The tough economy has led to an uptick in advertising experimentation online, but one thing that publishers have not approved is also on the rise — ads imbedded with malware.

Websites have long taken to selling their advertising through a number
of different strategies, including but not limited to in house salesmen,
ad networks and exchanges. But the diverse and varied nature of online ad selling has its own set of
concerns for publishers, now including the threat of viruses.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the difficult economy has led to
an increase in online ads that contain malware as publishers outsource
more of their ad selling to third parties:

“Viruses can be incorporated directly within an ad, so that simply
clicking on the ad or visiting the site can infect a computer, or ads
can be used to direct users to a nefarious Web site that aims to steal
passwords or identities. In most cases, the problem becomes apparent
within a matter of hours and quick fixes are put in place, but that’s
not fast enough for Internet surfers whose computers end up infected or
compromised.”

Plenty of legitimate publishers have been hit of late. AmericanIdol.com, FoxNews.com, and Major League Baseball’s MLB.com all had malware scares recently where hackers got into ad servers and directed users to websites that could download harmful programs onto their computers.

Yahoo owned Right Media Network has stepped up security measures
since a Trojan virus infected sites like Myspace, Bebo, and Photobucket
that use its ad content, but the number of middlemen involved in the ad
seling process indicate that this is going to be an ongoing problem.

Problems
with scamming ad networks deliberately serving bad ads can easily be
solved by publishers. But it looks like these ads are exploiting
networks that simply have a lot of hands in the pot of delivering the
final product.

Web users may have increased their tolerance for popups and site takeover
ads in view of publishers trying to earn some extra revenue, but
viruses could be a bigger problem. The main question is whether ad networks will be able to get viruses under control.

Increasing security measures in light of the viruses popping up on publishers’ sites could be a prohibitively costly process. But publishers need to know they are not going to infect viewers with viruses. And while the interest in third party sellers is not going away (there are more than 600 self-proclaimed ad networks and counting today), the cost of securing ad content may become a large factor in slimming down those numbers.

Image: WATBlog