Here are some more details, based on sources close to the investigation and other reports, about who is affected and the scale of the botnet.
Millions of “readers” for a toothbrush news site
The “about” section of Toothbrushing.net says the site is dedicated to “toothbrush enthusiasts” and promises the “latest on dental news.” According to a source, the site is displaying 20 million to 25 million ad impressions a month. Since the site shows four ad slots on every webpage, this loosely translates to at least 5 million visitors. Nearly all of these visitors were bots not people but, for marketers, the effect is the same — they pay either way. (The ad slots were empty when I checked today).
To put the traffic of the toothbrush news site in perspective, consider that a site like the Economist had 1.7 million unique visitors in December and the New Yorker had 3.1 million. These figures refer to unique visitors so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but, using this crude calculation, there’s a good chance Toothbrushing.net did better than both of them.
And it’s not just the toothbrush site. Other obscure sites touched by the bot network, including Sodabottle.com and Techrockstar.com, likewise served up 20 million to 25 million ads in a month. According to Spider, the analytics firm that discovered the scam, there are at least 202 such sites tied to the bot network. Nearly all consist of little more than a smattering of cheap content you could pay a high-school student to write.
There is also the egregious example of Directorslive.com, an obscure movie site that AdWeek reports enjoys 326 million monthly pageviews. According to a source, the only site on the web to sell more ad impressions is Facebook.
Who is affected and who is responsible
The list of advertisers that paid to appear on botnet sites include dozens of major brands, and cover a wide range of sectors such as: retail (Snickers, Ziploc, Petco); finance (Citi, Chase, Amex); telecom (AT&T, Time Warner, Sprint); automotive: (Dodge, Ford, Jaguar); services (Zipcar, Seamless).
While advertisers are the direct victims of the botnet, major web publishers are also harmed because marketers lose confidence in the integrity of display advertising and prices drop accordingly.
So who is to blame? An advertising source provided six ad networks it regarded as among those it believed to be “problematic” because their sites received significant traffic from the botnet. Here are their names along with an example of a suspect websites they control: Alphabird (Driverswhoknow.com); Digimogul (USBuildingDigest.com); Forward Health (Womenshealthbase.com); Precision Media (Toothbrushing.net); HiFi network (Dailyfreshies.com); Relevad Corporation (FFog.net).