How your competition works to defund you
The title sounds pretty seedy and In many ways I wrestled with the thought of writing this post about click fraud. I may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist but this spans my 15 years of experience paying for traffic. My goal is to empowers the PPC manager and company owner to know the length and width of what they are dealing with. This is a real problem that we deal with at Lead Success and anyone who runs a pay-per-click (PPC) or even an impression based campaign.
Click fraud is very real and still is in practice to this day. It’s downplayed by every major and small based paid marketing platform.
An eye opening history
When I was spending in excess of $400,000 a month in AdWords I became very knowledgeable on this subject. Because of the ad position I maintained my company was highly targeted for click fraud. The industry I generated leads for was very competitive, if not the most competitive vertical at that time. It was nothing to pay $30-$60 a click for some of the keywords and knowing at anytime your competition could be clicking away to cause you financial pain, it was tough to overlook. To survive and not go mental thinking about it you simply had to breath deep and realize as I did. That I was not going to solve the issue of click fraud all on my own.
Note: Click fraud has a higher occurrence within the top 3 spots of a PPC network’s inventory like AdWords but it still exist further down the supply chain.
Keeping track of the clicks becomes an artform
What I did though was to develop my own special algorithm to detect click fraud. It work very well and I was able to build reports that in turn I would send to Google AdWords, this is back before they had an customer service number. If you spent spent large enough with Google they would actual fly a rep or two to have lunch with your company. That is exactly what they did, my reps were great but when it came to the subject of click fraud they simply nodded their heads and said it would be looked into.
Spend kickbacks for click fraud use to be the norm
Google defines and the rest follow
You may have heard the terms “click fraud” and “invalid clicks” and wondered how or if they are different. Here is a definition of each:
Click fraud refers to clicks generated with malicious or fraudulent intent.
Invalid traffic includes both clicks and impressions on AdWords ads that Google suspects to not be the result of genuine user interest. This covers intentionally fraudulent traffic as well as accidental clicks and other mechanically generated traffic. Although advertisers are not charged for these clicks or impressions, this traffic may still result in valuable site visits and conversions.
That part is straight from Google’s website. Overall I happen to like Google for their simplistic take on everything they do. From their “technology” and click algorithm they have put a lot of money and time into this subject, in a way they are watching out for bad clicks. I simply do not believe they are painting the whole picture, so it’s actually you having to watch out for your interest. I am not saying Google is trying to trick all of us into thinking click fraud is 10%. Or that Google is right out lying to it’s advertisers.
My ultimate Google click fraud disclaimer
So that 25 lawyers do not show up at our door, I am simply stating this. Google has to know it’s worst than it is and that their filters can easily be fooled. Yes fooled, regardless of how many mathematicians it takes to change a line of code.
Third-party tracking and deep dive analytics
Tracking and reporting are some of the cornerstones of PPC, after all you pay good money for those clicks and you want the best. You should have the best tracking your money can afford. Since I have mainly been picking on Google, I should be fair and state that AdWords does have limited tools you can use in the reporting to better understand invalid click. For you who are shaking your heads, I know Google’s invalid click data is not very informative but it’s something.
To find out Invalid Click data in AdWords simply do the following:
- Sign in to your AdWords account at https://adwords.google.com.
- Click the Campaigns tab.
- To see data for a specific period, click the date range menu on the top corner of the page and select the time period you’d like to analyze.
- Click one of the tabs that appear in the middle of the page, such as the Campaigns, Ad groups, Ads, or Keywords tabs.
- Click the Columns button above the statistics table.
- Select “Customize columns” from the drop-down.
- Choose which columns you’d like in your table, from here you are going to click on Performance and next add Invalid Clicks as a column. You can add or remove all of the columns in a single category by clicking “Add all columns” or “Remove all columns.”
- After you click the Apply button you will see the Invalid Clicks column.
I would rather AdWords have much greater transparency so Google please show me my accounts invalid clicks with a breakdown of the details surrounding it, better yet show me detail on the fraud my account actually receives.
Honestly, this post is not about slamming Google, Bing or any PPC network, it’s about opening your eyes to the facts. Why is PPC so expensive and on the rise? Why are the reporting options so minimal? Why are PPC options and network tools within Google so limited? I will try and provide an answer to that in the coming paragraphs.
