SearchTHIS: Click Fraud On the Rise

If you have a spare moment, count the number of times per day you are exposed to some type of fraud on the web. Yesterday, I got six emails from phony eBay complaining that I hadn’t spent enough time updating my profile. Bogus PayPal evidently thinks it’s time for me to input more personal financial information at their site. Last week, there was a slight security risk as a credit card company let a whole bunch of information slip into the hands of evil doers. And don’t get me started on the spyware/adware problem -- America is now officially terrified of downloading anything.

With spam, spyware, and intrusive pop-ups, search was bound to have its day in the slime pit as well.

Enter the click fraud problem. Everyone’s talking about it and in order keep up with the suckers born every minute, we have allowed one of the most despicable forms of human behavior to place our search serenity at risk. Advertisers, search sites and the search world at large are now afraid of click fraud.

Just how big has the problem become and what are we doing about it?

What is, is

Owners of competing listings commit click fraud by clicking on competitors' paid listings. There are firms that do nothing but generate false clicks for publishers to get a piece of the contextual search revenue pie. For a list of click fraud types and sources, check out Debunking Click Fraud.

Though I covered most of the definitions and origins of search click fraud before, here’s a quick recap of the common red flags for advertisers.

  • IP Address: You should be capturing IP addresses for each click. These funny long numbers hold the keys to detecting many types of fraud.
  • Click Volume: History is a great teacher. Abnormally large spikes in search activity for obscure keywords are often a dead giveaway.
  • Geography: Not doing business in the former eastern block or India but getting lots of clicks from these countries? Someone is gaming you.
  • Click Response: If you normally sell about eight widgets for every 100 visitors and that number drops to zero, that might be a problem.
  • Timing: If you get 50 clicks from the same IP address in under a second, guess what?

Suffice it to say there are many types and motivations of click fraud. As an advertiser, the type of click fraud you should be concerned with is the false traffic sent to your site, thereby bleeding your search budget dry. Here’s the plain truth: click fraud is not really all that difficult to identify and record in most instances. That is to say, much in the same way that it is not difficult to build an automobile with the right tools, the click fraud problem is relatively easy to solve.

Much ado about…

Many brand owners struggle with having to purchase their own brand names on search engines. Now they have to worry about perpetrators of fraudulent traffic falsely inflating budgets as well. Well, isn’t that just icing on the cake? Popular estimates of click fraud place the number at anywhere from five percent to 70 percent of all paid traffic. That’s right sports fans. As usual, no one has the foggiest clue as to how big the problem really is.

Second tier search providers seem to be leading the way in offering click fraud prevention devices. Once little more than a trade show conference floor joke, Brooklyn, New York based BlowSearch (yes, you read that right), has been popping up in the press lately with its click fraud prevention devices. But they are by no means alone. Last summer, LookSmart introduced their system for click fraud prevention. Providers that have not launched specific fraud tools have publicly declared their staunch opposition to click fraud and an eagerness to help issue refunds.

Click fraud prevention has become a point of differentiation in third party search bid management and tracking tools. In recent months a flurry of specialized click fraud prevention providers have arrived on the scene to serve multitudes of small and medium sized businesses that may not have access to or budgets for specialized providers who have prevention measures built in.

If you haven’t already done so, check in with your search marketing partner on what they have for click fraud prevention. Remember, sound click fraud protection doesn’t require a press release and a catchy name to do the job.

No extraordinary measures

Once you have your tools in place, the only thing on your mind should be your campaign. At this point, marketers know enough to ask for protection, yet few are really sure how said protection works. Smaller paid search providers are jumping forward with private-label protection devices since competing for budget share with top players like Google and Yahoo! is job one.

Unfortunately, they seem to be having the most problems with click fraud while simultaneously having the most to lose from disillusioned advertiser relationships. Second tier search providers like Miva (formerly FindWhat) or Kanoodle rely upon directive search traffic from smaller partners you might not know while Google and Yahoo! garner their own traffic and have key partnerships like AOL and MSN search. In short, it’s much easier to cut a second tier provider loose.

Often, those sites you will never visit that provide search are the cause of fraudulent traffic. One possible out for search providers lies in the idea preventing bad sources of traffic. Once those sources of baloney traffic are identified, some providers will allow you to simply remove them.

The practice of excluding poor traffic has become increasingly popular of late in contextual paid search for obvious reasons but has yet to become a standard in directive sponsored search. For most, it’s simply a matter of developing the technology to allow removal. The benefit to advertisers is clear, but with transparency comes disclosure, and providers need to protect rates and compensation plans. I am guessing the advertiser's agenda will win, but it’s going to take some time.

Before you remove search provider from your budget, ask if you can yank the bogus traffic source.

Go on, don’t be afraid to audit

The internet is to the lowlife bottom feeder agenda as napalm is to a forest fire. Yes, the internet has empowered the worst elements of society in ways previously thought unimaginable. Don’t let them win oh adopters of the digital faith. Keep working on ways to improve the lives of consumers who simply can’t keep themselves from clicking on bogus eBay links. Keep writing patches to fix what cyber-criminals have cooked up in their parent's basements.

And while you are at it, add click fraud prevention to your online marketing to do list. Identify it, record it, and get reimbursed from the search provider.

In the end it seems click fraud has become a part of doing business in search. Regular audits of click traffic are a must. It doesn’t really matter if you use a third party or do it yourself. What matters is that you are performing the audits and requesting return funds as frequent as possible. 

Executives from major search engines have gone on record of late with statements about click prevention being a priority for them. Every time fraud occurs, a little piece of the paid search value proposition erodes. Though refunds might mean less revenue in the short term, catching the crooks will keep the search value proposition alive in the long term.

Additional Resources:

Search This! Debunking click fraud

Search This! My plan to end SPAM

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Mr. Ryan is the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at AD:TECH Chicago July 11, 2005