Click Farms

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A few years ago click farms where a regular topic of discussion but not so much now. Nevertheless, these nefarious organisations still exist, and operate, and are something all online users need to be aware of. This article will consider what click farms are; how they operate; their purpose; the consequences; and possible solutions.

 

 

Definitions

‘A commercial enterprise that employs a large number of people to repeatedly click on items of online content in order to artificially inflate statistics of traffic or engagement.’ (Unknown)

‘A click farm is a business that pays employees to click on website elements to artificially boost the status of a client’s website or product.’ (WhatIs.com)

Note 1: It is not just website and product pages that are affected. Social Media sites and accounts are also vulnerable.

Note 2: The above definitions refer to employed people however, with modern technological advances, there are now some automated click farms, as explained below.

Operation

To achieve the organisation’s disruptive, nefarious purposes (explained later), non-automated click farm ‘employees’ are obliged to endlessly click on various social media and website elements and buttons e.g. ‘Like’; ’Follow’; etc. These cannot be accessed without a user account consequently, before they may proceed, click farm owners have to arrange for numerous fictitious accounts to be set up.

In addition to the above some workers are also instructed to click on ‘pay-per-click’ adverts (more about that later). There is also the option of adding comments, etc., to posts to inappropriately draw attention to a product (more later).

As previously mentioned, there are now two operational methods: Manual and Automated.

Manual

Click Farms are usually situated in developing countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, to name but a few, where wages are considerably lower than those of western, industrialised countries.

Low paid workers are forced to sit in dark, bare walled, barred windowed, rooms before a computer screen for hours. Their ‘job’ is to endlessly click on designated account buttons and elements. Soulless to put it mildly.

From the information available, it appears the worker has to click at least one thousand times to earn $1.00. Many earn as little as $120 per annum. The immorality of this is self evident though, for those who do the job, the minimum income can make the difference between food on the table or starvation for them and their families. Hard for many in the western world to comprehend.

Automated

The advent of smartphones enables some click farms to now be far more automated. In fact these are almost entirely automated with minimal staff to oversee them. Rather than having rooms full of low paid workers sitting in front of computer screens these tend to be warehouses full of shelves loaded with hundreds of thousands of phones. Each is programmed to search and mimic the manual process and, when required, to download designated applications over and over again.

Purpose

The overall, primary, aim of click farms is to manipulate and distort statistics: Many companies utilise indicators such as ‘Likes’ and ‘Follows’ to monitor the popularity and success of their products and whether to invest further in their marketing budgets.

Most click farms are employed by competitors who are looking to gain an advantage over their rivals. Their primary intent is to trick a competing company into spending beyond designated marketing budgets thereby reducing, or at least limiting, their ability to invest in areas that could be more effective.

Another aspect, the writer has come across, is to inappropriately draw attention to a product by adding nebulous comments, and occasionally such things as pingbacks, to website or blog posts. They usually add comments to a range of posts rather than to just one.

Naturally, for the click farm owner the purpose is to make money. Despite the immorality of it all, these owners insist they are running a business and offering a service. They charge customer’s anywhere from $12 to $15 for 250 to 1000 clicks. Obviously, to have the desired impact companies will contract for many thousands of clicks and consequently, it is understood, pay thousands for the ‘service’. It is estimated click farm earnings reach into the three figure millions.

Consequences

As already mentioned, many companies and organisations utilise feedback to assess the effectiveness and popularity of their products/services. Unless aware the figures are being distorted they may decide, upon seeing elevated ‘likes’; ‘follows’; advert clicks; etc. to increase their marketing spend probably to the detriment of other areas of expenditure. This will obviously impact their competitive edge thereby giving their rival an unwarranted advantage.

Note: ‘Pay-per-click’ adverts require the advertiser to pay regardless of whether it leads to a sale or not.

The issues surrounding this abuse are causing many to question the validity, reliability, and effectiveness of social media and internet advertising and sharing. Of course, this may also impact the income of sites normally used e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, etc.

The only way the immoral click farm activity may backfire is, apparently, an estimated thirty-one percent of consumers check, ‘likes’, ‘follows’, ratings, reviews, etc. as part of their purchase decision process. Therefore, the exacerbated statistics may prove a positive influence though whether a consequent sale would offset any additional investment in marketing is open to debate. Whatever the outcome, it should not be forgotten the overall intent of these farms is to distort statistics and undermine the victim’s business.

Solutions

Of course, the obvious solution is to block and delete click farm accounts. However, this is not as easy as it sounds and poses a major problem for social media and website providers, companies, hosts, and holders. Identifying fake, false, user accounts is difficult because they appear genuine: click farms utilise normal name styles and identifiers. In fairness, site providers do their best. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. try to detect where too many pages are ‘liked’, etc. in a short period. Website host systems are often designed to note the source of a comment and, if it does not appear valid, relevant, or appropriate frequently mark the comment, email, or other communication as spam and put it to one side for the account holder to consider separately. The account holder then has the option to approve, delete, and, where the option is available, to block the offending user/instigator.

Note: Users should take care and, before deleting or blocking wholesale, scan through the offending comments list in case a genuine one has been mistakenly included.

Unfortunately, deleting and blocking activists will not prevent the abuse because of the multiple false accounts and addresses used. However, being consistent in deleting and blocking may reduce the quantity and frequency.

Many will naturally ask about the law. Regrettably, there is no direct legislation to prevent these organisations operating. This is despite the fact they are potentially breaching unfair trading regulations thereby effectively misleading consumers. It would seem appropriate for the effected companies and organisations to get together with legislators and demand worldwide legislation to outlaw click farms or their equivalent. It is also suggested such legislation should provide for the severe punishment, and public exposure, of those who employ click farms.

Though click farms are usually contracted, there may be occasions when one will approach an individual with the offer, for a fee, to boost their engagement. Though it may be tempting, those approached should decline. Of course there are some genuine companies, individuals, or organisations who provide marketing packages but these do not normally rely upon constant clicking, if they do the warning bells should be ringing.

Conclusion

Click farms are nefarious organisations that should be resisted and blocked at all stages.

Users, need to be aware and constantly monitor ‘Likes’, ‘Follows’, advert clicks, comments, etc. Of course, paranoia should be avoided because many, perhaps the majority for individual users, of ‘Likes’ etc will be genuine.

It is unfortunate, along with hackers, spammers, cyber criminals, etc. users have to be alert to these additional abusers but, sadly, that is today’s world.

Apologies for the length of this article but it did not lend itself to being broken down into parts.


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