Stephen Logan

Should Search Engines Do More to Tackle Click Fraud?

20th May 2010 PPC Blog 3 minutes to read

With Microsoft in the US courts tackling alleged click fraud from RedOrbit Inc. we look at whether more can be done to stop click fraud from happening and should search engines be more proactive in tackling it?

Click fraud has always been a blight to paid search. It costs businesses millions of pounds every year whilst helping to boost the coffers of the fraudsters and hosting search engine. Whilst the likes of Google and Microsoft have publically taken strides in rooting out the perpetrators and make it more difficult to defraud customers, there is an unavoidable incentive for them to avoid stamping it out entirely. Profits.

Yesterday it was announced that Microsoft had filed two cases against RedOrbit Inc. for allegedly developing a sophisticated click fraud campaign, which saw their own site visitors increase dramatically [see: Microsoft Sues Over Online Advertising ‘Click Fraud’ | Bloomberg]. The claim suggests this automated scheme has cost adCenter users hundreds of thousands of dollars. This case highlights two possible issues.

Firstly, it shows that the search engines are trying to clamp down on click fraud; a good thing. Secondly, that click fraud methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated; not quite as good.

But should click fraud really be seen as unavoidable? Who should be responsible for preventing click fraud? Paid search operators, advertisers or lawmakers across the world?

Microsoft clearly feel like they have a strong case in this particular instance. They have detected irregularities and amassed a certain amount of evidence to link them to one source. Unfortunately this is largely an exception to the rule.

But with over 10% of all clicks still from fraudulent sources, are the search engines really doing enough away from these showcase trials? As already mentioned, it is something of a double edged sword for them. With more clicks come higher profits. However, if customers become disgruntled they stand to lose them, which impacts future income.

Advertisers are still encouraged to report when they believe their campaigns are being targeted by click fraud [see: Do You Suspect Click Fraud? Here’s a Simple Solution…]. However, it isn’t always that simple to differentiate fraud from regular clicks. Some identifiers include clumps of clicks from a region and regular visitors from a single server. But shouldn’t Google, Yahoo and Microsoft be doing this work for you?

PPC isn’t perfect unfortunately. But search engines have done plenty to improve standards, which has seen a marked improvement in fraud figures. But at 12.7% in Q2 last year [see: Click Fraud Figures Continue to Improve], there is still plenty that can be done to protect advertisers in what is still very much a developing platform.

Unfortunately search engines are largely victims of their own success though when it comes to policing paid search. With millions of individual campaigns live at any one time, they aren’t always able to accurately track down the low level click fraud that will be affecting many advertisers.

Until there is an active deterrent to the fraudsters themselves or a way of automatically clamping down on suspicious activity, there will always be click fraud. This leaves the search engines open to criticism. It will also mean that millions will continue to be wasted on worthless clicks.

So should they be doing more to combat click fraud? Certainly. What more can they actually do to counteract it? Well, that’s another problem entirely. As long as people are able to benefit from draining other advertisers’ budgets, they will continue to do so. Also, with (seemingly) undetectable methods being developed, risk of capture is falling and the work the search engines have to do is increasing.

Will click fraud levels ever be zero? Probably not; which is why it is still so important that you monitor you accounts for suspicious activity. If you spot anything, report it to the search engine in question immediately. They can then investigate and compensate you for any losses. The more information you can give the search engines about your fraud though, the less likely you will be subject to the same attacks in future.

This collaborative information sharing remains the best way to make it difficult for fraudsters to operate or expel them entirely. But what do you think, should the search engines step up their efforts to end click fraud? Is it fair that PPC advertisers who pay search engines still need to raise their own suspicions? Can you see any way to stamp out click fraud entirely?

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