Ad hawker extraordinaire Google is doing its best to combat that threat. Unfortunately, Google is focusing on fighting the claims as opposed to the fraud itself.
To be fair, Google has put a lot of programming talent into some very complex models to prevent click fraud. The latest Google efforts in that direction go well beyond examining IP addresses, browser type and version, and cookies, to include tracking patterns of movement that could differentiate between activity that is likely legitimate and activity that is probably not, said Alan Cohen, director of search intelligence for SpiderSplat Consulting, in Boston.
"Based on these parameters, Google can see if multiple clicks on the same advertisers advertisement are from the same person or someone else. It would not surprise me if they also use information from the Google Tool Bar," Cohen said. "Remember that when a user goes back and forth, the between pages have AdSense code on them. Google can save their browsing patterns."
Analysis of traffic patterns can reveal a lot, Cohen said. "If a building or ISP Portal has a default page with AdSense on it, you may get multiple clicks on the same advertisement within a relatively small group of people," he said. "So if we have 20 people clicking on the same AdSense link, it will probably not count as fraud."
However, he said, "If the same group of people consistently click on the same groups of advertisements in a similar fashion/order, that is where Googles click fraud radar should beep," he said. "The following pattern from multiple people would be kosher: Click on ad number one and go to random pages form there. But if you get multiple users with the following pattern, it may be an indication of click fraud: Click on ad No. 1, go back to page A, click on ad two, go back to page A, etc."
So, clearly, Google has put some of its smarter people on the mission of trying to identify and block fraudulent clicks. But recent Google efforts to play down the amount of click fraud that exists today are less encouraging.
On Aug. 8, Google released a report (here in PDF) and some of its analysis based on questioning third-party firms and consultants that try and combat click fraud. The Washington Post did an interesting piece about the reports.
On the plus side, Googles efforts to combat click fraud are praiseworthy. It also seems very likely that a lot of consultants are indeed out there to make some easy sky-is-falling money from click fraud fears, preying on marketing execs who are prone to panic. However, its hard to see Google as credible in saying that this click fraud business is a lot of HREFs about nothing.
Click fraud is simply too easy and tempting for marketers to do, given that payments are being made in exchange for actions that are easy to freely perform. One problem is that there is very little concrete evidence, one way or the other. When I see bills for click charges—or, for that matter, checks for publishers for clicks made—I feel the same way as I do when I see my monthly electricity bill. I have no way of knowing if that number has been inflated by 20 percent and I couldnt prove it either way.
In both instances, I am forced to completely trust the integrity of the business. Today, thats not something I feel good about doing.
Any company that feels the need to have a slogan that says "Dont Be Evil" is one that merits some healthy watching. Would Mother Theresas group or UNICEF have ever considered the slogan "Dont Be Evil"?
Companies tend to market the opposite of their greatest weakness. A small company pushes the huge number of consultants they use. Would Microsoft or IBM ever feel the need to do that? A vendor with an especially slow piece of software talks up speed by saying that its 80 percent faster than the previous version. Whenever an ISP stresses its competitive pricing, you just know that a lot of people have been complaining about the high price of its product.
Therefore, Im not so quick to trust any "Dont Be Evil" company. Then again, I dont like trusting anyone.
Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internets Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.