One of the promises of the mature Web is the ability to track, to generate data about how many views and visitors come to a site and who they are. But with the availability of that data comes a vulnerability. An opportunity to produce that data the easy way, not by building sites that attract more and more visitors but by buying and faking your way to impressive data that has nothing to do with human beings actually viewing content online.
Incapsula was quoted by the BBC in December as finding that bots account for 61% of Web traffic. The Interactive Advertising Bureau says 36% of all Web traffic is now non-human. And according to Solve Media 61% of Web traffic in the 4th quarter of 2013 was “suspicious” as well as 25% of mobile activity.
For some, generating more traffic may be an ego boost, a way to justify your job or an attempt to improve a site or a blog’s Alexa rating or page rank (although fake traffic could potentially have the opposite effect). But for others there is big money involved. Dr. Paul Barford, a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin, estimates that $180 million is lost annually by advertisers who buy fraudulent traffic.
Who benefits from this? The publisher or Web site operator who can charge higher rates based upon what appears to be the ability to deliver more traffic. An unnamed publisher who admitted to buying traffic told Jack Marshall of Digiday “If you’re buying visits for less than a penny, there’s no way you don’t understand what’s going on.”
The other beneficiary is the automated ad server networks. Since a large percentage of online advertising is bought in this manner, the buyer often has very little information about the exact spots where his or her ad will appear. It could show up on a completely phony site that is viewed by bots only and thus be completely worthless, albeit statistically impressive. Dylan Love of Business Insider characterized this as “’robots are buying ads generated by other ‘robots’ visiting sites.”
One completely fraudulent approach to this is to do just that, create phony sites that have ads only. The fraudsters will then build networks of bots by essentially hijacking computers. They use malware that is delivered to computers so they can control the computer and direct it to hit these sites. Cautious advertisers will seek to counteract this by requiring more sophisticated measures of the effectiveness of their ads, such as click throughs to video. But the most sophisticated of the purveyors of fake traffic have built bots that mimic the online behavior of humans, like watching videos and adding items to shopping carts.
It isn’t hard to find someone willing to set you up with some site traffic. etraffic247.com offers rates ranging from $9.95 for 25,000 visitors to $69.95 for a million visitors.
Hitleap, based in Hong Kong, offers that “You can choose to use a custom URL as the referring Website. This way you can make it look like the traffic is coming from google.com for example.” At 1 Million Clicks you are assured that their Web Traffic Simulator software can simulate traffic on a Web page. The traffic counters (for example Google Analytics) are tricked into believe (sic) that the visits are real since the Web page is loaded in a real browser…” A site aptly named Fake Hits promises it can send thousands of unique IP fake visitors to your web site for just $19.95. I found another site with step-by-step instructions for producing fake You Tube views. Apparently they offer this advice for free as a public service.
Not all bot traffic represents a fraud. Lots of it is generated by search engines indexing content, by measurement companies tracking performance of content or by various types of monitoring companies identifying where content is published or where a company, organization or person in mentioned.
But like their crasser counterparts, these viewers have no heartbeat. They generate numbers that are basically deceiving because that have nothing to do with human beings who might have visited your site or read your content.