Hydra Media’s Pop-Up Problem — Ten Examples

Late last month, I posted an example of Vomba using a Hydra Media affiliate link to defraud VistaPrint — charging VistaPrint for traffic VistaPrint would otherwise have received for free. This was only the second Hydra Media advertising fraud example I had posted on my public web site. (The first showed similar Blockbuster fraud in spring 2007.) So some might think Hydra Media doesn’t have a big adware, spyware problem. Indeed, that’s exactly what Hydra claimed in a comment to ReveNews.

Despite Hydra’s claims of appropriate and ethical behavior, my observations indicate the contrary. Looking back to June 2007, across all my AutoTester’s browsing, my AutoTester has seen a remarkable 1,343 instances of spyware sending traffic to/through Hydra Network — 56 incidents in the past two weeks alone.

Ten Specific Examples

Using my Automatic Spyware Tester, I recently found the following Hydra Media spyware/adware incidents.

Overwrites cookies of any other affiliates previously slated to receive commission for making a referral to the advertiser.

# Date Spyware Advertiser Traffic flow Hydra ID References
1 10/1/08 Zango Survey Club Zango > Hydra > Survey Club 27352 video, packet log
2 10/2/08 Outerinfo Bidz Outerinfo > MediaTraffic > Hydra > Bidz 17203 video, packet log
3 10/4/08 Vomba Gevalia Vomba > Hydra > Gevalia 15387 video, packet log
4 10/4/08 Vomba Gevalia Vomba > Offerweb > Hydra > Gevalia 5830 video, packet log
5 10/4/08 Vomba Video Professor Vomba > Hydra > Video Professor 6102 video, packet log
6 10/11/08 Zango Gevalia Zango > Hydra > Gevalia 11427 video, packet log
7 10/11/08 Vomba Gevalia Vomba > Doubleyourctr > Hydra > Gevalia 9136 video, packet log
8 10/11/08 Vomba Reunion.com Vomba > Artur2 > Hydra > AdShuffle > Reunion 28138 video, packet log
9 10/11/08 Targetsaver Reunion.com Targetsaver > Kchuentracking > Hydra > AdShuffle > Reunion 27039 video, packet log
10 10/12/08 WhenU Omaha Steaks WhenU > MediaTraffic > Tcshoppingdeals > Hydra > Omaha Steaks 7386 video, packet log
Effects: Targets advertiser with its own affiliate link — thereby charging the advertiser for traffic it would otherwise have received for free. See extended discussion in Auditing Spyware Advertising Fraud: Wasted Spending at VistaPrint.

These are just a fraction of the Hydra incidents my AutoTester observed during the past two weeks. But as the “Effects” entry notes, each of these incidents entails charging an advertiser for traffic the advertiser would otherwise have received for free — a strikingly poor deal for the advertiser. Moreover, each of these incidents entails a distinct Hydra affiliate ID, as shown by the ten unique values in the “Hydra ID” column.

Covering Their Tracks

It is difficult to know whether Hydra and the targeted merchants were aware that these affiliates were using spyware/adware to claim commissions on traffic merchants would otherwise have received for free. In principle it is possible that the affiliates told Hydra and the merchants what they were doing — though I find that unlikely at best. But in each instance, the packet logs reflect that these affiliates’ traffic to merchants did not affirmatively indicate that the traffic came from spyware or adware. In principle such designation could be provided by “sub=” tags on affiliate links, by HTTP Referer headers, or by other indications. But these packet logs include no such disclosure.

In incidents 9 and 10, it seems these affiliates and their spyware/adware partners took additional steps to cover their tracks. In incident 9, Targetsaver invoked the affiliate’s link to LynxtTrack and onwards to Reunion.com, without an on-screen Reunion window appearing, whether as a popup, popunder, Taskbar entry, or otherwise. See the incident 9 video — showing only a brief blip at 0:37 when Internet Explorer briefly loses then regains focus. (Notice the change in color of the Internet Explorer title bar.) With no meaningful on-screen display to report what occurred, even a sophisticated tester might fail to notice that an affiliate link had been invoked and affiliate cookies had been dropped. Incident 10 also reflects significant obfuscation: WhenU opened the affiliate’s link in a window that was initially blank (0:25-0:28). WhenU then moved the window off-screen, and even when I manually clicked the window’s Taskbar entry (video at 0:33), the window did not appear. Only by right-clicking and choosing Maximize (0:38) was I able to force the window to appear in the active screen space, letting me demonstrate and confirm that the window did indeed load the Omaha Steaks site through a Hydra affiliate link.

Taking from Other Affiliates

Not only do these affiliates charge merchants for traffic merchants should have received for free, but these affliates also take commissions that should have flowed to other affiliates. Suppose an ordinary web site affiliate (“A” for short) recommends, e.g., Gevalia. If a user clicks A’s affiliate link to Gevalia, and if a user later makes a purchase from Gevalia, then A is supposed to receive a commission on the sale. But if one of these spyware/adware-using affiliates jumps in with its own link, A gets nothing.

I first demonstrated this commission-stealing in July 2004. See my proof of Zango (then “180solutions”) claiming commissions that would otherwise be paid to other affiliates, as to traffic for Crucial, Freshpair, TGW, and Valuemags. This problem remains in full effect.

Legitimate rule-following affiliates rightly disdain spyware and adware for, among other reasons, their tendency to take commissions that would otherwise flow to legitimate affiliates. For example, my VistaPrint piece last month prompted a spirited response from Linda Buquet at the 5 Star Affiliate Programs Blog (“adware also steals from Vista Print’s HONEST AFFILIATES!”) and a discussion at affiliate forum ABestWeb.

Next Steps

In a recent MediaPost article, Hydra claimed it is “complying with the instructions [it has] been given.” Perhaps a few aggressive marketers are willing to look the other way on spyware and adware issues. But all of the advertisers listed above? All these companies are happy to pay commission on traffic they would otherwise have received for free? Pay commission for placements through spyware known to arrive on users’ computers without users’ consent? It strains credibility. By posting these examples, I intend to alert the corresponding advertisers to the nature of the traffic Hydra is sending them — letting the advertisers decide for themselves whether this is a suitable allocation of their marketing budgets. As detailed in my Wasted Spending at VistaPrint piece, my firm view remains that these placements offer advertisers no bona fide benefit, and that no fully-informed advertiser would willingly pay for such traffic.

Meanwhile, others are also observing Hydra placements through spyware and adware. In a comment at ReveNews, ShareASale CEO Brian Littleton noted that he sees Hydra affiliates using spyware and adware to cover and supersede traffic his company provides to advertisers — reducing earnings of ShareASale and ShareASale’s affiliates. Brian generously offers to provide Hydra with reports of these practices, and I encouraged Brian to post his findings on the web for all to see.

Hydra’s “AdControl” service promises “positive, proactive protection” to provide “control over where [advertisers’] ad[s] [are] placed.” Hydra says it “guards against compliance problems from every angle” to assure that ad placements are “safe[,] secure [and] profitable.” Furthermore, Hydra claims to provide “tough affiliate pre-screening and policing to assure quality.” I applaud these objectives, but it seems Hydra has more to do in order to deliver the ethical, compliant, profitable placements it has promised.