Click fraud top topic at search conference

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Click fraud in search engine advertising has become a serious issue among online advertisers and search engine marketing companies, according to some panelists at a session on the topic at the Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo in New York on Tuesday. A few speakers said the search engines themselves deserve part of the blame.

Click fraud occurs when a person or an automated computer program clicks on an ad as a way to generate a fraudulent cost-per-click charge.

According to data released in December by the nonprofit Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, the number of those who believe it is a serious issue has tripled in the past year, and two out of five advertisers and about 40% of the agencies surveyed have tracked fraud in pay-per-click campaigns.

Google and Yahoo! representatives on the panel defended the search engines’ efforts on behalf of advertisers to conquer click fraud. “An important part of monitoring a pay-per-click campaign is to monitor clicks and conversions,” said John Slade, director of product management at Yahoo! Search Marketing. Google’s business product manager, Shuman Ghosemajumder, said it is doing a good job to prevent click fraud. “This is something we take seriously and it’s also something fortunately where we do an effective job,” Ghosemajumder said.

Other panelists strongly disagreed with Google and Yahoo!, pointing a finger at the search engines for failing to provide adequate protection and service to advertisers. One panelist said part of the problem is the search engines do not offer partner, or affiliate, sites technology to combat fraud.

“More time seems to be put into protecting the mother ship, but those same technologies are not being shared with their partners,” said Greg Boser, president at WebGuerrilla, a search marketing consultant. Ghosemajumder said Google terminates publishers from its network on a daily basis as part of handling click fraud.

Click fraud can be committed for financial gain by parties such as contextual ad affiliates, which can profit when clicks occur on their sites because of revenue-sharing agreements with search engines. An advertiser’s competitors similarly might engage in the practice, as a way to drain the marketer’s pay-per-click advertising budget.

Another complaint directed at search engines is that they are the ultimate arbiters of which clicks are billed, and yet they do not share their data with customers.

“Search engines are no longer giving up log data,” said Jessie Stricchiola, president of Alchemist Media, a search engine optimization and click fraud auditing firm.

“The search engines admit they don’t have the crucial data points that are primarily site visitor behavior. They admit for a majority of advertisers they don’t have that, since advertisers are not about to disclose their conversion data,” she said. “Search engines on one hand are saying, ‘We’ll protect you,’ and on the other hand they’re saying, ‘You can’t expect us to really protect you because we don’t have all the data.’ ”

Stricchiola said Google made a subtle but significant change in the wording on its Web site regarding click fraud around the second quarter of last year. The phrase changed from “we detect most invalid clicks and reach them before they reach your reports,” to “our goal is to detect invalid clicks.” “That might not seem like a big difference, but it is a huge difference to advertisers,” she said.

Representatives from both Yahoo! and Google said they support industry efforts to combat fraud. “We’re very supportive of cross-industry efforts to attack this challenge,” Yahoo!’s Slade said.

However, such panelists as Stricchiola and Boser indicated current litigation—there are at least three class action lawsuits currently pending against search engines including both Google and Yahoo!—exist because of lack of cooperation on the part of the engines. “This issue really should be addressed by the industry themselves,” Stricchiola said. “We wouldn’t have this problem if things had been addressed from a more advertiser-centric perspective,” she said.

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