Writing mostly about click fraud, ad fraud and digital marketing. Also bad at skateboarding.
Back in 2001 paid search was just becoming ‘a thing’, and not far behind it was click fraud. For those not totally up to speed, click fraud is where paid links receive clicks from non-human or vindictive parties. Think bots, enterprising publishers and business rivals who have a lot to gain from your ad being knocked off the top spot.
In the intervening years between 2001 to 2021, click fraud has gone through various stages of evolution. To start with, it was simply a case of hosting paid links on your website and clicking them as many times as you could get away with to collect a fraudulent payout (a simplified version of what happened).
We then saw the rise of complex botnets such as 3ve and HyphBot, designed to generate massive traffic through video ads hosted on spoofed websites.
Throughout this we’ve also had the click farm, where humans and bots work together to click links en masse. These can be paid search, social media, fake news – whatever needs clicking.
The rise of Paid to Click (PTC)
A report by ClickCease released at the end of November 2020 has found that click fraud, especially click farms, has gone with the Covid-19 trend of working from home. Titled The Underground Ad Click Economy, it finds that the big paid to click sites have recently paid out over $13.2 million to human workers.
Paid to click (PTC) sites are actually nothing new, and have been a popular source of income since at least the early 2010’s, especially in low income countries. However, this latest report finds that PTC sites such as NeoBux and Scarlet Clicks have seen a boom in 2020, with at least 40% more traffic and sign ups.
The remote working gig economy has been a boon for the world, giving many access to relatively high paid work. Now you don’t need to live in Silicon Valley to run marketing campaigns for a new startup; you can be based in Berlin, Bangalore or Botswana.
And, to get paid to click on paid links, you no longer need to go into a warehouse in Bangladesh. You can work from home in Venezuela, Pakistan or Vietnam and make an easy $100. And in many of these countries, $100 can be the difference between paying your bills or not.
The options available for clickers
Using real live humans to click on paid links does several things.
Firstly, it gets around the problem of bots and VPNs being flagged for invalid click behaviour, as humans act online like, well… Humans.
Secondly, rudimentary security such as Captchas and tick boxes is no obstacle for a real live human being.
But, they do still cost more to hire than bots, even if you are paying pennies in the dollar. And the report also finds that the use of automated clicker software, wholesale bot traffic and even some software development tools have all made a huge difference to the wave of click fraud we’re currently seeing in 2020.
In fact, there are things like Traffic Bot Pro which openly advertise that they can click on your competitors paid links to help you make money faster. It’s all very brazen, and very much against Google’s policies, but increasingly hard for the search giants and other platforms to close down.
With some of these products or services costing less than $10, and many of the services easily available via a quick search, clearly the industry is in need of some fresh thinking on how to tackle these monetised invalid clicks.
Sites like Fiverr have fuelled the gig economy, and today you can still find plenty of grey hat and black hat digital marketing services for sale there.
The legality of black hat services
You might be wondering how these sites get away with such brazen manipulation of traffic, when it so clearly costs the industry dear. Is there even a legal case to take these platforms to court?
Like a lot of aspects related to click fraud, it’s a grey area. Although there are some laws that protect marketers, and there have been high profile cases of Facebook and Microsoft taking fraudsters to court, overall there has been no action taken against these paid to click platforms. The problem is that their services usually look like genuine traffic boosting, rather than offering ‘fraudulent’ clicks.
Many of the freelancers on Fiverr offering web traffic aren’t necessarily offering fraud clicks either. That’s not to say that this service isn’t available (it usually is), but their headline offering will normally be more in the grey hat territory than the out and out black hat.
Earlier this year, I actually spoke to several people who work in the website traffic industry for an article about click farms. Tellingly, they would often stress that they didn’t offer fraudulent services, but that they knew someone who would.
One of these people, a gentleman from Kenya, had designed his own bot to follow people on Instagram and automate things like clicks on survey apps to collect payouts. By his own admission he wasn’t even a particularly advanced coder, highlighting how easy it is for freelancers to create their own fraud clicking cottage industry.
Illegal? Maybe. Easy to prosecute? Not so much. There’s a reason why most of the court cases against click fraud have mostly been in the US.
If you’re running programmatic advertising campaigns, make sure to read up on your options to protect your marketing budget from click fraud.
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