It’s natural to pay attention when you discover one of the ads on your site has a click-through rate eight times higher than average. That’s what we discovered as we reviewed advertiser reports a few weeks ago, so we decided to look a little closer to understand what was going on.
Here’s some background: we introduced advertising onto the Rome2rio.com site in 2015, and it’s been a fast-growing revenue contributor ever since. With traffic peaking at just over 11 million sessions in August, we have plenty of available inventory, even taking into account our high floor prices. We use Google’s AdExchange and CSA systems to acquire advertisers, and those systems work well for us. Most of our advertisers have a click-through rate around 1.1%. When a particular ad is consistently at 9%, you definitely take a closer look.
The advertiser in question was IAC Applications, a unit of industry powerhouse IAC that was previously known as Mindspark Interactive Network. Learning that, we felt a little more comfortable. After all, IAC is a highly respected company; their board includes Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Chelsea Clinton. Seems pretty safe.
The ads that concerned us were from an IAC property called MyTransitGuide. As we looked at the ads, we immediately realised that our users were probably confusing them for an element of the Rome2rio site, and clicking on the ads with the intention of getting deeper into our site, not navigating away from us. That visual confusion would explain the super-high conversion rate.
Understanding that our users were confused was quite troubling: during August an average of 1,700 users were leaving our site via the MyTransitGuide ad each day. While that represents only a tiny proportion of our traffic, 50,000 confused customers each month is way too many, and there was a view within our team that we should block these ads immediately.
We also considered the view that if our users were happy with where they landed, perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much. After all, our competitor GoEuro is also an advertiser on Rome2rio, and we’re happy for our customers to check out their offering. So why not this advertiser?
Sadly, it’s hard to form a positive view of MyTransitGuide. A web search for mytransitguide is dominated by links that describe how to remove it from your browser. Frankly, it’s got a terrible reputation: here’s a typical 1-star review from TrustPilot:
We tried to understand how MyTransitGuide works, and why IAC would spend money promoting a product of such apparently questionable value. As we continued our research we discovered some independent virus tracking sites had written extensively about the problems associated with it; here’s an analysis from 2-Viruses.com:
The purpose of the modifications referred to above is to increase web traffic to 3rd party websites and generate PPC (pay-per-click) revenue. Search results influenced by MyTransitGuide rank 3rd party domains highly. Additionally, it injects a stack of advertisements into the non-affiliate websites.
Here’s another quote, this one from MalwareKillers.com:
MyTransitGuide or MyTransitGuide Toolbar by MindSpark Interactive Networks LLC is considered a malicious browser hijacker. When installed onto a customer`s computer, the redirector will attach to every popular browser on the PC, in order to compromise the browser`s settings such as the home page and the default search engine. When the user performs a search, it will be redirected to http://home.tb.ask.com/. The search results will be compromised, and they would show up information loaded with spam and third-party advertising.
We didn’t need to read too many of these summaries to decide MyTransitGuide had to go, so we quickly blocked them as an advertiser. While we are disappointed to lose the revenue, we figure we’ll have someone filling those slots soon enough. The bigger question, though, is one we can’t figure out: why would a respectable company like IAC be involved in practices that so many in the industry consider shady, promoting products which appear to have little or no value to consumers?
We’re still scratching our heads on that one.