I’m taking what they’re giving cause I’m working for a living
Do you recognize that line? It’s a Huey Lewis song and he had it right, yes I am dating myself here but the statement is true. Many of us will just take click fraud as part of the PPC ecosystem and move on. For the rest of us it can be like nails on a chalkboard.
When it comes to your pay-per-click account each provider has it’s own unique reporting, which includes standard information Clicks, CTR, CPC, Const Per Conversion, Conversions (if you set that up), Impressions, Spend and so on. Google AdWords & Bing Ads do supply some pretty helpful insights into your paid traffic but you have to customize the report to match the information you need. We only have the data and reports that are given to us by that network. Since that data is hardly a complete picture of our overall traffic, we need third-party tracking and click fraud detection layered on top of that reporting. If you only are relying on your PPC network’s reporting than work with that system the best way you can. Regardless of present and future click fraud activities focused on your account that should not stop you from constantly optimizing your campaigns and adgroups for success.
At this point I have bunny trailed but allow me to get back on topic. You can use these standard reports to read between the lines. For example, if you notice on the PPC report in Google AdWords that your click count was unusually high and your conversions data did not increase than that should give you pause on possible illegal click activities on your ads.
The honest assessment of click fraud is that it’s sophisticated and can cost you dearly if you are in the crosshairs.
Spotting idiosyncrasies through your tracking data
When you dig into your metrics and analytics, at first glance all the traffic and clicks look very legit. What I mean by that statement is, let’s say for argument sake you setup your campaign to only take leads for the United States, you block all other countries using the country settings that Google or Bing provides. No matter what, there will always be bleed through, some country that is not your target country will get through. How is that possible if Google has these “online click filters”, should anything but what you ask for get through? Sometimes this leads to clues to where your click fraud is coming from. So now you have to play detective.
So what if you have proof that your accounts are incurring click fraud above this magical 10% threshold. If you spend $5000 a month and send them a full blown report, Google is probably going to blow you off. If you spend $500k+/month than you have a fighting chance of recouping fraudulent click charges above the 10%. The burden of proof lies with your company’s ability to accurately determine the fraud and build an internal system or use a third-party monitoring system. It boils down to like I said before it’s the cost of doing business and has been for years. Google will admit to nothing above their standard disclaimer.
How does one get around the click filters?
Actually, it’s rather easy with currently available technology. There are companies that are paid to bully your paid ads but don’t feel bad, lots of advertisers are in the same boat. Now before you read this next sentence, in no way am I trying to give a bad name to the following countries. I am reporting on what is fact and that is, these companies can come from India, Philippines, Malaysia, just to name a few. These fraud click companies get paid to click and they use technology to sneak around the filters.
Proxy servers can totally change your online identity
If you have any understanding on what a proxy is and does. Than you will know what I am about to say, for the rest hang in there, I will explain. If you are looking to use this information for wrongful gain, just don’t, do the write thing and exit now.
The top ways to cloak your true identity and online activities is through a open proxy, anonymous proxy, transparent proxy, VPN proxy, SOCKS and SOCKS5 Proxy. Than there is one that goes even beyond that, a dedicated proxy. That is a computer or set of computers normally located around the world and in this scenario since they are targeting a U.S. company, it’s a server in the United States. In simple terms the click fraud company will connect through their services and the IP address will show from that state or region they choose to connect through. Your original IP address and location information would not bleed through and neither would any technology detect you are coming through a proxy. The dedicated server proxy is very hard to detect, basically impossible. Where you can get bleed through is SOCK or transparent. That means even for Google will suffer the same cloak and dagger tricks. If Google wanted to they could and probably have internal technology to protect their own servers but it would cost them money for true detection. That comes out of Google’s pockets and that of their shareholder’s dividends.
At least some of the clicks count toward invalid clicks, this is nothing more than a numbers game to a PPC networks. Your competition or even a company artificially raising their own click-through-rates for a lower cost-per-click (CPC) finds the benefit but your overhead suffers. Imagine having a dedicated group of people or even automated slowly clicking your ad over time, it’s quite invisible, to see that the detection needs to be very robust. It’s like marketing camo, it blends in with the rest of the advertising landscape.
