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#PRFail: Phony Web Traffic Can Derail your PR Digital Ad ROI
By: Gerard E. Mayers
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As we all know, ROI is measured in a myriad of ways. One of those ways to measure ROI for a PR campaign is to look at how many visits or clicks the ad generated on a given website in a month.
But there is a huge problem with that particular approach. Since ROI is measured by numbers in many cases and also since marketing departments and PR teams often work together to craft digital ads to spur web traffic to their brands, fraudsters can easily take advantage of this knowledge.

A recent article appearing in the WSJ Online, written by Christopher S. Steward and Suzanne Vranica, highlighted the growing problem, and concern, over phony web traffic. The reporters noted, “The website Songsrpeople.com looks a lot like other amateur-video sites. It is wallpapered with clips featuring "the most insane amusement park ever" and "your girlfriend's six friends."

The site draws tens of thousands of visitors a month, according to audience measurement firms. It also has ads for national brands, including Target Corp., Amazon.com, and State Farm.

But Web-security investigators at a firm called White Ops contend that most of the site's visitors aren't people. Rather, they are computer-generated visitors, or "bots," designed to fool advertisers into paying for the traffic....

Therein lies the heart of the problem of phony web traffic, which can potentially derail PR ROI efforts. As the article notes, “Authorities and Internet-security experts say tens of thousands of dubious websites are popping up across the Internet. Their phony Web traffic is often fueled by "botnets," zombie armies of hijacked PCs that are controlled from unknown locations around the world, according to Internet security experts.

The sites take advantage of the simple truth that advertisers pay to be seen. This creates an incentive for fraudsters to erect sites with phony traffic, collecting payments — often through middlemen and sometimes directly from advertisers.”

Pay-per-click has been around for almost as long as the Web. The article’s authors continue on to comment:

"At their most sophisticated, botnets can mimic the behavior of online consumers, clicking from one site to the next, pausing at ads, watching videos, and even putting items in shopping carts. ...Hackers build botnets by infecting computers with malware, which are regularly buried in email attachments or disguised as legitimate website downloads. Those infected computers are then connected by a command machine, which stealthily directs the network of zombies to do its work, whatever it may be. A computer user may not be aware of it.”
If this is bad, it gets worse. Stewart and Vranica note, “While some scammers create stand-alone operations, others devise sprawling empires. In one case, the White Ops technology uncovered a zombie-populated lifestyle network, with hundreds of connected sites, including bodybuildingfaq.com, financestalk.com, and abctraveling.com. No one at the sites could be reached for comment.

In some scenarios, legitimate websites inadvertently set themselves up for botnet invasions when they hire companies to help boost their traffic. That can involve building audiences through methods such as paid keyword-search advertising with search engines.”

Perhaps the most chilling information revealed by the article was the revelation that losses “to ad fraud are hard to nail down. Security company Solve Media Inc., for instance, estimates that up to 29% of display advertising traffic world-wide is driven by bot armies, and could cost advertisers roughly $10 billion dollars this year, the company said.”

Seems to me the old Roman adage “Caveat emptor” (Buyer beware, for those of you that do not know Latin) still applies.

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About the Author
Gerard E. "Gerry" Mayers writes about PR and other relevant topics for PR professionals. A former PR manager for Sensor Products, Inc. (currently based in Madison, NJ), he lives in Milford, NJ.
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