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Forbes Faces Scrutiny Over Ad Placement Controversy

Forbes faces backlash for ads intended for its main site appearing on a controversial alternate version, sparking industry calls for transparency.

By Barry Stearns

4/4, 07:26 EDT
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Key Takeaway

  • Forbes faced scrutiny for ads intended for Forbes.com running on an alternate "subdomain" site, leading to advertiser dissatisfaction.
  • The alternate site exposed readers to significantly more ads than the main site, with some ad buyers now seeking refunds.
  • Media.net acknowledged an error in ad-bidding software, misinforming advertisers about the placement of their ads on Forbes.com.

Ad Placement Controversy

Forbes recently faced scrutiny for operating an alternate version of its website, which was shut down following inquiries. This alternate site, distinct from Forbes.com, hosted ads in formats like slideshows and listicles, significantly increasing ad exposure. A 700-word article, for example, was expanded into a 34-slide slideshow, exposing readers to approximately 150 ads compared to the seven ads seen by readers of the original article on Forbes.com. The alternate site, identified by its www3.forbes.com address, was not searchable via search engines or Forbes.com but was promoted through content-recommendation platforms like Taboola.

Ad Buyers' Concerns

Ad buyers expressed dissatisfaction, noting that ads on the alternate site did not match the value of what was expected on Forbes.com. The discrepancy was attributed to the ads reaching a different audience and being placed on overcrowded pages, diminishing their impact. Adalytics, an ad-research firm, revealed that some ads were sold with the understanding they would appear on Forbes.com, highlighting a misalignment in ad placement expectations. Forbes attributed the issue to Media.net, an ad-tech company managing Forbes's ad-bidding software, which mistakenly informed advertisers they were bidding for Forbes.com slots.

Forbes and Media.net's Response

Forbes disputed the notion of operating an alternate site, describing it as a "subdomain" and emphasized its minor role in the company's overall business and user base. Media.net acknowledged an unintentional error in the ad-bidding software, which has since been corrected. The error led to advertisers believing they were purchasing ad slots on Forbes.com, whereas they were actually for the www3.forbes.com slots. Forbes has been utilizing this alternate site for ad placements since at least 2017, with ads intended for Forbes.com being placed there since late 2021.

Industry Implications and Actions

The incident has sparked concerns within the digital advertising industry, emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability. Approximately 11% of the $88 billion spent annually on open-web advertising is directed towards sites overstuffed with ads, designed to mislead advertisers. This situation underscores the challenges brands face in ensuring their advertising budgets are effectively utilized. Aidem, a digital-ad agency, announced plans to suspend ad buys on Forbes and audit all past purchases, seeking refunds for ads run on the alternate site. Other affected advertisers reported a significant portion of their ad impressions intended for Forbes.com appeared on the alternate site, highlighting the broader impact of the issue.