How travel websites are sponsoring viruses

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August 10, 2017

In the world of online advertising, it’s critical to know where your ads are running. This post tells the story of how travel companies end up advertising on porn sites. Probably without their consent. Through adware.

While analyzing the top fifty travel websites worldwide, we found quite a bit of suspicious traffic sources. Most of them either run affiliate programs or have a bloated marketing budget. This offers great opportunities for shady actors to make a quick buck.

Viruses and adware mean different things to different people. To end users, they mean unwanted programs that hijack their browser to deliver unwanted advertisements. To businesses, the malware extends the reach of their campaigns, in that they can deliver advertisements through practically any website on the internet. And therein lies the rub.

Benjamin Edelman has covered the subject extensively (see under: Spyware). It’s up to companies to decide whether they want to employ these channels or not. And it seems like a straight value add: you can show your ads on your competitors’ site! Who wouldn’t want that? Right?

Except that if you offer a performance based program for anybody to join, things get complicated. The company itself might not be directly involved with paying adware companies. But their affiliates sure are. And that is why Pay Per View marketing is huge. Most companies are content if at the end of the day they have affiliates who bring in traffic that converts. But things are not that simple.

Affiliate programs are about releasing control for profit. If your affiliates are using pay per view advertising models or their own adware, you are going to get a lot of flack from end-users. Because they associate your brand with the virus. Moreover, if someone can display ads from any website, why would they do it with your competitors’ sites? Why wouldn’t they push the same ads directly to visitors on your site?

Yes. There’s no better conversion rate than when the lead is already in your store…

And here’s the worse part: you would never know they’re doing it!

One interesting example we found is myincentivetravel.com. Despite the humble design and functionality, it registered as the 10th biggest travel-related website on the internet according to SimilarWeb.

Looking at their traffic trends, they must be doing something right:

MyIncentiveTravel_incomingChart

18 million visits! That looks really popular.

Until you dig deeper that is. And find out that the majority of their traffic comes from adult sites:

myincentivetravel_referrals

Now, I might be wrong, but from what I know, Hotels – Airlines and Travel has little in common with porn from a user’s perspective. It’s fairly evident that something is up.

Their outgoing traffic shows that they monetize through ValidClick/SearchPageFix. Those are evidently toolbars: see their website or this forum thread complaining about it. Even Google suggest says so:

ValidClick_Google

ValidClick itself is a US-based advertising company owned by Inuvo Inc. It’s on the stock market. All of validclick.net’s traffic sources are adware. And I doubt that the company knows of or directly endorses these actors.

But at this point it’s fairly clear that MyIncentiveTravel is similar to the Bee Coupons Ad-injector / Browser Hijacker, which got uncovered by Wesley Brandi earlier this year.

Now, I wasn’t able to acquire the toolbar responsible to test out the workings. But unless the people behind myincentivetravel.com found a goldmine in selling travel-related things to porn site surfers, methinks something’s up. My guess is good old browser redirection, hijacking, and possibly cookie stuffing — we found Orbitz, CheapOAir, BuyAtt, and AppNexus on the probable receiving end of their traffic. That means these companies are ultimately footing the bill for these viruses, and possibly getting screwed in the process. The only way to tell for sure would be to analyze the clicks coming from these domains and determine whether they’re initiated by human or not.

We found similar examples in the top sources for nearly all of the top travel websites we looked into — be it Skyscanner or Expedia.com, we’ve seen a lot of thin click trackers involved with Pay Per View advertising.

Even if you’re okay with that distribution channel, the fact that these companies can effectively sell you your own visitors means that you need to validate the traffic you’re receiving. And counting conversions is not enough. Because in the world of online marketing, if it’s too good to be true, you’re probably getting shafted. Get in touch to learn how we can help.

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