The last thing you want or need is to have your limited marketing budget consumed by fraudulent online activity. Click fraud, a common and growing problem for online marketers, is the enemy of an effective marketing campaign. Here’s what it is, how to recognize it, and some ideas for combating it.
What is Click Fraud?
Click fraud occurs when a person, automated script, or computer program maliciously click on an ad to game pay-per-click advertising. Pay-per-click advertising pays the ad publisher, agents, and participating websites per ad click, so this type of fraud can be extremely expensive for advertisers, costing according to an estimate by Cheq at least $35 billion over the past year. The bad news is that this type of fraud is a growing problem. Fraudulent clicks increased significantly during the early phases of the COVID lockdowns, with the biggest increases seen in mobile device traffic.
Who's the Perp?
In some cases, web site publishers are perpetuating click fraud to cash in on advertising dollars. This is particularly common in affiliate marketing where there is little or no visibility into advertising data.
Companies may also engage in click fraud in order to siphon ad budget from their competitors. Done effectively, this type of traffic can drive a competitor out of the market altogether.
Clicking on ads by mistake, while not malicious, is actually quite common. It’s a problem made worse by the use of tricky ad placement, impossibly tiny “close” buttons, and other questionable practices. It’s estimated by some experts that up to half of ad clicks are actually accidental. Accidental clicks, while reducing your conversion rates, won’t show the same patterns as fraudulent activity.
How to Recognize Click Fraud
In order to recognize problematic patterns in advertising traffic, you have to be collecting and analyzing your marketing data. Here are some potentially concerning trends to look for.
- Unexplained spikes in your pay-per-click advertising costs.
- A large amount of traffic from the same or similar IP addresses or ISPs without a corresponding increase in conversion rates.
- Any unexplained anomaly in your marketing data.
An Ounce of Prevention
Sadly, there is no size or type of business that is immune from this problem. Even political campaigns and non-profits experience click fraud. Even though Google and other publishers have systems in place to detect and prevent click fraud, there’s so much money to be made that fraudsters are constantly refining their methods to avoid detection. But there are some steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Set a budget – Limit financial risk by setting the highest price you are willing to spend per click.
- Be selective – Target sites that provide high value, relevant content instead of paying for “just any” website relevant to your keywords.
- Watch your competitors – Identify and monitor clicks coming from competitor domains. Watch who is competing with you on search keywords.
- Limit the countries where you advertise – Countries with low labor costs may be the source of “click farms” that use people instead of bots.
- Watch your data – Be alert for the warning signs of fraudulent activity listed above.
- Use tools – If you rely heavily on pay-per-click advertising, you might consider using click fraud prevention software in addition to these other common-sense remedies. For a description of some of the choices available, check out Capterra’s software review.
Ouch - I've Been Targeted!
If you do suspect that you’ve been targeted by fraudsters, you can do a little sleuthing. Look up the IP address that is the source of the suspect activity to see who it belongs to. You can do this on www.whatismyip.com, www.whatismyipaddress.com, and others. Be aware that traffic coming from a proxy server may appear fraudulent but not be. If the hits from the IP address are spaced very close together or used the same search terms, that might be reason for concern.
If it looks like you’ve really been defrauded, report it! Google, Microsoft, and other advertising platforms are constantly updating their algorithms to detect fraudulent activity, so the information your provide can help prevent future problems. Also, you might be able to receive a credit for fraudulent ad clicks on your account.
Learn more about reporting click fraud to Google and Microsoft by following these links: