URL Hijacking occurs when another advertiser creates an ad that looks like it's your ad. It happens within paid search ads, contextual ads, and in display network image ads.
Paid Search Hijacking. When URL Hijacking occurs in paid search, the hijacker will use your URL as the display URL in its ad. This is problematic because search engines only allow 1 paid search advertiser to show in search results per display URL. This means that if you and an affiliate or a competitor are both using the same display URL, your ad will only show a portion of the time, and the remaining portion of the time the other guy's ad version with your display URL will appear. We call this getting 'knocked-out' and it takes an advanced ad monitoring tool to tell you how often this happens.
Display Hijacking. When URL Hijacking occurs in display ads, the hijacker will use your URL in the ad, your brand name, and your colors. This is problematic because the advertisements may contain improper messaging or may interfere with ad serving of your direct campaigns as they do in paid search.
Why does URL Hijacking Occur?
There are several reasons why an advertiser would want to disguise their ad to make it seem like your ad:
Affiliate Hijacker. An affiliate who is URL Hijacking is doing this to avoid having to create a landing page. Traffic from the hijacked ad is directed through an affiliate link and then ultimately to your landing page. On the plus side, you wind up receiving the business. However the cost is tremendous. First, as noted above, your own ads are knocked-off of the search results page. This then causes channel conflict with your SEM team and your automated campaign software. Second, you are not able to control the messaging. Third, the competition is now between you, the marketplace, AND your affiliate. More competition for placement equals higher CPCs. Finally, affiliate hijackers typically hijack on brand or brand-plus terms where the meatiest traffic lies thus taking clicks away from you. These hijackers can be detected by looking for incorrect tracking URLs and identifying affiliate links within the redirect path.
Traffic Hijacker/Phishing: A traffic hijacker usually wants your traffic so that it can fool a consumer into giving away personal information like an email address. The pattern from ad to landing page will be an advertisement that looks like yours, then to a landing page that is owned by the hijacker and not owned by you. The landing page may be disguised to fool the consumer by using your colors, logo placement, and wording. We have seen this behavior with phony gift card give-aways, for example. These hijackers can be found by noticing a mismatch between your website URL and the landing page URL of the advertisement.
Quality Score Hijacker. The search engines grade your ad quality using a formula that they call Quality Score. The better your quality score, the less you pay in CPCs. To boost quality score for new campaigns, sometimes competitors will hijack your display URL to gain quality score points. This tends to impact bigger, more well-known brands who are likely to have a great quality score. The hijacker will disguise its SEM ad as you, use your display URL, and direct traffic to your landing page. The hijacker will do this for a period of time in order to boost the quality score within its Adwords account. A good ad monitoring tool can usually find these hijackers because the tracking URL used will be different than your own.
When to Worry About URL Hijacking
It's a good idea to always be aware that URL hijacking could be happening. However, there are three tell-tale signs that should get you on the phone with your Affiliate Manager ASAP:
Sudden and surprising increases in the performance of certain affiliates
Sudden drops in your overall click volumes
Sudden increases in your average CPCs
It's important to understand that URL hijacking is often a temporary occurrence, performed long enough to create benefits for the affiliates but not long enough to get caught. This temporary nature often makes advertisers think it's gone for good, or a fluke, and should not be investigated.
URL Hijacking & Branded Keywords
URL Hijacking can definitely happen with your full keyword set (brand, brand-plus, product, and category terms). However, branded terms are an especially attractive target for URL hijacking. Affiliates know that branded keywords get more clicks and have less competition, making them more affordable to run ads on.
Should Your Affiliate Program Have Branded Keyword Restrictions?
While there is no definitive Yes or No answer here, you should definitely consider implementing this rule to help decrease potential URL hijacking.
Some advertisers might be happy letting their affiliates perform their branded advertising, so again, it's up to the advertiser. If they decide to allow it, they should without-a-doubt have monitoring set up to make sure the affiliate is not abusing this powerful responsibility.
Seer Interactive published the chart below in June 2013 showing what happened when an advertiser decided to allow its affiliates to bid on its branded terms. The restrictions were lifted twice, and during each time, clicks dropped and the average CPC jumped.
This would be the same pattern with URL hijacking.
How To Monitor For URL Hijacking
Most URL hijackers don't expect anyone to be looking for their clever trickery, so they are pretty brazen about it. The larger, more advanced hijackers know they are being monitored and will perform their hijacking at different times of day or from different locations to avoid detection. They might only select certain keywords and be active for several days a week.
As a result, an effective deterrent is to monitor:
Multiple times per day
Multiple keywords, including relevant ones for your brand such as type-os
Multiple geographies (US cities and international, if applicable)
The Search Monitor has been fine-tuning its affiliate marketing crawling technology since 2008 to be able to find even the most well-disguised varieties of URL hijacking. Want to see what we know about your affiliates? Just request a demo and we'll show you.