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Whither the fake clicks?

November 19, 2012

My friend Ori explained to me last week about where all those fake clicks are coming from and going to and why. He blogged about it on m6d’s website.

As usual, it’s all about incentives. They’re gaming the online advertising model for profit.

To understand the scam, the first thing to know is that advertisers bid for placement on websites, and they bid higher if they think high quality people will see their ad and if they think a given website is well-connected in the larger web.

Say you want that advertising money. You set up a website for the express purpose of selling ads to the people who come to your website.

First, if your website gets little or no traffic, nobody is willing to bid up that advertising. No problem, just invent robots that act like people clicking.

Next, this still wouldn’t work if your website seems unconnected to the larger web. So what these guy have done is to create hundreds if not thousands of websites, which just constantly shovel fake people around their own network from place to place. That creates the impression, using certain calculations of centrality, that these are very well connected websites.

Finally, you might ask how the bad guys convince advertisers that these robots are “high quality” clicks. Here they rely on the fact that advertisers use different definition of quality.

Whereas you might only want to count people as high quality if they actually buy your product, it’s often hard to know if that has happened (especially if it’s a store-bought item) so proxies are used instead. Often it’s as simple as whether the online user visits the website of the product, which of course can be done by robots instead.

So there it is, an entire phantom web set up just to game the advertisers’ bid system and collect ad money that should by all rights not exist.

Two comments:

  • First, I’m not sure this is illegal. Which is not to say it’s unavoidable, because it’s not so hard to track if you’re fighting against it. The beginning of a very large war.
  • Second, even if there weren’t this free-for-the-gaming advertiser money out there, there’d still be another group of people incentivized to create fake clicks. Namely, the advertisers give out bonuses to their campaign-level people based on click-through rates. So these campaign managers have a natural incentive to artificially inflate the click-through rates (which would work against their companies’ best interest to be sure). I’m not saying that those people are the architects of the fake clicks, just that they have incentive to be. In particular, they have no incentive to fix this problem.
  1. November 20, 2012 at 9:55 am

    The way that it is formatted in the title of this post, “clicks” looks very close to another word 🙂


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