The communities that I manage are monetized via display advertising. I only work with reputable companies and have restrictions in place to ensure that the ads served meet my standards.

All networks worth your time will be actively protecting their publishers from ads that serve up malware. That’s obvious. But they’ll also provide you with filters that you can set to restrict the types of creatives they serve and the content of those creatives.

For me, this means no popup ads. No ads that expand automatically. No ads that play sound automatically. No ads related to sexuality. No ads related to gambling and betting. And there are other standards, as well. AdSense is very good about this, as are most networks you’d want to work with.

While it is pretty much always more lucrative to sell ads directly (I love BuySellAds for that), the reality is that nearly every web publisher will be left with remnant inventory to fill. Ad networks are part of the chain and a valuable partner.

When Bad Ads Happen

However, with all of the volume they do, it seems inevitable that a bad ad will slip in. Not necessarily malware, but an ad that doesn’t meet with your standards. If you are as careful as I am, it’s so disappointing when you learn that a member was served one.

Plenty of people use ad blockers. Those that don’t – or those who whitelist you from their ad blocker – should be counted among your biggest supporters. As such, you never want to expose them to an experience than doesn’t meet with your standards. I’ve been monetizing websites with display ads for more than a decade and, while it doesn’t happen very often, it always bugs me.

You should immediately take action. First, you should make sure the affected member knows that you take this seriously, that these types of ads are not something you serve and that you will investigate it immediately. I had a member report an ad to me recently, and he was surprised by my swift, detailed response. He told me that “other forums tend to ignore things.” Not this forum. Ads that don’t meet my standards lead to a degraded user experience, which drives people away and reflects poorly on me.

Once you’ve made that clear, it’s time to back those words up with action.

Identifying the Ad

If you can replicate the behavior – if you can see the bad ad yourself when you visit your community – then you are in great shape. You can use the developer tools available for your chosen browser to figure out who is serving it. These tools include:

Developer tools like this allow you to see who is serving the ad. There are other ways to do this, as well. But if you can’t see the ad yourself, then you have to ask the member to provide as much information as they can. If your community is really tech-savvy, they might be able to use developer tools. But for most people, it’ll prove too challenging and is too much of an ask.

In which case, you’ll be limited to specific questions. Can they take a screenshot of the ad? Can they mouseover the ad, right click, select “copy shortcut” and paste that into a message to you? Where does the ad send them to? What does the ad promote?

Maybe It’s Not an Ad

It’s important to remember that just because someone thinks that this ad was served through your site, it doesn’t actually mean it actually was. They could have had another tab open. Their device could have malware or a bad app on it. That doesn’t mean you pass the buck, but don’t forget to consider all options.

When you have information about the ad, you can use it to search Google, to see if other people are having similar issues with this particular ad or URL. If other people are having a similar issue and it sounds like malware, this could mean that the member’s device has been infected. It may not have to do with your site. But you can still send the member information on how to clean their device and maybe that will fix the problem.

Was your site hacked? If you feel comfortable taking a quick look at the source code, you might be able to pick up on something. You can also run your site through a couple of the free website malware scanners.

Who’s Serving It?

If it looks like it’s probably an ad you are serving, the information will hopefully allow you to identify the ad. It isn’t always easy. Maybe you’ll be able to pick up something from the URL, but you may end up having to check with any networks you work with. If they provide you with a list of current campaigns, look through that. If necessary, contact the network with the info you have and ask them to help you find the ad.

You can also selectively disable each network to see if the ads stop. Let’s say you work with 3 companies. Try turning one off for a day or two. Ask the member if the bad ad has stopped loading. If so, you might have found the culprit.

You Found It!

If you are persistent, you’ll track the ad down. Once you locate it, you can disable it. You may also be able to block ads from that advertiser in the future. If you feel you can no longer trust the ad network, you can choose to stop working with them – at least for a period. It just depends on your comfort level with them.

In the case of the member I mentioned above, I thought it could be malware, so I checked if our website had been hacked, and found that it hadn’t happened. I found other people having the same issue online with other sites, so I asked the member to follow some steps that they said had helped them. In addition, I blocked the two URLs that the member had sent me and said were related to the ad. Unfortunately, these steps did not fix the issue.

In checking the URLs, I found one was linked to an actual company, so I contacted them to ask for help in sorting out this issue. Since we really only work with 3 ad companies, I decided to try selectively disabling one and, in doing that, I found where the ad was coming from. When that ad network was disabled, the member reported that the ad stopped. Mission accomplished.

Even though I have been with them for years and we have a decent relationship, I have decided to stop working with that network, at this time.

The right way to do ads is to have standards and part of having standards is defending them. Things happen. But if you don’t put in the effort to fix issues like these, they can snowball. You never want your members to feel like you are monetizing the community at any cost. You can’t just demonstrate that with words alone, you can’t just say that you won’t serve certain ads – you have to back that up with action.