Although internet giants like to promote cyberspace as a sunny upland we can all frolic in safely, it is fast becoming clear that the digital landscape is populated with a few satanic mills at the same time – well, content mills, anyway. However, just as we thought we were becoming a bit more sure-footed on our online journey, a new blot on the horizon appears – and this time it’s click farms.
Research has suggested that less than 60% of online engagement is generated by humans – the rest is generated by bots. A recent blog on NYmag.com describes how advertisers are duped into believing their ads are being published on premium sites and getting clicks – when in reality, they are being fooled by bots mimicking the human interaction on a computer.
Click farms are frequently behind fake views – whether it is an organised operation involving banks of computers programmed to detect ads and click away, or just one human and a row of mobile phones in their back room clicking for all they are worth.
What are Click Farms
If you have ever placed an ad online and eagerly awaited all those click-throughs – perhaps promising a whole new panoply of customers, followers or expressions of interest – the phenomenon of the click farm is about to pour silage on your hopes and dreams.
Click farms are a form of online fraud thought to be another gift from Russia with love. Other click farms are available, though, including from China.
The process works by devices or a lowly human sifting through the World Wide Web looking for links or media to click on and engage with. Not surprisingly, the gang-master running a click farm is called a Click Master. So if you have paid for a glowing review of that first novel – or have acquired one million followers from a link, be aware that all those new clicks may well be the result of click-farming.
Systems to detect online fraud can actually become so used to clickbots that they fail to detect them and begin to regard the human interaction as fraudulent – so bang go all those new readers.
This is a process called Inversion – when bots become seen as the real deal and humans become viewed as the fraudsters. Some more sophisticated click farms use actual devices such as smartphones or laptops that are connected to the internet. This allows a more resilient and successful method for click farms because each device has unique fingerprints (IMEI, OS IDs etc) that apps/ads need to verify it is an ‘engagement’ from an actual device and not a simulator.
I’m completely obsessed by click farms – where thousands of machines are lined up to generate fake engagement. pic.twitter.com/NgDm4AWiCm
— Jamie Bartlett (@JamieJBartlett) March 11, 2019
Automated Click Farming Explained
Down on the click farm, there may be automation and huge banks of equipment programmed to click – the tech searches out links and clicks on them, sending the originator of the link into a paroxysm of delight that their ad, or promotion, or their public profile, has garnered some response from the big wide world.
However, rather than adding to your fan base or acquiring new devotees of your product, or possibly even the possibility of a new job, it is possible a clickbot has simply taken a shine to you and clicked like a crazy thing.
This is not only annoying – but also can soon eat into revenue and marketing budget, resulting in false data about how an ad or promotion has performed.
To rub salt into the wound, some sites hosting ads may actually be aware that data returned on the success of an ad will include clickbot activity, skewing completely any performance stats. This is not only disappointing, potentially it can be a major waste of money – and could even wreck a business if it is planning its marketing strategy on dodgy data.
How Click Farms Work
There are certain websites that will warn clients that some activity may be as a result of clickbots – especially if the activity is coming from users unregistered on the site.
This is often on sites where the client is promoting their own services accessed via an external link, such as on employment sites. One such example is the website Mandy.com, which serves the entertainment industry. Rather than leave its subscribers in a permanent state of excitement over the number of profile views received, the site warns users that a myriad of unregistered users clicking on a profile is likely to be the result of clickbot activity. It is the marketing equivalent of nuisance calls. With unregistered users clicking on a profile, there is a handy IP address given, however, just in case you need to check it out. It may well lead to a click farm if you persevere.
However, there may be other sites where consumers happily place ads to promote their product or services, totally unaware that, among the genuine responses, click farms have been deploying their bots to produce fake views. In the case of Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising, bots can soon eat into that budget without producing any concrete results, such as sales figures. If sites are aware that users are paying for ads that are being clicked on by bots and not potential customers, it leaves an unpleasant taste to say the least – and may actually lead to a legal hinterland involving liability for fraudulent activity. If you are being sold advertising by a site that is aware some of the click-throughs are bot generated rather than being genuine potential customers and you are not advised of this before you place the ad, it could potentially mean work for lawyers.
Consider the irony: malware robots watch ads, monitored by automated tracking software that tailors each advertising message to suit the malbots’ automated habits, in a human-free feedback loop of ever-narrowing “personalization.” Nothing of value is created, but billions of dollars are made. – Douglas Rushkoff
The Damage Caused by Click Farms
People are now cottoning on to the click farm phenomenon – in the long run, fake views will potentially damage any hope of obtaining an honest opinion online. Bots can now sweep the Internet collecting data and assimilating user patterns and language, mimicking human expression in speech and creating false social media accounts. So all those glowing reviews about TV dramas or user responses in comment boxes might just as likely be from as bot as a human being. This means that for consumers seeking honest endorsements or human engagement online, the clickbot is creating a false impression – and the click farm can be extremely damaging, both to businesses and to individuals. It means we have to be wary of where we place ads, suspicious of how many followers we have, slightly doubtful about human interaction and comment online – and on our guard against potential fraud.
Recognising Fake Views
We all like to know whom we are dealing with, but with a clickbot, you will never know, so if you are receiving clicks which are not converting into sales, despite your excellent product and sparkling blurb, become suspicious.
Similarly, lots of interest on a members’ or subscription website might suggest that the unregistered user accessing the profile is actually a click farm at work.
Click-farming also makes a fool out of metrics – even digital giants like Facebook are allegedly all fingers and thumbs when trying to compute data regarding user activity online, thanks to click farms.
Max Read from NYMag.com writes:
“According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site – and the number of video views in Instant Articles.”
If click farms are confounding online titans like Facebook, what hope for the digital individual attempting to extrapolate their own metric data?
Fake views – or Fake views?
The political arena is big on canvassing views – but what if a clickbot started clicking on a petition? With so much now taking place digitally – from social media “likes” to canvassing political support and opinion, the click farm has the potential to influence populations as never before.
It is a scary thought that an online petition showing that millions of others think just as you do might represent a hard day’s night for a bank of clickbot machines – or a couple of click farmers sitting in their bedroom with sore index fingers. The world is now almost paranoid about technological intervention swaying election results, but click farms are not just the stuff of conspiracy theorists – they are very real and clicking on a link near you very soon to skew your perception of exactly what is happening in the virtual world and how people are responding to it. And that really is a scary brave new world.