Essential Things You NEED to Know about Click Farms and Their Effects

January 14, 2021
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Rampant digital fraud is making online marketing difficult (and expensive) to navigate. 

Manipulation in the form of click fraud, click farms, fake followers, and buying “likes” to artificially boost engagement and harm competitors are shadowy practices becoming more commonplace, hijacking advertising campaigns and causing confusion for digital marketers.  

Undoubtedly, click farms have been increasingly active in recent years, becoming a commercial weapon in the digital economy and muddying the waters for online advertisers, marketers, and business owners. 

What exactly is this devious digital industry and what impact will it have if it goes unchecked? And why is it leaving us wondering about what’s really happening in our data reports?

What Is Click Fraud?

To understand what click farms are and why they exist, it is essential to first understand the practice of click fraud. 

Click fraud is a type of online fraud in which an individual, bot, or automated software repeatedly clicks on pay-per-click (PPC) ads with the malicious intent to harm competitor ad budgets or boost publisher’s profits. 

If a company hasn’t set up protections against click fraud, competitors can continually click on pay-per-click ads until the PPC daily budget is depleted, preventing real customers from viewing them. 

Beyond this, click fraud affects businesses by: 

click fraud effects

Digital marketers and entrepreneurs are increasingly at risk of becoming victims of click fraud even though they may not think so. According to Statista, the “estimated cost of digital ad fraud worldwide is expected to grow exponentially within the four years between 2018 and 2022, from 19 billion to 44 billion U.S. dollars.” Mind=blown, right?

Click farms house click fraud on a large scale and contribute to this ongoing digital manipulation, which is a pricey affair from too many points of view. 

In this article we’ll tell you exactly what they are, the harsh reality of how they operate, and the ways in which they are affecting online business, as well as the online space in general. 

What Is a Click Farm? 

A click farm is made up of large groups of people paid to click on ads or social media posts all day, hurting competitor budgets and online advertisers while fraudulently increasing the click farmer’s revenue.  All the fake liking and clicking further leads to compromised metrics for SEO, making search result rankings unreliable and costing those who built up their site honestly. 

Click farms are also used to manipulate website data and social media engagement by artificially increasing traffic. If a boost in social media traffic, fake or real, doesn’t sound like a problem, think again. 

The Real Click Farm Harm, Please Stand Up

A feature by the New Republic detailed how an independent jazz publishing company named Second Floor Music fell prey to click farms and lost money, time, and potential real followers. 

Second Floor Music sought Facebook’s advertising services to reach its niche audience of jazz-lovers and invested in an ad campaign through the social networking site. Each time an ad was liked, Second Floor Music paid Facebook a few cents. However, the ads Second Floor Music was paying for somehow ended up in front of click farm bots (or humans), garnering thousands of fake likes. 

The money they invested was wasted, and real fans of their Facebook page were impossible to reach under the mountain of fake followers.  Second Floor Music ended up deleting their page and starting over with a new one. Bummer. Costly bummer. 

Click farms exist because they’re a lucrative scheme in the online space. Likes come cheap – about $30 for 1,000 Facebook likes, according to the New Republic – and clients will seek out click farms to pay for this illegitimate promotion of their products or site and boost their influence. It’s a cheap and easy way to manipulate search results, hurt competitors, and make money in the digital world. Kind of like the fast-food of the online space. 

It may seem like an innocent-enough way to gain a little traction, but according to the Washington Post, click fraud, bots, and fake news are all interconnected. Digital fraud can be dangerous, contributing to the spread of hate speech and fake content. 

Click farms are sometimes manned by a small team using software to do their clicking. However, by using real people instead of bots, many click farms add enough human behavior elements to surfing and clicking to circumvent bot detection software. Workers click links, then surf the site as a legitimate visitor would before clicking more links. 

Click farms essentially evolved to keep growing.  

The Harsh Reality of Click Farms

The unfortunate reality of click farms is that they usually operate through the labor of vulnerable, low-paid workers in developing countries. 

A click farm could be made up of a single person manning a station of cell phones to click ads or give likes on social media, though there are often many workers – hundreds or thousands – repeatedly clicking links through fake online accounts or emails to keep the shady operation running. 

They are usually working for extremely low pay in appalling conditions, clocking in for long hours and night shifts so that the entire operation runs 24/7. In one case, a click farm in Bangladesh was paying its workers only $120 per year, or $15 per one thousand likes. 

While some of these operations have been shut down for various reasons, click farms are not considered illegal across the world. Workers in click farms are visiting sites to click links, sign up for newsletters, and surf, which is not illegal on its own, though may breach some consumer protection laws. 

Clicks farms are rampant in countries like the Philippines, as well as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, primarily because the labor is cheap and people will take the job despite low pay and poor working conditions. 

Not all click farms treat employees poorly, however. In a feature by the New Republic, the owner of a click farm in the Philippines sees his business as a means of “offering a service that people are clamoring to pay for and providing for himself, his family, and his countrymen.” Braggs, the click farm owner, seems to keep his employees happy with decent salaries and extra pay for night shifts. 

The Philippines has the highest unemployment rate in Southeast Asia, with the current COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting low-income workers and leading to even more unemployment as it rages on. 

Predictions for the Future of Click Farms 

Click farms will influence the digital world whether they continue to increase or are brought under control.

Click Farms Unchecked

LinkedIn found that fake influencer marketing alone – Instagram influencers paying click farms for likes and artificial popularity – cost the global economy $1.3 billion in 2019.  Juniper Research forecasted that advertisers alone could lose out on $42 billion to fraud. The enormous amount of money being made (and lost) through an industry providing no value at all is disconcerting. 

Beyond these tangible, direct costs, the growing click fraud and click farm industry threatens to destroy relationships between advertisers and people if left unchecked. 

If bots or fraudulent clicks are interacting with ads, how can advertisers reach and connect with real customers? 

What will happen in the digital space if honest human interest is undermined by fake likes and manipulated data? 

Will people eventually lose trust in ratings and reviews if click farms continue interfering with stats? 

The threat of unmitigated click farms poses a real threat to digital industries. 

Click Farms Defeated

While click farms may never get completely stamped out, taking action to control them through self-protection is crucial. 

Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are taking action to fight the shadowy trend: Facebook is monitoring suspicious click patterns and purging fake accounts, and Twitter is also working to delete accounts coming from click farms. 

If click farms are brought under control, the digital fraud industry won’t have as much power to devalue the way we conduct business online. Market information can be trusted when the clicks and likes are done by real people with interest in products and services. Advertisers can continue building relationships with customers without their campaigns being hijacked by click farms and bots.  

Online businesses and advertisers should take steps to protect themselves from click fraud by being wary about where ads are run, and metrics and expenditures around ad campaigns. Transparency is essential. Other concrete steps should include protection in the form of fraud detection software.   

Wh're Art Thee Going, Click Farm?

Unfortunately, using click farms to fraudulently boost engagement, hurt competitor ad budgets, and erode trust between online businesses and their consumers is an increasing trend. If left unchecked, these farms have the potential to cause significant harm in the digital space.

Luckily, awareness is the first step toward protecting yourself. Now that click farms and the issues they pose are on your radar, you’re already more equipped to deal with the problem. You can further protect your business by using anti-fraud software through a trusted partner to monitor and block click fraud threats. 

Eliminating digital fraud entirely is impossible, but with awareness and the right tools you can avoid being a victim of click fraud and farms.

Jason is a passionate data-driven specialist with extensive PPC & SEO experience. When not writing about SEM he can be found surfboarding the wildest ocean waves of the Argentinian coast.