Digital Deception: Watch out for click fraud, shady metrics and biased reviews online

Tempting the click is everywhere in cyberspace. Keep asking: Is that really true?

Have you ever entered a social media site, seen a not-so-interesting story with thousands of likes and clicked mainly because others were clicking?

Or, have you read a glowing review of a product or travel offer online that makes you more eager to buy it now?

Or, you have you ever entered an online portal, saw “what’s trending” or “what’s hot now” and clicked on one of the items on the list?

If you answered yes to one or all of these questions, you may have been duped by click fraud, shady metrics or biased reviews online. And you are not alone. recently reported that over one-third of Internet traffic is fake.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that there is a crisis in online ads as a new battle is ongoing regarding bogus traffic, with marketers battling fraudulent visitors.

Unfortunately, this dark side trend is widespread and digital deception is everywhere. But don’t fret – get educated. This blog will show you what to watch out for when traversing cyberspace.

Click Fraud Leads to Facebook Likes

We all know that Internet advertising pays for the vast majority of content online. And in the multi-billion dollar web marketing world, getting you to pay attention (by clicking on a link, watching their advertisement or visiting their portal) means cash.

Even government and non-profit websites that are not directly selling products are still competing for attention with others and measuring their results with metrics such as Facebook Likes and overall page views. Bottom line, we are all selling and there are many honest ways to get attention.

But with so much money at stake, cutting corners has become the norm for many doing business online. Businesses can buy Facebook Likes in bulk from developing country “click farms.” In fact, we live in a world where click farms are the new sweatshops, according to the Washington Post.

So let’s start with this YouTube video which explains legitimate and illegitimate ways for businesses to buy Facebook Likes.

As described in the video, there are vast numbers of people around the world that, “Like things for a living.” Even when fake websites with meaningless content are created, it is easy to buy Likes in bulk. (It’s almost as if “liking” has become a verb like “google” has become a verb.)

But you may be wondering, are lots of Facebook Likes really such a big deal? Do businesses really care that much?

You betcha. Here’s an example of one of many "Million Facebook Likes" celebrations, captured on YouTube:

Note that I don’t know how this company got their Facebook Likes. They may have come from legit marketing. But my point is that companies value these social media metrics very highly - to the point of celebrating large numbers by throwing parties.

However, we also know that fake followers aren’t socially devoted - which can cause problems.  

Fake Reviews and Web Comments

Moving on, if click farms are such a big problem, what about the trustworthiness of other content online? Can we believe the comments people leave on websites and/or how they rate products and services?

According to the New York Times:

“In tens of millions of reviews on Web sites like, Citysearch, TripAdvisor and Yelp, new books are better than Tolstoy, restaurants are undiscovered gems and hotels surpass the Ritz.

Or so the reviewers say. As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance.

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” offered one entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches….”

The article goes on to say that many of the negative reviews for restaurants and hotels are placed on sites by rivals. These trends are a part of a wider industry that has sprung up called online “reputation management.”

The fake review issue has become so bad that New York Attorney General recently settled a suit with 19 companies who paid $350,000 in fines and agreed to stop writing and soliciting fake reviews.

Inc. Magazine recently ran this story offering a solution to fake online reviews by StellaService. What did they come up with?

"… If you see a VeriSign or TRUSTe seal on a website, you know it's secure. We wanted to do that for customer service. Companies have to achieve a certain level of performance to score in the two top tiers, Elite and Excellent. We thought if we can create a symbol that people trusted, then it could grow and be adopted very fast. ..."

More specifically, StellaService built an army of secret (real world) shoppers, sells the metrics to the companies and their competitors and they do not accept comment that were received anonymously. 

While this offering is unique and powerful, I find it interesting that the solution to fake online reviews is to go offline with trusted metrics and not use crowdsourcing in any way.

Misleading Internet Metrics

Which leads to a wider discussion on online metrics in general. The pressure to show quick improvement, make money and offer “viral content” is leading to a growing black market in gaming the system with fake followers, fake Likes, fake clicks, fake comments and worse.

One key question is: Are we measuring a genuine connection made with an actual human being who is not being paid to click or leave a comment?

This blog on from earlier this year is more optimistic than I am that we can stop many of these online marketing problems.

“Ad fraud, the use of computer ‘bots’ to make it seem as if a human has seen an ad, dropped drastically last year, according to a report released this morning by Integral Ad Science. Suspicious ad activity fell from 30% in the fourth quarter of 2012 to just 13% in the just-ended last quarter of 2013, according to the company, previously known as AdSafe Media….”

It seems as if when new tools are developed to detect bots (that are used to automatically click), click farms in third world countries are taught new tactics that cannot be detected. Those actions are automated, and later caught again by companies trying to police fraud. And this vicious cycle just continues on and on.

I really like this blog by Seth Godin on avoiding false metrics. The author gives some fascinating examples of how almost any metric can become false – even the New York Times Bestseller list. Here’s how he ends:

“… A useful metric is both accurate (in that it measures what it says it measures) and aligned with your goals. Making your numbers go up (any numbers--your bmi, your blood sugar, your customer service ratings) is pointless if the numbers aren't related to why you went to work this morning.”

Are there better metrics than clicks or Likes?

So what metrics are more meaningful? Some experts recommend conversion tracking.

"With conversion tracking, we can measure how many users take a specified action after clicking on the ad. The beauty of this is we can set up conversion tracking for just about any action. Want to know how many people fill out a membership form after clicking an ad? We can track it. Want to know how many people make a purchase? We can track it. Want to know how many people click on your “Learn More” button? We can track that too. ..."

Another metric that I to use is prefer is shares – in the same way that offers opportunities to share blogs such as this one via multiple social media sites. Of course, click farms could also become "share farms," so no single metric is perfect.

For the Internet surfer, this piece offers tips on fake content and links to watch out for regarding online websites.

Final Thoughts

What’s my main point? 

There is a lot of deception occurring online that may (or may not) rise to the level of a crime. We all need to be aware and take appropriate actions. Don’t be fooled or deceived. Constantly keep learning about the good, the bad and the ugly in cyberspace.

Books and articles have been written over the past few decades regarding our Web of Deception. I wrote about many similar problems in my first book Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web six years ago. Personally, I don’t think things are getting better.

True, many good people are working hard to overcome these marketing issues, but the bad guys seem to stay one step ahead of the good guys.

McAfee (now part of Intel) issued this report on other aspects of digital deception last year, and it is worth reading, especially if you have children.

People always ask me for simple answers, but there are none. Workable solutions require hard work, diligence, wisdom and perseverance. I described these seven habits of online integrity in this article, and they all still apply today. 

Be aware that many, many people want your attention in cyberspace. Everyone is tempting the click. And while some actors tempt with clearly illegal or immoral content, many more hide in shades of digital gray.

Keep asking: Do you know the difference? Is that really true?


Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.