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Click Bots and Fake Traffic Cost Online Advertisers $35 Billion

Studies show click bots and fraudulent traffic are widespread, but Google remains slow to react.

Click Bots and Fake Traffic Cost Online Advertisers $35 Billion

The world of pay-per-click advertising depends on traffic to keep it running. But almost as long as there have been PPC ads, there have been bots to “click” them and game the system.

An open secret, this problem is much more widespread than many digital marketers might assume, with some estimates claiming fake users make up almost 40% of all web traffic.

PPC Fraud is Big Business

A study by the University of Baltimore estimated ad fraud costs businesses $35 billion globally in 2020 alone.

One of the most common ways it is perpetrated is via PPC fraud, in which website owners use an automated clicker, or click bot, to focus on Google Display, YouTube, or responsive text ads on their own site.

If these clicks are not identified as fraudulent, and they often are not, the fraudster collects the payout for each click from the advertiser. This not only falsely inflates ad performance, but it siphons off money from advertisers’ digital ad budgets for nonexistent traffic.

Reactiveness, Fear of Dropping Performance, Embarrassment May Facilitate Proliferation of Bots

Google has the technology to detect and block bot traffic. Using the search engine’s automatic filter in Google Analytics, users can instruct it to “exclude all hits from known bots and spiders.”

But this raises the question: why doesn’t Google block click bots by default? A publisher who asked to remain anonymous offered this opinion:

“Google has a long history of being reactive and not proactive against fake clicks. Google evolved rules against fake clicks in reaction to schemes created by publishers to exploit the advertising platform.

For example, until it was prohibited, publishers were able to style their ads with colors and fonts that caused them to blend with the webpage layout, blurring the difference between advertising content and regular content, resulting in clickthrough rates as high as 50% and the revenue was paid to the publisher, meaning the advertiser was charged.

Another example of how Google was reactive is that there was a person in the early days who was known for their click bots who partnered with people to revenue share ad clicks. This person got away with it for quite some time.”

This reactive approach has left Google scrambling to catch up as click bots develop new strategies and workarounds. Currently, because of privacy policies, there are technological limitations preventing servers from accurately tracking what is actually being seen by a browser. Servers are essentially flying blind.

As for the advertisers who are being defrauded by false clicks, it seems many are more interested in keeping their traffic numbers artificially high or they are embarrassed to admit they purchased ad space that generated fraudulent clicks. 

Fake Accounts Blamed for Failed Musk Twitter Deal

Upon halting his acquisition of Twitter in May, the current world’s richest man Elon Musk cited concerns about the number of spam accounts on the social media platform as a driving factor.

According to Musk, Twitter undercounted the number of fake accounts on the platform by millions, a claim that was lent credence by testimony from Twitter’s former head of security Peiter Zatko, who claimed executive bonuses were tied to daily user numbers.

Twitter responded by slapping the Tesla CEO with a lawsuit, which alleged that less than 5% of all Twitter accounts were bots.

This lawsuit is scheduled to go to court on October 17 in the Delaware Chancery Court. If Musk loses, he will be forced to buy Twitter for $4 billion.

Protect Your Ad Budget from Click Bots

It is impossible to 100% prevent your ad campaigns from bots, but you can reduce your exposure by taking a few simple steps.

  1. 1Set up IP exclusions in Google Ads from known click farms.
  2. Adjust your ad targeting to exclude geographical areas where fake clicks tend to originate.
  3. Create placement exclusion lists to keep your ad from appearing on fraudulent or questionable sites.

Fighting click fraud is an ongoing process, and implementing an elimination process may hurt your performance numbers up front, but it will save you money in the long run.


Featured image: Shutterstock/TarikVision

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SEJ STAFF

Brian Frederick

An expert in all things digital marketing-related, Brian has been writing about SEO, social media, integrated campaigns and PPC for ...

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