Edmonton ‘Simulated Media’ web site featured in new advert fraud report
EDMONTON – Its front page features stories that are more than a year old. Almost 80 percent of the traffic comes from the United States. So how did an unprecedented Edmonton website become the city’s most popular news site?
A new report from an ad fraud prevention consultant put CityofEdmontonNews.com, a website created in October 2018, in the spotlight.
“In a new era where local media are in a serious crisis and many of them don’t have time to adapt to the digital ecosystem, we see a successful start-up that is gaining a local audience despite industry trends,” the report says by Social Puncher.
Using data from analytics firm SimilarWeb, the report describes the site’s visitor counts rising to one million in March, two million in May, and a peak of five million in July.
But of those who visited the site, a whopping 78.95 percent were from the United States and only 7.54 percent from Canada – an odd demographic for an Edmonton-based news website.
By comparison, the City of Edmonton website had an estimated 906,000 visitors last month, with 94 percent of those clicks coming from Canada. The province’s website, Alberta.ca, had just over 6.3 million visitors in October.
Only 4.63 percent of City of Edmonton News traffic came from Internet searches, while an unusually high 77 percent of visitors typed the URL directly.
What did the users get from those who searched to find the site? SimilarWeb reports that, bizarrely, “Brendan Fraser” was the top referring keyword, showing up in 22 percent of searches.
The City of Edmonton News website has not been updated in months. Most of the stories on the homepage don’t have a timestamp, but some of the events they are based on are months old.
An undated article under the heading “New Events” reports that Studio 99 is opening in Rogers Place, but the Edmonton Oilers announced the new addition on October 18, 2018 more than a year ago.
Social Puncher’s report crashes the City of Edmonton News home page.
Many of the articles appear to have been written by two people, “Ryan Frost” or “Korey,” but clicking on the name of the former will take you to pages of articles that show “then and now” photos of celebrities like Britney Spears.
The 32 posts written by Korey are mostly local Edmonton stories covering topics like calcium chloride, train derailments, and the recent climate strike march, but a closer look at the article reveals that they are likely based on other news reports.
The stories don’t appear to be directly plagiarized, but use identical quotations from reports by CBC, Global, and CTV. An article about an Edmonton plus-size advocate uses quotes from two CBC stories without assigning the accounts from which they were taken.
Trying to click on the website’s social media links leads to another curiosity: they all link to a photo gallery of the late actress Carrie Fisher.
A $ 100,000 monthly advertising fraud program?
The report’s author, Vladislav Shevtsov, says the website has all the hallmarks of an advertising fraud system.
“It’s a brilliant and simple example of simulated media,” he said. “It’s not a fake news site. They mostly use old, real-life rewritten news and stories, but this site is a simulation of a news agency.”
He said CityOfEdmontonNews.com appears to be an attractive investment for advertisers by masquerading as a legitimate news website and using bots to drive monthly traffic.
These companies will likely never know, Shevtsov said. “Advertisers don’t look at every medium. All advertising is now programmatic,” he said, referring to an automated digital advertising system.
A screenshot from the Social Puncher report shows the high number of ad placements on City of Edmonton News.
Shevtsov pointed to a similar scandal that occurred with Myspace, a social network popular in the early 2000s.
Two years ago, when Myspace traffic skyrocketed and advertising revenue was generating, research by BuzzFeed News found that traffic was coming from software that generated millions of video ad impressions.
Myspace’s parent company responded by closing the affected video sites and blaming third parties for any fraud.
In the case of City of Edmonton News, Shevtsov said there is no such parent company answering questions about the website’s unusually high traffic.
“Professionals who live in this city and have worked in journalism for years never hear of this site,” he said, adding, “I bet this site is a lot more profitable than your big news agency.”
The site had a monthly income of at least $ 100,000 for the past six months, according to the Social Puncher report, which Shevtsov called a “conservative estimate.”
“Such a win is impossible in a competitive market where there is a struggle for every user and the local media is in crisis and is slowly dying out,” said Shevtsov.
The report concludes that the website “was launched in a total information vacuum”.
“How users found out about this site is still a mystery. There are no press releases of its launch, not a single announcement in Canadian media, not even a single review,” it says.
DAMAGE TO LOCAL JOURNALISM
Why would the average Edmontoner care about a website that no one in town reads or knows about?
By watering down local journalism and emphasizing profit over substance, City of Edmonton News could damage people’s trust in real media, says Neill Fitzpatrick, a former news director and assistant professor for MacEwan University’s journalism program.
“My biggest concern when I see something like this is another blow to the reputation of journalists and journalism because people only see what they want to see,” said Fitzpatrick.
While the site may not be as damaging as traditional “fake news,” which spread openly lies, it could nonetheless cause confusion among news consumers.
“There are a lot of well-written fake news sites that look a lot better legitimate than the …[City of Edmonton News] Website, ”he said.
Fitzpatrick said this was another reason news consumers should improve their media literacy in order to be able to differentiate between real and well-researched stories and those that might be viewed as “clickbait”.
CTV News Edmonton attempted to contact the City of Edmonton News website but was unsuccessful.
The website’s contact form appeared to be broken and users received an error message when trying to use it.
Emails have been returned to [email protected], the email address listed on the website.
CTV News also asked the city if it was concerned that the website was using the city of Edmonton on its behalf and if this could cause confusion.
“We are reminding the public that the Edmonton City website and the block both contain the city’s official visual branding, including the company logo,” the city said in a statement. “To be sure if something is coming from the city, look for the city logo.”
The only way to prevent advertising fraud is to independently screen website traffic, the report said.
Shevtsov said Social Puncher is still investigating City of Edmonton News and other “simulated media” sites and expects to release more details in an upcoming report.
Read the full Social Puncher report below: