Texas. There are stories about local residents and President Trump's border wall with Mexico.

But the stories have no publication date. There are no contact details for the editorial staff and the site loads slowly due to the large number of ads.

Not bad for a news site covering a city of just 260,000 people.

"We estimate each site is making at least $100,000 [£77,450] a month," said Vlad Shevtsov, director of investigations at Social Puncher, the firm that exposed a number of fraudulent news sites. The organisation says ad fraud is a million-dollar industry.

Advertisers might ask why there were 500,000 page views in September, which jumped to a staggering three million views in October.

Image copyright Laredo Tribune

Google says the Laredo Tribune does not breach its advertising rules, and it found no issues with traffic to the site.

But many in the industry say Google does not do enough to ensure advertising budgets are not wasted via other bogus sites.

Dr Augustine Fou agrees.

"But after years and years of knowing about abuses, they ought to be doing something more proactively, not just taking action after third parties do all the work for them."

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