NETSENSE: Seeking help to boost site traffic? Beware of robots and spiders

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Most business-to-business Web site marketers have, at one time or another, hired a third party to help them build traffic to their site or build subscribers to their e-mail newsletter.

It may have been something as simple as announcing the news with a press release or submitting the site to search engines, or as complex as making keyword buys or doing a million-dollar banner ad campaign.

Sadly, I see and hear of many cases in which the third party hired to build traffic tricked the client into believing it was effective when, in fact, it wasn't.

There are many ways you can trick a Web server into thinking it has received much more traffic than it has. There are many ways to make it look like you have added new subscribers to an e-mail newsletter when you haven't.

If you, as the client, are not wise to these tricks, you would have no idea these techniques were being used and would assume the third party you hired was doing a great job for you.

Spiders and robots

One of the sneakiest techniques to make it look like you are getting a bunch of traffic at your site is to invite all the robots and spiders you can find to come access the site. Spiders are automated programs used to index the Web, and robots are used to test Internet connections. Only if you were wise enough to know the actual domain name or Internet protocol number of these bots and spiders would you realize that all those visits you are seeing tracked in your server log are actually non-human robot visits.

The obvious bots are the main search engines, but these are just the tip of the iceberg for a traffic cheat. There are shopping bots, bots in other countries, search bots, reminder bots, news bots and many others. In all, I bet there are more than 100 bots or spiders that, just by submitting a URL to them, will access a site automatically.

What's to keep a company from doing this to you and not telling you it did? Nothing. You see a spike in traffic of 100, 200 or even 1,000 page views, and think it's people when it was machines. Not one eyeball saw your site.

Since Web page requests are always made from one machine to another, it can be hard to know if a person was behind that request or a bot just following orders. Some companies even write custom page-request scripts that make it look like a site is being visited when it isn't.

Inflated subscriber numbers

Scams also exist for other Net-based media. For those of you running b-to-b sites that offer an e-mail newsletter, you probably have wished you could increase the number of subscribers to your newsletter. E-mail newsletters can be a useful tool for getting people back to your site, alerting them to sales or other special offers. Your customers' in-box is a great place to be each month.

Some consultants or companies offer services to help you increase the number of subscribers. But beware. It's easy to inflate subscriber numbers.

For example, without telling you, I could create 100 free e-mail accounts at each of the 10 largest free e-mail services, from Yahoo mail to Hotmail to Lycosmail, and on and on. These don't cost me a dime.

Next, I subscribe to your e-mail newsletter for each of these e-mail accounts. I then make sure each of these accounts forwards all mail sent to them to one main mailbox, where I can quickly delete the contents in a few seconds. This keeps me from having to log into and delete messages from all those accounts.

Bingo, I just made it look like you added 1,000 new subscribers when, in fact, you added none at all.

While it would be possible to find out if an actual person was behind each of those accounts, it wouldn't be easy.

These are just a couple of the tricks I have come across. There are many others being used as well, so be extra cautious before you hire a third party to help you build traffic or subscribers. Get references; ask for detailed log analysis and verification.

The common point these scam artists use is your lack of knowledge of the technical aspects of Web server log and e-mail subscription processes. So spend some time learning how these processes work.

Eric Ward is a consultant, speaker and writer who launched the Web's first awareness-building service for Web sites back in 1994. You can reach him at [email protected].

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