It’s a form of click fraud where large groups of underpaid people continuously produce clicks for various purposes in a centralized place. These clicks are typically linked to social networks in mainstream media, where clicks are transformed into likes, shares, upvotes, comments, and so on. However, for affiliates, the click fraud aspect is much more important, whereas clicks on paid advertising links simulate web traffic and spoof actual performance data, resulting in wasted ad spend on fake traffic.
Click farms are just one entry on a long list of online frauds that plague online businesses. Southeast Asia seems to be a breeding ground for this type of click fraud, established in developing economies such as China, India, Philippines, Thailand, and a good chunk of the neighboring bunch. In other words, places that have, shall we say, lax labor laws yet high technology penetration rates, which make them fertile grounds for cheap labor.
To generate tens or hundreds of thousands of unique clicks in order to inflate web traffic for publishers, deflate competitor’s ad budget, or boost social media profiles with views, likes, shares, and so on, the click farm’s head honcho (aka click farm master or click farmer) needs a massive number of accounts. That means new names, emails, passwords, and so on - any piece of information relevant to creating an online persona. It’s a large scale effort logistically, and the world got a best-yet rare glimpse at how one such operation looks like from the inside. Last June, Thailand officials busted three Chinese individuals that ran an extensive click farm. In total, police seized almost 500 smartphones, 350,000 SIM cards, 21 SIM card readers, and nine computers. Here’s a short video depicting the incident:
The trio maintained they were operating a network of “sock puppets” (accounts of false identities pretending to be another person) on China's biggest social network, WeChat. Dozens of similar setups have been already documented, so this one is far from unique. However, it’s one of the rare instances to truly show how a small group of people can develop a widespread operation that affects millions on a daily basis. The relatively easy and inexpensive setup is only one of the aspects that make click farms so effective. The primary factor is the ability to successfully disguise the traffic as organic, human-like. With the human factor on one side, it is exceptionally difficult for automated filters to identify this simulated traffic as fake because the click or behavior pattern is the same as that of a genuine visitor. It’s also not helped by the fact that even though click farms violate almost every single social media user policy, there are virtually no government regulations that call them by the right name - illegal. Those three Chinese individuals busted in Thailand? They were charged with working without a permit and smuggled SIM cards. It seems that filling a few forms and buying SIM cards in bulk make the difference between a click farm and a legitimate online business. Talk about lax laws...
When it comes to affiliates, click farming works in two principal ways. The first one is hiring someone to deplete the ad budget of a competitor by clicking on their ads. For affiliates, it means that a competitor in the same market is profiting by forcing them to pay for irrelevant clicks, effectively weakening their position up to the point of total elimination when the well runs dry. At the same time, the rival manages to display ads in higher PPC rankings at a significantly lower price while the initial investment on the click farm is a small portion of the amount you, the honest affiliate minding your own business, lost.
Similarly, the second method consists of clicking the ads on either the click farmer’s online property or a particular publisher website that paid for click farm workers to relentlessly click ads on it. The subtle difference, in this case, is that the funds you lose as an affiliate are gained by the click farmer/publisher, as opposed to the ad networks or search engines like in the first method. In either case, the end result and what really matters is your ad budget is wasted on irrelevant clicks, severely affecting your ROI.
Image credit: Tech In Asia
Looking at the image above sure makes you feel like there’s not much you can do. That is a single person operating 50+ devices. How can you possibly fight hundreds of them?
It’s disheartening, for sure, but far from game over. Ad networks and PPC providers have made considerable efforts to combat click fraud. Automated filters are constantly refined to detect and remove most click fraud attempts at the source. Hence, your primary and the most important move is to choose a traffic source that is, above all, transparent about its traffic and beefed up with anti-fraud tools for detection and prevention. However, mimicking actual human behavior, click farms can bypass these filtering systems. Hence, how you manage your affiliate campaigns comes into focus.
Educate yourself and be in the know when it comes to different types of click fraud. The affiliate community is large and giving in nature, so there shouldn’t be any problem in learning from other affiliates’ experiences and staying in the loop regarding ongoing threats. If you do your due diligence, you’ll be able to uncover on your own the IP addresses, domains, and everything else associated with fake clicks and block them from accessing your ads. You can always adjust your targeting to weed out fraudulent clicks, as well as run remarketing campaigns to display ads only to those visitors who have visited and showed interest before. There is also a wide range of affiliate tools you can use for click fraud detection and protection that can help out a lot for a small fee.
All in all, there’s no denying that click farms have become a major problem for everyone involved in online marketing, not just for affiliates. Some improvements have been made in the fight against this online plague, but at the moment, they are not enough. That’s why it falls on you to stay aware and vigilant to clean up the mess entirely, from picking the right traffic source to eliminating every single fake click that crawls through.