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Maximizing pay-per-click advertising

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John Marshall is the founder of ClickTracks, a Web analytics software company based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Founded in 2001, ClickTracks' clients include Nokia, AT&T, Intuit Inc., Volvo Cars of North America and General Electric Co. BtoB recently spoke to Marshall about click fraud detection and prevention.

BtoB: With all the click fraud activity out there, can marketers really protect their pay-per-click (PPC) investment?

Marshall: Click fraud occurs when a person or a programmed script triggers a "pay-per-click" event charged to you, the advertiser, without the intent to view your Web site.

Some businesses are abandoning pay-per-click campaigns altogether rather than deal with the threat of click fraud. However, PPC campaigns are an essential element now in search engine marketing and, rather than abandon them, there are actions a business can take to protect against unnecessary costs caused by click fraud. To protect your PPC investment you need to take steps to identify ads that are generating click fraud.

BtoB: What are some warning signs that click fraud is taking place?

Marshall: One red flag is a session that ends too quickly, indicating that there was no legitimate visitor on key content pages. Click-fraudsters do the minimum activity necessary to trigger pay-per-click charges. Web analytics tools that include a click fraud report can identify which PPC ads are attracting this unusual behavior. Combinations of two or more of the following behaviors will indicate likely click fraud.

  • A large number of visits where the client IP addresses are similar;
  • A large number of sessions where there is no referring domain;
  • A higher percentage of visitors that don't reach goal pages;
  • A sudden, disproportionate increase in sessions from a particular ad;
  • An affiliate domain that refers a high number of single page visits;
  • A particular affiliate domain that refers a high number of sessions with near zero time on site.

BtoB: What are some other tactics to limit your exposure to this kind of fraud?

Marshall: You can further bulletproof your ads so the click-fraudsters will find it difficult to perpetrate fraud. This involves lowering or eliminating syndication, narrowing geographic targets and messaging, and blocking bad affiliate sites.

Syndication brings high bid prices, which attract click fraud. Use syndicated sites sparingly or not at all. Be more specific in targeting geographical markets. If your Web analytics report shows clicks from countries that you excluded from the ad campaign, then you are likely experiencing click fraud. Create messaging with a call to action that occurs after a visitor clicks on your ad, for example, a free iPod after clicking on your site. Further minimize risk by blocking sites that average near zero session time. You can block these sites in Google AdWords.

BtoB: Finally, talk about how marketers should go about seeking refunds from search engines in the case of click fraud.

Marshall: You can request a refund or credit. To substantiate click fraud and apply for a refund or credit, a Web analytics tool with click fraud reporting can help you collect and present the data. You will also want to adjust ad settings to eliminate the underperforming visits and increase the number of legitimate visitors who are interested in your site. You can free up 20% to 40% of your monthly PPC spend by adjusting ads to bring only the highest quality visitors.

John Marshall is the founder and CEO of ClickTracks (www.clicktracks.com), a company that develops and markets Web analytics tools.

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