Writing mostly about click fraud, ad fraud and digital marketing. Also bad at skateboarding.
It was HBO’s Silicon Valley that first brought the reality about click farms into the public consciousness. In season three, the team are trying to generate some buzz around their company and Jared, probably the most focused and morally sound of the Pied Piper team, hires a click farm without letting the rest of the team know. It kind of spirals from there.
The enduring image is of a fella in Bangladesh getting out of bed and commuting through the busy streets of Dhaka to a warehouse full of fellow click farmers. And, as the camera pulls out, we see hundreds of people clicking on the link that Jared has paid for.
How much of this image is actually rooted in truth?
Actually, quite a lot.
Although in the post Covid-19 landscape, warehouses full of people are not the most likely work environment, click farms have been evolving and adapting for years.
Earlier in 2020 I spoke to several people who work in the paid to click industry, including a cottage industry click farmer, a bot programmer and a click reseller.
The cheapest form of paid traffic online is automated. You can buy thousands of clicks, likes, followers or reposts for just a few dollars. So, it stands to reason that most click farms in 2020 are made up of vast walls of connected phones and tablets.
In fact most footage of real click farms in recent years have been of these rooms full of devices. There are a few famous images, one of an Asian lady operating a bank of phones and another from a police raid on a click farm in Thailand. These are from way back in 2017, but that model still endures.
When I spoke to Hasan from Bangladesh, he told me that he had set up his own click farm with a bunch of old phones and laptops and was making a hundred dollars a week selling simple clicks on social media. “It was just a small operation… But it made me good money”.
Bear in mind that the average monthly wage in Bangladesh is under $200, so this is a tempting setup for a large portion of the world’s population.
Hasan, however, was quick to point out that he closed his operation down as he, "...felt that it was getting more illegal by the day".
Another operator I spoke to, James, works for a US based clicks reseller. His company works with click farms based in Asia, mostly in Taiwan, that offer bot and human based traffic on everything from Facebook or Instagram posts to YouTube videos and Spotify tracks. Yes, you can pay for bots to listen to your music on Spotify…
He tells me that there are at least 7 locations for the click farm he deals with in Taiwan, “They have 18,000 people working for them, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day”.
However, these human workers tend to do the more specific tasks that bots can’t do. Completing Captchas, posting comments on forms and signing up for accounts on sites.
A network of bots, aka a botnet, has always been a super easy way to generate traffic. And, with even a little bit of basic coding, it’s something that anyone with an interest in the subject can do.
When I spoke to Adam, a programmer from Kenya, he mentioned how he and his friends make bots for a variety of purposes. He himself showed me how his bots could be used to do relatively simple social media manipulation, including following, commenting and reposting. All services that people are happy to pay for.
But Adam pointed out that he wasn’t even making advanced bots, “My friend makes bots that can complete surveys and other such things. He collects money from survey apps and survey sites just by using his bot”.
I asked him how he does it, “He linked up 50 phones, which he needs to rotate from time to time. But he makes good money from it”.
But you don’t need to create your own bot to collect money from simple tasks online.
I’ve previously written, on this very site, about the growth of paid to click (PTC) sites thanks to the coronavirus. And this has been a major factor in how the click farm looks in 2020. Bought clicks no longer need to go through some sweat shop click farm; now you have an army of clickers getting paid via an app for inflating likes or traffic.
In fact, research from ClickCease, the industry leading click fraud prevention, shows that remote click workers have grown by 40% in 2020. And, the companies that hire them have paid out over $12 million so far.
For those who deal in KPIs, such as social media managers or digital marketers, these clicks present a significant headache. The industry for spotting bot clicks or click farms has been growing in recent years, mostly to fill the gap left by the major ad platforms. But these clicks from real people on real devices all around the world look genuine because, well, it’s hard to tell otherwise.
So no longer is a click farm a single location, but increasingly a whole patchwork of digitally interconnected locations.
OK, it's not a click farm, but malware is capable of doing many of the same jobs. Malware is nothing new, with infected apps, browser extensions and data centres sending fake traffic around the internet since, well… Since the start of the internet. But it has been becoming increasingly sophisticated. So much so that in 2020, we’ve seen some very effective and damaging malware carrying out all manner of fraudulent clicks.
One of the biggest and most effective click botnets in 2020 has been Hydra. Mostly used for ad fraud, which is the wholesale clicking of paid links to the financial benefit of the fraudsters, Hydra is a case in point of how click farms don’t always need any form of human interaction to thrive.
The way malware like this works is by using the validity of a real app, and real human engagement, to create fake clicks. With a big enough network of these malware infected apps, it’s possible to make a whole lot of money and send clicks to whatever you want.
Looking at just the major pay to click websites, ClickCease's research found that if each click pays 5 cents, there have been 266 million ad clicks. And that is just these sites - never mind the actual organised click farms, cottage industry bot nets or casual click farms.
When you're paying the ad platforms per click, which can sometimes be as high as $100 or more, you certainly don't want to be losing that money to some fake clicks from a warehouse in Bangladesh.
If your business depends on genuine web traffic and the potential for winning clients or real followers online, click farms can be hugely damaging. Influencers with fake followers can command higher fees based on their level of (bought) engagement. Or marketers may feel like their ads on certain platforms are performing well, even though the majority of the traffic is from automated or non-genuine sources.
In short, those high KPIs are supposed to be valuable data about the performance of your business, or of a trustworthy third party. And if those KPIs are skewed, someone somewhere is going to end up spending money unnecessarily.
And, especially in the post-Covid economic world, most people want to be sure that every penny spent is accountable.
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