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Programmatic Grave Robbers
Caity Weaver, a New York Times Magazine writer, shined a light on a gross and morbid open web practice – death-related news as an online advertising funnel.
Weaver paid $900 to publish an obituary for her mother in her local paper. Which, because it was funny and well-written, was picked up by local news and aggregator sites, including the New York Post. The thing is, now these sites profit directly from that obituary, including original photographs taken by her father.
Some sites even include donation links that seem to be part of the family’s wishes – with language like “plant trees to honor her memory” – but actually just earn the site a commission (if they aren’t straight-up fraudulent).
Aggregator sites and programmatic death mills, as they could be called, have gained traction by scraping funeral home sites, the web and social media for news of deaths, just to create landing pages featuring names, copy-and-pasted obituaries … and a barrage of ad units.
These sites slip by brand safety tags (obituary language is mellow, not graphic) and invalid traffic detection because they get legit organic search traffic; often the first thing people do when they hear tragic news is Google a name.
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