Digital empires depending on virtual goldmines of consumer interest have been industriously served by the likes of Google and Yahoo for more than a decade. The search titans' coffers have been fed by businesses eager to benefit from the flexibility, easily controlled costs and precision targeting of pay per click advertising. But the promise of pay per click - you only pay when a client clicks on your ad- has been taken as gauntlet issued by some.

Pot shots in the form of a dizzying array of swindles and scams have been unleashed from all quarters. Known as click fraud and fuelled by rich rewards ratcheting up the competition between rival firms, the phenomenon is making headlines almost as often as its host. Containing the problem, cracking down on suspect clicks and working out ways to coral the cyber criminals is one of the biggest problems facing the search marketing industry.

The possibility of click fraud, where users click on an ad not out of interest but simply to make the advertiser pay for the click is perpetrated in both human and computerised form. It's precisely this entrepreneurial approach to click fraud that is hampering the implementation of effective early warning systems.

In its automated state, robots are programmed to click on the PPC advert, depleting the daily budget so the advert reaches as few real consumers as possible. Human click fraud is a growing phenomenon with low cost labour in countries such as China and India hired to click on text ads. Again, the budget is used up, search statistics are distorted and the likelihood of real search users seeing the ad is dramatically reduced.

In an unusual show of solidarity, Google and Yahoo both claim the column inches given to fraudulent clicks are way off the mark. Both cite sophisticated filters capable of weeding out suspect clicks. Coherent industry efforts to create comprehensive lists of known robots being used to click repeatedly on adverts are also offered up as examples of their crackdown on cyber fraud. Recent court cases have resulted in advertisers receiving advertising credits for clicks shown to be fraudulent.

But are these efforts enough? And what happens when this first line of defence fails?

What is undeniable is that the reported rate of fraudulent clicks is growing in tandem with the burgeoning online advertising market. Search marketing has trebled in size in the last three years, a trend mirrored by the findings of the latest Click Forensics report. It found that in the last quarter online, fraudulent clicks on search-related online ads rose 14.1%, up from just over 13% at the beginning of the year.

Despite initial collaboration, as yet there are no cast-iron industry standards to tackle click fraud. Each search portal works to its own set guidelines, meaning detection and implementation of suspect clicks will lack consistency across the board.

Google have a team of specialists in place to investigate any claims of click fraud and deposit credits for clicks deemed illegal. They look for things like spikes in advert clicks and un-sustained click through rates over short periods of time. Whether it's for competitive advantage or financial gain, the leading search engine is notoriously reluctant to provide traffic data relating to refunded clicks.

For their part, Yahoo has previously been more willing to disclose data to user accounts falling victim to click fraud.

Aside from the search engine's efforts, hope for pay per click advertisers is bolstered by an upsurge in click fraud tracking software - cyber watchdogs guarding against robot clicks and sophisticated analysis programmes to detect and deter suspect clicks. Rather than depending on overall data reports from pay per click accounts, much of this specialist software tackles the problem on a per click basis, turning cyber detective to monitor visitor patterns and report sustained repeat clicks.

Before resorting to potentially expensive systems, it is possible to protect against wasted clicks at an account management level -

1. Look for patterns in PCC log data
If you see clicks from the same IP address using the same keyword in quick succession you can be pretty sure they're a result of click fraud. This information can then be stored and reported to the service provider to help secure a refund.

2. Spread the risk
Use the daily budgeting features of Google and Yahoo Search Marketing to spread your appearances and pay per click (PCC) budget throughout the day. This helps prevent a concerted attack on your AdWords expenditure over a short space of time.

3. Look at conversion rates
If you're receiving a large number of hits but very low conversion on your site, it could be an indicator that click fraud is a problem. On the other hand, it could also show that your site is very poor at selling... but it still needs monitoring.

4. Use analysis software
Website traffic analysis software can help identify what visitors are doing when they arrive at your site. If the software indicates that a large number of visitors are arriving at the home page, not going anywhere else and leaving the site very quickly, this is a good indicator that click fraud is taking place. Again, this data can be saved and reported to the search portal.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 16, 2007

Daniel is the founder and managing director of leading pay per click management consultancy, Top Position. Top Position offers Google AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing account management, specialising in reducing costs by as much as 40% while increasing internet visibility and optimizing account performance.

He is a regular contributor to several UK print and online publications, commenting on subjects such as click fraud, improving your pay per click account and making online advertising work for your business.

For more information about Dan and Top Position, visit

Search Engine Guide > Daniel Jupp > Tackling Click Fraud