Data & Tech

Some of Yahoo’s traffic seems to come from piracy and adult sites, research finds

An ad fraud-detection company saw traffic flowing from these places, as well as users being paid to visit Yahoo.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

What’s a problem advertisers and Angelenos have in common? Bad traffic.

Yahoo, one of the largest publishers in the US, has been a recipient of such traffic. Researchers suggest that traffic from what the industry often considers invalid was flowing to Yahoo-owned sites. In some instances, people visiting adult and piracy sites were redirected, via something called pop-unders, to Yahoo-owned properties like TechCrunch and Yahoo’s entertainment, sports, and finance sites.

Though it represents a small amount of traffic, it’s an example of bad actors trying to take advantage of the opaque ad-tech ecosystem.

How it works: Say you’re in the mood to enjoy some, uh, adult content or a pirated copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

When a user visits a specific URL, a trigger is pulled to either open another tab in your browser or in a new window that pops under the content you’re currently viewing. Visitors to sites like,, and *checks notes* were all redirected to Yahoo properties over a year-long period, Rocky Moss, the CEO and co-founder of ad fraud-detection company DeepSee, told Marketing Brew.

  • Oftentimes, these Yahoo sites were playing video ads, which generally cost more than display inventory.
  • Advertisers spotted include Honda, Microsoft, Southwest Airlines, H&R Block, and the migraine medicine Emgality.

In other cases, visitors were being paid to visit Yahoo’s sites. DeepSee observed Yahoo receiving what’s called “incentivized traffic,” where, often for pennies, users are paid to visit a publisher. DeepSee noticed sites owned by a company called Prodege called,, and all directed traffic to Yahoo properties.

Usually, users have to watch the content for a certain amount of time to earn rewards. (Marketing Brew made a Swagbucks account and after clicking on a recommendation, was sent to the streamer PlutoTV, which was airing the 2003 film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Moss first noticed the traffic in February 2021 when DeepSee saw that Swagbucks—a site that pays users for doing specific online activities like answering a survey, watching a video, or visiting a website—was directing traffic to Yahoo.

DeepSee, which operates web crawlers that scan some of the worst parts of the internet to research ad fraud, then noticed that pornographic and piracy sites were redirecting users to Yahoo as well.

Occam’s razor: “No one is just going to send the traffic there for free,” Moss told Marketing Brew, noting that Yahoo has a degree of plausible deniability with regards to who bought the traffic. “It could have been somebody that Yahoo partnered with to bring traffic to their site,” he said.

For the pop-unders, researchers found a clue within the URL that led users to Yahoo—the root domain contained the phrase “” Viral Sparks, a marketing company based out of New York (though most employees are based in India, according to LinkedIn), claims to work with publishers to create “monetization strategy and ad optimisation,” though their site doesn’t explicitly say “buy traffic.” Viral Sparks’s CEO Rohit Ajmani didn’t respond to questions asked over LinkedIn or email.

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“We learned that select partners operated outside the parameters of our relationships and have ensured the activity has ceased with nominal impact. Yahoo does not work with Viral Sparks,” Yahoo spokesperson Allison Butler said in an email. Butler declined to answer whether Yahoo had worked with Viral Sparks before, how much traffic was ultimately involved, and whether Yahoo had refunded advertising partners who bought advertising affected by this traffic.

That’s important because according to Google and ad-tech firm The Trade Desk, this kind of traffic would be considered invalid.

  • Google defines invalid traffic as “ad traffic that does not represent genuine user intent or interest,” and when detected after the fact, says it sometimes issues refunds to advertisers affected “when appropriate and possible.”
  • It specifically considers pop-under and incentivized traffic as invalid.

Integral Ad Science, a firm that helps advertisers with factors like viewability and brand safety, considers incentivized traffic as “reduced value inventory,” a subset of invalid traffic.


According to Google, the company “found that this type of traffic accounted for a very small percentage of the actual traffic.”

When asked by Marketing Brew to look into the scale of the issue, data ad measurement firm Method Media Intelligence found that between June 2021 and March 2022, less than 1% impressions from Yahoo contained a signifier from pop-under or incentivized traffic.

“Mostly what it tells me is that there’s some individual on the team who, to meet a metric, decided to engage in this type of practice,” Shailin Dhar, CEO and founder of Method Media Intelligence, told us, noting that though ad blockers and browsers have largely snuffed out the practice, it still happens. “It’s definitely more common than any media-buying organizations would like to be true.”

But for all intents and purposes, when an advertiser buys video inventory on Yahoo’s entertainment page, they don’t expect the traffic to be—accidently—from people visiting

“The great thing about those schemes is that they turn real users into weapons,” Moss told Marketing Brew. Later, he added, “Not only will the publisher think they’re real, any sort of fraud verification will think it’s real, because it’s a real human…it’s a real person, but it’s not the ideal sort of engagement for an advertiser.”

Update 04/22/22: After publication, IAS clarified to Morning Brew that it considers incentivized traffic as "reduced value inventory," or a subset of invalid traffic. The piece has been edited to reflect.

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