A recent piece by Morning Brew prompted us to analyse the KPIs of a series of dodgy websites, attempting to siphon advertising dollars via dubious content publishing tactics.
Note: we won’t link to the sites mentioned in this piece. We don’t want to offer them any backlink, even a nofollow one.
The article titled “How spammy sites that rip off obits end up running ads from major brands” lists a series of web properties which scrape and re-publish slightly modified obituaries to catch long tail search traffic and display low quality ads. Some of those sites aren’t even displaying ad creatives, they’re simply redirecting you to third-party scamming schemes if your click on a link or a thumbnail.
Check out Deaddeath.com or another site of the same ilk, the infamous “Tragedyinfo.com”. Don’t click on anything though!
According to ahrefs, here’s the type of search queries generating organic traffic for TragedyInfo.
How are those “fake obituaries” websites performing on Google?
Pretty well actually.
We were left totally flabbergasted when we checked the organic curves on ahrefs.
The kings of the online cesspit are doing fine, apparently spared by the recent Google core updates.
Google is known for increasingly hammering low quality sites at every core update but those opportunistic scavengers seem to have flown under the radar, with the blind complicity of their “advertising partners”, shamelessly monetising distress, sadness and despair.
See for instance what you’re served under the recent repost of a Missing Person Notice on Insideeko.com. Most of those ads lead you into an endless rabbit hole of equally dodgy websites.
Here are the recent (Nov 30, 2021) organic KPIs of the 3 websites we’ve mentioned so far (source: ahrefs).
You could argue that those sites provide a factual answer to legitimate requests, fed by the endless curiosity of an army of online voyeurs. But in reality they’re just ripping off death announcements, accident reports or disappearance notices to make a quick dirty buck.
Some of those digital corpse hunters are probably even generating fake obituaries from random lists of random names illustrated by fake AI images from This Person Does Not Exist, as the one above (the #1 source of fake personas), just in case the real Michael Stuart from Springfield, Illinois would die tomorrow of a sudden heart attack. The pinnacle of programmatic opportunism…
Disclaimer: we came up randomly with Michael’s name and location but actually, after a quick check on Google, we found out that there seems to be a real Michael Stuart living in Springfield, Illinois. We wish him well (and won’t display any ads on this page).
What is the ecological footprint of digital polluters?
Unfortunately digital waste doesn’t equal virtual pollution. Bits rely on atoms.
Beyond their questionable moral stance, those online garbage dumps have an actual ecological impact, in the real world (as all websites do for that matter).
In March 2021, Wired published a piece reminding us that a site with 100,000 page views per month emits 2,112 kg of CO2 every year.
The average petrol car on the road in the UK produces the equivalent of 180g of CO2 every kilometre, while a diesel car produces 173g of CO2/km (source: BBC.com) so browsing (or serving) 1,000 pages is roughly the equivalent of driving a car for 10km! (2112 kg for 100,000 page views per month = 12,068 km (based on 175g / km) per year = 1000 km per month. 1,000 page views = 1/100 = 10km). So when a site earns advertising dollars at $10 CPM, each dollar has the ecological impact of a car traveling for 1 km.
It is said that the Global Digital Advertising and Marketing Market will reach $786.2 Billion by 2026.
In the US, the average person drives around 21,726 km per year.
At 1 ad dollar for 1 road km, that’s the equivalent of 36 million American cars polluting the Metaverse by 2026.
If only we could at least get rid of junk content… According to Jounce Media, cited by MorningBrew, low quality / clickbait inventory represents 12.3% of global programmatic web display ad spend. Junk sites can also prove harmful when they pursue a political agenda, as reported by MIT Technology Review.
Circling back to our selection of spammy sites, here’s the sizeable toxic contribution from the global traffic of deaddeath.com, according to Similarweb.
1M visits x 1.24 pages per visit = 1,240,000 page views = 26,188 kg of CO2 per year = the equivalent of 149,650 km in an average car powered by fossil fuel. 3.73 drives around the globe… Or 6.8 American drivers.
Legitimate publishers are sending traffic to dodgy websites
If those dodgy publishers were living in an empty vacuum, it could maybe minimise their exposure.
The problem, as pointed out by another article on MorningBrew, is that legitimate publishers (CNN, Vox, Huffington Post and countless others) are displaying walls of ads luring visitors into the rancid rabbit hole of “made for advertising” sites. Publishing, as we all know, is a tough business and money isn’t always promoting the best intentions.
How can we fight digital pollution?
At an individual level, by resisting clickbait, as much as we can (no clicks on Russian babes or shocking disease illustrations). At a macro level, hoping that Google will read this article and demote as many low quality publishers as possible, even if we’re well aware that it’s an endless whack-a-mole-game: scammers are known to be hyper creative folks.
By the way, if you’re considering a publishing venture, please do us a favour: don’t add another layer of crap to the open web. Oddly enough, each second you’ll spend producing quality content has the same duration as the one you’ll waste churning out bad stuff. Granted, the endeavour might take longer. But, in the end, you won’t be ashamed to tell your friends and family what you’ve been up to.
Value has a price.