Digging down a little deeper
This all can be a little maddening at times but it’s very true and this is just the surface and many times click fraud simply comes many smaller competitors. If a small advertisers thinks you might be clicking on his paid ads he/she may take to clicking on your paid ads and the ads around you. It might be one guy in his spare room clicking away but companies like Google easily catch this type of activity and mark them as invalid clicks. Maybe you have ticked off a client or employees and they are going to let you have it, it happens but it does not last long. So try and stick in there when it seems you have a few bad days of conversion data. If you start seeing your data trending in the wrong direction on your PPC accounts that are normally in a decent cost-per-click & have a good cost-per-acquisition (CPA), then start digging in fast.
So as I briefly mentioned before and I am letting a cat out of the bag for some if not most. You can launch a paid campaign and pay one of these click houses to click on your paid ads to gain a high click-through-rate (CTR). What that does is over inflate your stats, your ads have a greater appeal than other ads around it. Since Google AdWords likes making money and delivering the best content to it’s users. They in turn will serve your ads up more and increase your overall account score with them. You pay less per click and get more impressions. It’s the golden goose of paid metrics. We don’t put into use these practices nor do we condone this type of activity. Gaming the system is not the right way to out win your PPC competition, so just don’t do it.
Adsense & Google’s content network
Not forgetting about AdWords content network, it has been a long known fact that Google AdSense is susceptible to erroneous clicks and many times a site owner will drive junk traffic for pennies to their sites. Well placed ads by the site owner will result in accidental clicks by their users, which Google most of the time will not catch. Google gets paid and the site owner gets paid, but it cost you money for the click. Thank you for supporting vacations, habits, expensive cars and college funds. So I highly advice, keep an eye on your tracking data.
The new kid on the block often receives a few elbows
Say you are the fresh face in your industry and have a booming businesses already and decide to venture into PPC. You are spending money and time developing your PPC campaigns and they are doing great. Eventually if you are in a very competitive market your competition will notice. Your competition spends a lot of money to gain new clients and maintain their ad positions. They have huge overheads when you may have minimal and taking a bite out of their lead count will alert them. This really happens and don’t be foolish to think it’s not in your industry. A competitor will pay a company to click on your ads, it’s natural and effective. They can bleed your campaign budget dry in no time and they know it. Your competitors actually will test how much it takes to turn off your lights, speaking mainly of your PPC campaign daily budget, not your overall business. When this happens, I might simply wait out the storm and kept my account in tip-top shape in the meantime.
Note: You can also identified times of day that your conversions go to high or have totally dropped off. You can form a day-parting strategy to only go live with your ads at certain times of the day.
Hope Is Not Lost
It may appear like you have limited options to combat click fraud right? There are a few techniques that can really give you a way to mostly avoid it. If you are serious you need to be up for the challenge against these deceptive techniques. I will cover these fraud fighting techniques in an upcoming post. For now just watch out for bidding on very short broad and highly competitive keywords.
Remember: If your company advertisers with PPC and uses AdWords, simply unchecking the box to display in the content network can reduce your fraud occurrences.
Wrapping it up
What did we learn today? Well that depends on who you ask. I have never deployed any of these devious methods or felt the need to retaliate against click fraud. I even do not like clicking on an ad to view the competition but sometimes you need to know. Click fraud can try and get under your skin. When you run the tightest adgroups and normally have a great conversions and click through rates. You must realize that if you go from paying $9/lead to $21/lead there may be something sinister at work.
Most fraud is short lived and easy enough to get through with the proper knowledge and watchful eyes, your data can reveal many blind spots. So the next time you take a look at your right side competition on Google, just remember that Google may be right. In today’s pay for click market, the fraudsters have slipped away unnoticed. That only 10% of invalid/fraud clicks exist at any time. Maybe they are all on vacation from the years of collecting big checks, who knows, Google does. So keep your chin up and make sure your PPC accounts are the best they can be.
Important: Keep in mind that click fraud is not always the answer and you may have an ineffective landing page or poorly written ad copy. With that said, you may even have the wrong keywords that do little to match up to your product or service.