Op-Ed: Click farms — Dumb, dangerous, and potential threats to markets

Posted Jul 23, 2019 by Paul Wallis
Chinese click farms have been around for a while. They’re supposed to generate false data for sales, search rankings and social media. They’re also potentially very dangerous and could be very expensive for those who use them.
The French tax on big tech firms is often call the GAFA tax  short for Google  Apple  Facebook and A...
The French tax on big tech firms is often call the GAFA tax, short for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon
Damien MEYER, AFP/File
The current state of China’s click farming is pretty straightforward – It’s huge, it has a lot of customers, and it’s a true cash cow. It’s also a major problem for online businesses. The reason for the success of click farming isn’t exactly a mystery – Their success is based on the bizarre theory that non-existent clicks and likes will fool someone, upvalue the site or business, or add value in some other way, like search rankings.
All of this is based on the click farms, which are massive numbers of phones, notably iPhones, hooked up to servers and clicking on things automatically. (The iPhones hook up instantly and directly with many Apple marketing sites.) These clicks generate a lot of data, all fake, which is then sold to the markets. Meanwhile, people who want more clicks think they can buy them.
The “science” of fake click data goes back to when it was first realized that web statistics could be gamed. Everything was tried, from old-style SEO spam and billions of keywords to putting more successful names in metadata, etc. Click farms are the latest upholders of this noble tradition of fake online things that don’t work and cost money.
The dumb part
Quaint as all this may seem, the basic premise is wrong. In fact, it couldn’t be more wrong. In the unlikely event that you find yourself dealing with real SEO, marketing, or social media people, you’ll discover that click farms are not credible, or welcome.
You think nobody notices that you’re suddenly getting millions more clicks? If so, you’re a true moron. These ultra-conspicuous data spikes are the classic signs of someone trying to game the system. Clicks with no sales are another basic giveaway. Like spam keywords and all the old SEO rorts, this sort of thing just doesn’t work anymore, unless you’re doing business with an even dumber person.
Better still – If Google decides that you’re basically delivering fraudulent data, you’ll get demoted on the search rankings to about page 1000. Marketing people and advertising people will wonder why you’re so desperate to do such very stupid things. SEO people like me will wonder why you and your useless genome haven’t been fed to a suicidal cockroach. These people don’t need business like that, because it reflects badly on them. You’re more likely to be shown a door, or a window to jump out of, than a seat.
Bear in mind a grim example – Fake clicks on Pay Per Click sites can give you a lot of clicks, cost you a lot of money, and fail to deliver any sales at all. Some people don’t even think of that, and pay to have click farms on their PPC sites; talk about money wasted. There’s a lot more to this, too, see below.
Important - There’s a really good article on IT Pro Portal about how to protect yourself from fraudulent clicks. If you’re in business, you need to read it.
There’s a reason for this subtle, axe-murderer-like hostility in the various professional markets. Click farms are real nuisances. Imagine trying to get accurate SEO rankings and market information, with and all the world’s other geniuses messing up the data. SEO marketing and rankings are hard enough, without this garbage. These metrics need to be right. Mainstream marketing needs verifiable data, too.
Social media, the easiest shooting gallery for scams of all kinds, is the other natural market for click farms. In this medium, click farms are right at home. They can settle down in an environment of total apathy and make money from the entire market. Just another great opportunity to provide the world with another utterly useless global scam, really.
Put it this way – Even the Chinese government is getting tough on the click farms. Seems they don’t like their online markets getting deluged with fake data, for some reason. Odd coincidence, isn’t it?
(Don’t worry – If the click farms get stamped out in China, they’ll show up somewhere else in about a week.)
The dangerous part
The thing that doesn’t seem to be being mentioned much in the news about click farms is that they’re also potentially dangerous. One of the dangers is the sheer range and capacity of these click farms. Just imagine what a denial of service attack using a mix of click farms and spam bots could do.
Difference being – Click farms are basically throwaway tech, easy to set up. If they burned down, the operators wouldn’t lose much money and could easily start up again ASAP.
Meanwhile, if the click farms get repurposed for something a bit more profitable and probably much more illegal…? Not a very reassuring thought, is it? These are just the basics. A few other options for dangerous click farms include:
• Nuancing: Reconfiguring the click farms to emulate legitimate traffic. It’s only a few more steps on the flow chart before the behaviour looks pretty normal. Could be done with an algorithm and a few randomizers, too. The “nuance” is the bland, acceptable face of someone lost in an online shopping expedition. Easy? Yep.
• Pandemics: Clicking is easy enough. Clicking and entering pre-set data is equally easy. If that data just happens to be advanced malware, guess what happens next. State actors, organized crime, you name it; it’s about as difficult as a couple of clicks.
Networks: Click farms are very like what the military calls “ad hoc networks”. These are networks of communication cobbled together with whatever’s available. They're designed to work even when other networks have broken down completely. Re-routing in to a fake network isn’t exactly unknown, either. There could be nothing easier for a click farm to do, across whole targeted bandwidths. Bots can do it too, but a click farm could have a shelf life of an hour, and do a lot of damage.
• Human click farms: Human click farms are taking over from the simple automated phones, and they’re a lot more versatile. The trouble with human click farms is that they’re much harder to categorize, and their activities could be anything and everything, and they can do a lot more than just clicking on things.
The threats to markets part
Threats to markets come in many forms. The primary threats are:
• Vast amounts of false data dumped on the markets. The need to quality control data, particularly in large amounts, is more than a nuisance. The problem is that big data quality management is still not very reliable, and the big quantities of fake data can slip through.
• Active fraud, in however many forms, particularly business valuations. Nothing like a lot of good numbers to show the buyers, is there? Pure scam, and scams are the name of the game.
• Search results can be totally transformed if rankings are compromised. That’s a lot of money down the drain for those who’ve worked hard to build up their rankings. Damage control can be pretty hit-or-miss, too. SEO needs hard, reliable metrics. Add all this crap, and it’s not easy to get. Again, quality control on metrics is required. (Sales are probably a much better metric for realistic SEO metrics, but a lot of bona fide users aren’t necessarily buyers, either.)
• Fake transactions, fake payments, fake accounts: ...Or in other words and and all of the traditional online scams can have easy access to any market with click farms.
Given the ease of setting up click farms, and the almost total lack of global systemic regulation, click farms will require pretty determined management. Click farms can be traced, and they can generate a lot of data which pretty much convicts them out of their own sim cards.
The problem is that like most technologies, the people supposed to be regulating them are basically illiterate. They need the many obvious problems to be turned in to baby food level information before they understand the issues. Somebody find a few grade schoolers with nothing better to do and get them to write up the laws. …Because that’s how long it will otherwise take to get click farms properly under control.