What exactly is click-farming and how can it affect you or your business

What exactly is click-farming and how can it affect you or your business
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W.T.M. Why This Matters
The next time someone boasts to you about the pageviews their website gets or followers on social media, you might want to take it with a pinch of salt. Click-farms are plaguing our digital society today and are used to inflate traffic and performance.

A recent sting operation conducted by Thai police where they busted a "click-farm" operated by three Chinese nationals is shining the spotlight on the pay-per-like business.

Offering a glimpse into the shadier side of social media marketing, police confiscated nearly 400,000 Thai SIM cards supposedly used for boosting "likes" for Chinese businesses.

In other related news, malls in Russia and the Czech Republic have reportedly installed vending machines selling "likes" on Instagram which could make you an instant online celebrity. Users pay as little as $1.20 (50 rubles) for 100 fake Instagram likes on a post or $2.40 for 100 fake followers.

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Not a bad deal? You might want to think twice after reading this.

What is click-farming?

Click-farms such as this one, are one of the many online scams plaguing our digital society and has become one of the biggest headaches for social media giants.

Rampant in developing nations with low wages but high tech penetration rates, click-farms can be found in countries like India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, where workers are hired to click and inflate online traffic for websites or boost followers of social media profiles.

According to The Guardian, workers from Dhaka (Bangladesh), were paid as little as $170 per year, for a service their boss would charge clients around $20 per thousand clicks.

Some click-farms bypass the network of real users in favour of online "bots" that control tens of thousands of fake social media accounts, programmed to like pages or posts.

Additionally, a recent documentary uncovering the workers in the cottage industry showed that most of them were college-educated youths who were unable to become doctors or engineers, resorting to physical labour for survival.

Some click-farms bypass the network of real users in favour of online "bots" that control tens of thousands of fake social media accounts, programmed to like pages or posts.

Just last month (May 15), footage of a giant Chinese click-farm showed more than 10,000 mobile phones wired up to give phoney product ratings and "likes" on social media platforms.

Who's involved in click-farming? 

Clients of click-farms include ordinary folks who seek to boost their online presence, companies who want to manipulate ranking algorithms to ensure their products are given priority, or even fake news sites looking to get their articles onto 'most read' lists.

In 2013, the US State Department was chastised after it was revealed that the agency spent over $870,000 to boost their Facebook following, a dubious fanbase considering the page was most popular in Cairo, the capital city of Egypt.

Research suggests that 31 per cent of us will check ratings and reviews such as likes and following of a brand's online page, before we choose to buy something because these statistics look like an objective measure of online social approval. 

As a result, tech giants are clamping down on the fake click market through modifications of their algorithms to restore a sense of reality online. Facebook has purged users that contribute to fake traffic and Google has wiped out numerous YouTube views from people who have used bot services.

How using a click-farm can implicate you or your business

Surprisingly, using or operating a click-farm is not illegal and the Chinese nationals mentioned earlier were only charged with working without work permits and smuggling contraband goods.

However tempting it is to pay for an instant boost in your click-through rate though, committing click fraud is far from morally permissible, especially if your business is banking on consumer brand confidence.

Think back to Christmas of 2014, when Singaporeans eagerly devoured the showdown between popular blogger Xiaxue (aka Wendy cheng) and digital marketing team Gushcloud in which she voiced her suspicions that they inflated one of their influencer's YouTube views.

Although whether or not they did was never confirmed, it did plant a seed of doubt in the minds of readers causing the public to start questioning if any of the figures lauded by the company are accurate.

Buying online traffic is effectively misleading your customers and the illusion of a massive following does not equate to sustained brand engagement because your likes last only as long as you're paying the click-farm owners.

That loss in consumer confidence and resulting negative brand image is what drives advertiser's fears, resulting in a potential loss of sponsorships and investments for companies.

But remember, for business owners, buying online traffic is effectively misleading your customers and the illusion of a massive following does not equate to sustained brand engagement because your likes last only as long as you're paying the click-farm owners.

So the next time you see an ad offering you a quick fix guaranteeing high site traffic, resist the desire to try it for an exposé by any tech-savvy user would mean a serious hit for your business.

ljoey@sph.com.sg

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