In a recent BrandVerity investigation, we identified a new form of advertising arbitrage. That arbitrage relied on a special form of low-cost clicks: ads targeting branded keywords related to logins, sign ins, and other account activity. For example, an advertiser would bid on something like “Bank of America Login” and then load their landing page with ads based on a much more expensive keyword, such as “low mortgage rate.”

Lately, we’ve found some similar practices targeting social media sites. Not all of them choose arbitrage as their end game—some opt for toolbar downloads or other schemes. But the end results are roughly the same:

  1. User deception and negative user experience for the visitor
  2. Brand dilution, lost traffic and increased PPC costs for the brand

Why Bid on These Terms?

For starters, these terms are frequently searched. Very frequently. The AdWords Keyword Tool estimates 151,000,000 global searches for “facebook login” each month. And that’s just for one keyword targeting one social media site—on one search engine!

Secondly, these terms are incredibly cheap to bid on. The AdWords Traffic Estimator tool suggests that a maximum bid of $0.05 would be enough to consistently rank in the #2 position.

Ads Targeting "Facebook sign in" keyword

Two advertisers brand bidding on Facebook

What Are the Advertisers Getting Out of It?

We’ve noticed a few methods that sites are using to monetize this traffic. They’re generally the sort of things you’d expect in PPC abuse. Let’s start with an example of arbitrage. This was what initially reminded us of our prior investigation:

This one starts with a search for “Facebook sign in” on AOL. You’ll immediately notice that this site, matchedhere.com, is being rather deceptive in its ad. The display URL includes the full address www.facebook.com in front of .matchedhere.com, in an attempt to trick users into thinking it’s actually facebook.com (while technically circumventing any display/landing domain match regulations).

So, what happens when the user clicks on this ad? The site actually loads a blank page, and then pulls in ads through an iframe. The ads are actually syndicated by Bing, but based on a completely new search term, “raid data recovery.” The owner of MatchedHere has clearly rigged this setup in his/her favor, so these ads should have a much higher CPC than the “Facebook sign in” ad placed by MatchedHere.

Landing page ads

The ads returned on the landing page

If you want to look at this for yourself, head over to this page on MatchedHere’s website.

The Dreaded Toolbar Download Landing Page

We’ve observed many of these advertisers promoting certain toolbars on their landing pages. Generally, the goal of the toolbar download is to reset the user’s default search engine—or to simply have them use the search engine provided in the toolbar. In this case, the sites seem to be making money from this in a few ways:

  1. Sending their search traffic directly to a specific search engine — and receiving some sort of commission or payment per search they refer
  2. Loading in search results and ads from another search engine onto their own site — and then earning a commission for the ad clicks they generate
  3. Placing pop-ups or other ads in the user’s browser

Pinterest desktop app ad

In some cases, these toolbar-related landing pages actually do a reasonably decent job of mimicking the actual site. That’s bad news for the site—but unfortunately it’s good news for the toolbar promoter. Let’s look at this example where we found Pinterest being targeted.

Here, the ad does a particularly good job of seeming legitimate. It has the trademark “Pinterest” in its display URL domain, and even includes the word “Pin” a few times in the copy. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been terribly suspicious of this ad if I had encountered it in the wild. My reaction might have been “interesting, Pinterest now has a desktop app” and then I would have moved on.

Landing page targeting Pinterest

The fake Pinterest landing page

The landing page also does a surprisingly good job of looking like it’s actually Pinterest. Although it’s somewhat conspicuously lacking the official Pinterest logo, it uses a font that’s very similar to the Pinterest font. I even considered for a moment that I may have been totally off base, and that this was in fact a legitimate Pinterest-operated site. However, a little additional investigation on their contact page reveals that premiuminstaller@gmail.com is the only provided contact for the site.

After clicking on “Get Started,” the user is then taken to a subsequent page with the call-to-action “Download Now.” This launches something called Optimum Installer (which is actually mentioned in the fine print just below the Download Now button). Optimum Installer prompts the user to install a handful of toolbars alongside the Pinterest app. These include the AOL Toolbar, DefaultTab Search Toolbar, GetSavin toolbar, Norton Security Scan Toolbar, and others. Interestingly, an incomplete list of these bundled toolbars is actually available on Optimum Installer’s website.

In our testing, we weren’t able to associate the GetSavin toolbar with affiliate oriented activity, but our testing was limited. We did notice a considerable amount of ad injection and pop-up activity. And ultimately, whether it’s motivated by affiliate commissions or ad revenue, it’s definitely an unwanted and unsolicited annoyance to the user.

Brand Bidding Covering the SERP

It gets even worse. While many of these ads are showing up below or to the side of the organic results, there are some cases where they overwhelm the organic listings quite considerably. Here’s an example from Ask where the actual Pinterest login page has been buried almost halfway down the SERP:

Ask SERP

For Pinterest, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from these advertisements. All they can do is divert traffic away from Pinterest’s site. Traffic from users who were simply looking to access their Pinterest accounts and use the product.

Furthermore, the calculated trademark abuse by sites like pinterestdesktopapp.com may have even more harmful results. By luring in users and pretending to be the actual brand, they can lead those users to attribute their negative experiences (frustrating toolbars, ad-filled landing pages, etc.) to the real brand. Not only does that weaken the brand, it can easily result in some user fatigue and attrition.

How Widespread Is This?

We’ve noticed a variety of social media sites being targeted by this, with some experiencing more abuse than others. From what we’ve seen, this is primarily occurring on AOL and Ask, with some instances on Bing and Google Mobile as well. So far, the sites behind the brand bidding include:

  • inbox.com
  • pinterestdesktopapp.com
  • online-reference-tools.com
  • freapp.com
  • musthavetoolbar.com
  • email-sign-in.com
  • fetchmyemail.com
  • inboxace.com
  • matchedhere.com
  • inbox2me.com
  • insurance41.com (also observed arbitraging in our previous post)
  • gufile.com
  • icheckemail.com
  • familywithkids.com (also observed arbitraging in our previous post)
  • omnistiz.com
  • sign-in.at

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, the vast majority of these ads should be eligible for takedown from the search engines. They’re usually in violation of either the engine’s arbitrage policy or its trademark policy.

Our advice to these social media sites would be to proactively monitor their branded keywords across the major search engines. With a process or service that provides broad visibility into paid search, they can more effectively protect their brand and their users from these forms of abuse.