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Did we get duped by Facebook click fraud?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 24, 2014
Facebook click fraud has been talked about a LOT. The question is, has Facebook brought it under control? Probably not and here's some tentative evidence to suggest how bad it really is.

Facebook click fraud has been talked about a LOT. The question is, has Facebook brought it under control? In my last story where I thought I'd failed on Facebook ads, I gave Facebook something of a pass on this topic. The reason was straightforward enough. My initial examination of the people who had come to the site suggested that while these may be real, they have no interest in what we do and that's down to me. Now I'm thinking I was duped.

Shortly after my story went live, Frank Scavo pinged me on Twitter to suggest that I might be the victim of Facebook click fraud. See below:

Is Frank right to point me in this direction? Yes and here's why. The answer doesn't come from where you might think.

Enter Clicky

Late last week and after the promotion finished, I received an email from Clicky saying we had used up our allotted number of 'actions.' An action in Clicky terms is something that touches our site. They say we had surpassed 900,000 in this billing month. Normally I'd be delighted, especially as Clicky says we're generating 100,000 per day. Wow. All that juicy traffic eh? Except that's not what's happening at all.

I initially disputed the claim since I wasn't seeing any specific spike in recorded visitors or interactions. If anything, it was a moderately slow month given we are in the holiday season. Clicky asked if I had made any changes to the site around August 8th. Nope. I then suggested that there was something wrong at their end but Clicky said they could not see anything unusual at their end.

And then this morning, I saw Frank's suggestion that I might have been the subject of Facebook click fraud. It was at that point the light went on. August 8th was when I kicked off the Facebook ad. Check what happened below from the Clicky stats.

But of course nothing much happened on our site because as has been pointed out by other investigators, these new likes are not interacting.

Facebook click fraudsters

When I ran my initial trawl of the supposed new likers, I found that a good few appear real and some of them are. I can see they are not just reposting 'stuff' but are interacting in what seems a moderately meaningful way. Even so, I deleted them along with others where a quick scroll through suggested we are not a good fit. It turns out a good few others are not real. Check this image:

Charming isn't it. Now check this one:

A pretty eclectic mix eh?And oh by the way - nothing going on in the timeline. Which, according to some analysts equates to Facebook click fraud. Check this video from someone who deliberately created a fake account in order to test the theory that Facebook is allowing click fraud.

That video has been viewed 2.875 million times. It has 10,354 comments and north of 83,000 likes. The Facebook page says very clearly that it not real. Yet it was accepted for advertising and drew fake clicks. That was in February and STILL Facebook allows this click fraud shit to go on?

Facebook click fraud - the money machine

If you go through the whole video what you discover is that Facebook is not only condoning the fraud but contributing to it AND making money all ways up. First it is getting idiots like me to believe that their promotional ads work - and at one level they do. They get likes, including some that are real but many of which are fake. Once you discover there is no interaction from those likes as I did, then you are tempted into paying again, and again and again because the reputational damage encourages that activity. Not this sucker.

To make matters worse, since Clicky thinks I am over my allocated use rate, it wants me to pay for higher usage when in reality, it looks very much like it is Facebook touching the site in order to feed its own ad machine but doing so in a way that doesn't show up in visits. And it was still doing it up until very recently. Here's what I mean. Check this log from Clicky:

Clicky log

As you can see, Clicky is recording that some server touched a specific page at least nine times in less than five minutes. I could almost get that if we are talking about a story that broke utterly new ground. But this is on a Sunday morning and is a case study on a modestly trafficked site. At that rate, overall traffic would be climbing exponentially but it isn't.

If I am right then the Facebook promotional ads harvesting algorithm behaves like a gigantic fly wheel. It takes a bit of time to rev up but once it is going then it takes forever to slow down and stop. In the meantime, services like Clicky are seeing crazy ass numbers.

To its credit and our thanks, Clicky has decided to up our allocation until such times as we can get a resolution, something with which I am more than happy to help.

But imagine what it must be like to be in a position where you don't know what's happening or are not aware of the potential damage that Facebook click fraud can have?

The content element

In recent times, a handful of well know social media types have been bigging up Facebook. Dave Winer has even written a handy tool that allows you to post simultaneously to Facebook and your blog AND, keep them in synch. He says inter alia, the rationale behind his thinking is that:

I've been working non-stop for the last 20 years on blogging software. Even though my newest product is wonderful in many ways, very few people look at it, and even fewer use it. When reporters write about recent innovations in blogging, my product is not mentioned. For me at least, blogging as a market is moribund. It was either add something to the mix, to change the market, or give up.

I want to continue making great blogging tools. And I want lots of people to use them. So these steps are on my path. I can't succeed without doing this. If you can create a market even a fraction as big as Facebook's that delivers the readers and engagement, then I'll do the same with your platform, if you want to work together. I try to accept what is, and have the most fun I can doing what I love to do. And for now this is it.

Who can blame him?  I will certainly give this thing a shot. And who can blame Euan Semple who says of Facebook:

I now get the sort of interactions in Facebook around posts that I used to get blogging. In fact I now see myself as blogging in parallel in Facebook. In the early days of blogging we would reach out to people who looked interesting and said smart things. I am now doing that in Facebook. Based on Facebook recommendations of people with more than 30 shared connections, I will take a look, and if they look like they post interesting stuff, request a friend connection.

Hope some of them say yes!

I've talked about this broad topic myself and believe that at least in the short term, many of 'us' will consider Facebook as the additional place where short form content is shared in its entirety.

Feeding the Facebook click fraud machine

Which in turn gives Facebook more free fodder with which to juice the click fraud machine upon which some level of its income depends. Just how much nobody knows although in the past, some large advertisers have claimed that invalid clicks could be as high as 20%. Facebook has not allowed anyone to audit its 'stuff.' I am betting though that in the UK and US at least, the various advertising watch dogs might have something to say about that.

Facebook click fraud is a well known problem with a history stretching back years. Facebook says it tries hard to keep it to a minimum. But...if my assertions are correct, then it is not trying hard enough by a long stretch. Of those 80 clicks I bought via Facebook, not a single one has any value. That's a 100% fail rate. I can almost, but not quite, argue, that's a 100% fraud.

One day, big ad spenders are going to stand up and demand that Facebook gets its house in order. It only takes a few to withdraw substantial ad dollars and Facebook will do what it must to overcome this fraud. Until then. I suspect many smaller businesses will continue ponying up, oblivious to the damage going on while good content providers give Facebook free access to the whole of their stuff. What a great business model.

Image credits: dahowlett

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