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Click Fraud and Bots

Pay per click advertising has changed the texture of the internet. It's a rare site today that doesn't run advertising. Income from ads helps support many sites (including this one) and some very popular sites make significant income from ads. However, a shadow hangs over this: the availability of this income has attracted a large number of junk sites (now called "splogs" for "spam blogs") that exist only to market ads and have no real content. There's also a problem with fraudulent clicks: clicks made only to bring income to the site owner.

Advertisers and content providers alike worry about click fraud. Obviously advertisers don't want to pay for fraudulent clicks. Legitimate site owners worry because a content provider like Google can ban them if they are suspected of this kind of fraud. Yes, a disgruntled partner or a ticked off employee could ruin your life (or at least your ad income) by deliberately clicking on a few dozen ads.

However, that kind of problem is easy for Google to deal with: just roll-back the clicks if they see an unusual grouping. It's the bots that are the real problem - machines that have been compromised by viruses or worms and are now controlled by someone else. These are the real danger to Google and their advertisers, and there's little defense imaginable: if 10,000 bots each do one click per day on fifty different sites, that's a fair pile of "money for nothing". If it's 100,000 it's serious cash and there are estimates that there are millions of bots out there - heck, some of the people reading this could be doing so at the keyboards of compromised machines.

Of course Google's income isn't the only threat from bots, so it's a problem that has to be solved. Microsoft has rewritten their code from the ground up to add more security, but it may not be enough: basically they have had to add a lot of "work arounds" to deal with reality and those loopholes may leave things just as they are now.

More likely, at least in the United States, will be efforts to regulate internet traffic. I don't like that kind of idea at all, but it could be hard to argue against and there would be a lot of folks cheering it on for various reasons, both selfish and unselfish. Google would likely be on the side of action because the current problems do threaten their business model. Microsoft and Apple would be all in favor because it would help entrench their positions and help them sell OS upgrades. The little Linux/Unix folks (that's me) would be screaming bloody blue murder, but nobody would care. Big Unix/Linux (IBM, HP etc.) would probably swallow hard and join the band.

Anyway, I've drifted a bit, but my thought was that it's a shame when a little guy might get banned for a problem that really is a complete non-issue (because it's so easily dealt with: roll back the suspicious clicks) but the really big thieves operate unseen. The only clue might be that their sites get more traffic than they apparently would deserve and perhaps that the same users (the bots) are doing all the clicking, but even that's hard to see if the operator isn't excessively greedy.

Though maybe that's the saving point: crooks invariably are greedy. Maybe all Google needs is deeper checking of big income sites. But it does seem to me that I see a lot of Adsense on really junk sites. Maybe 99% of those are just morons putting up junk and hoping to cash in, but if Google had higher standards for content providers, we'd all benefit: readers, advertisers and content providers alike.



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© Anthony Lawrence







Mon Feb 20 19:36:04 2006: 1676   TonyLawrence

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Google could track ad conversions and pay more to sites that send more legit traffic to advertisers. Adwords is tied to Analytics already, so all the advertisers need to do is define what makes a click valuable to them as a goal, and Google could track it.



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