In Defense of Click Fraud

Whenever someone talks of click fraud, it conjures images of sweatshops staffed by low-cost third world labor... rows upon rows of computers operated by undernourished kids without shoes, repetitiously and mindlessly clicking away on Google AdWords and AdSense ads and what not.

I tend to be satisfied with working PPC from the advertiser and WH end of things, so can't speak from any kind of first-person paid search gaming perspective and won't try to form an opinion on how much of the popular perception is fact vs. fiction. However, I do have some thoughts on the whole angle that's related, of mechanized vs. natural-looking click activity.

Part of the popular notion of click fraud is rooted in the idea that it's better to have humans doing it than machines, so as to pull it all off under the engines' radar. While that's a logical idea obviously, at the same time it's worth noting that various commercially available SEO/SEM tools are increasingly coming out with "human emulation" features, i.e. ways to randomize their request operations and the rest periods in between. Therefore, it's a given that savvy developers running their own private tools (homegrown scripts) are already doing these kinds of things in combination with handy things like rotating proxy arrays, so this is one detail where the mainstream concept of click fraud breaks down.

The Devil's in the Details

On the larger level, the mainstream concept of click fraud also breaks down when we consider the potential for different scenarios. In other words, habitually treating click fraud as if it's invariably unethical is just like habitually treating cloaking as if it's invariably unethical. Dogma becomes a crutch; a short-cut around critical thinking either way.

A Hypothetical Situation

You're a marketer working under contract for Warner Bros., checking on your PPC competitive landscape for one of your projects, a popular Smurfs (80s cartoon and comic book) fan site, as you do every day/week. All of a sudden: Shit. Even though your client is the registered owner of the trademark, here's an ad from some thin affiliate pseudo-spam site at and then another at and then another at ...all of which are displaying "" in the headlines/titles and/or other parts of their ad text! What's more, they're dabbling in displaying variations thereof such as "Doingthesmurfs" and "Doingthesmurf Com", and to top it all off they're doing this across Google, Yahoo! as well as MSN.

Naturally, the first thing you do is file a complaint about the parasites' infringement on your client's intellectual property, directly with the search engines. At the same time, you alert the Legal department, but you know they're going to struggle because steps have been taken to hid tracks. The squatters' sites tend to be just spam, ranging from crudely obvious to well-masked, laced with ads... and the Contact Us links on them lead to bupkis. Same thing with other things that are on the sites made to make them look legitimate, such as the unauthorized instances of VeriSign and BBB validation badges etc. ...When you check their WHOIS you find that half of the sites' domains were registered privately, and the other half has visible entries but all the info is (illegally) fake e.g. "First Name: Ima, Last Name: Playa" etc. ...Clearly, you and your Legal team will have a bit of work to do if you want to track the party crashers down yourselves.

At about this time...

  1. The Google rep assures you they're going to look into the complaint you filed, even though technically they're in Sales which is a different department of course... Also, it might take a few weeks for anyone who has any decision-making power on such disputes to actually read and/or act on your complaint.
  2. Yahoo replies to the complaint you filed with them via a canned email response that basically amounts to "Thanks. We'll look into it. Maybe we'll find something, maybe we won't. If we do find something, maybe we'll do something about it. Maybe we won't. In the meantime, frankly we really aren't in control of our stuff nowadays quite as much as might be ideal so now more than ever, we'd appreciate it if you could please consider us liable for jack when it comes to this kind of thing. O, and you won't hear from us again on this matter. Have a nice day."
  3. Microsoft, is seemingly asleep at the wheel as far as Customer Service goes, in keeping with your past experiences with them. The closest thing to a real rep you've ever gotten from them is on vacation, which isn't noted on her voice mail greeting but is noted on her email auto-responder. Her "In event of emergencies, please contact..." reference, their email address bounces back as invalid when you try. When you try their supposed phone extension you can't leave a message because their voice mail box is full... All this because, y'know... Microsoft naturally remains a desktop computing Goliath but is still catching up with all this Web stuff.

You're disappointed in the lack of support and responsiveness, enough so that your regard for the networks' TOS is compromised, at least until this is resolved. Until then the situation is intolerably corrupting your client's brand integrity, confusing their prospects and customers, and negatively impacting their traffic so ultimately their revenues. You're a skilled developer, at least moderately. What are you going to do, sit on your hands for a few weeks or more waiting for the large corporations you spend your advertising dollars on to get around to your issue? Of course not. You're going to take matters into your own hands teeth.


By the time the week is out, you're going to be biting the bottom-feeders on the ass where they're not looking, and automagically clicking their ads into oblivion every witching hour, working stealthily efficiently. By the time they get into the office each morning, and before the majority of the human users they're targeting will be awake even (general geo-targeting can be easily determined e.g. [Pacific/Mountain/Central/Eastern] time zones vs. others), their daily budget and will have been already maxed out. "If only I had more money to spend!" they'll be thinking... Alas they won't, being bottom-feeders and all. Nonetheless, they'll sit happy as clams thinking they're getting awesome click-through rates. From there, it's just a matter of time until the engines finally put in the rules to protect your brand(s). You might need to play a bit of Azrael-and-Smurf with the illegitimate advertisers, but the chances are the bastards may not be paying attention much. It may take them a while to realize that their conversion rates on your branded keywords are specifically and suspiciously low, even if they manage to do so before their infringing ads get banned. For a temporary exercise in defense, to you, the end justifies the means.

The Moral of the Story

Yeah, I know what you're thinking...

"Two wrongs don't make a right."

The adage still has its place of course, but whomever came up with that idiom lived in simpler and less subjective times. In a competitive online business environment, sometimes one has to be more like Hammurabi.

The point is not that I'm literally advocating click fraud. The point is most of the SEM/SEO world, though it can be easy to label black or white at first, upon inspection and in the real-world trenches it's often more just shades of gray. Moreover, as for the direction of the gradient from dark to light or vice-versa, often that just depends on one's positioning and vantage point on it, in whatever given scenario.


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