In today’s world, most people would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not heard of bots and fake users infecting the internet. This growing issue – often referred to as the Fake Web – impacts businesses in various ways. Yes, there are malicious bots that actively target and attack specific organizations, but there are also humans with ill intent that may attempt to take down businesses on their own.
These types of bad actors can sometimes be difficult to detect and stop because, at first glance, they look like any other internet user and browse the web in a way that is less suspicious than an automation tool that behaves in a more robotic way. Furthermore, humans may also enlist bots to add to their own efforts or target sites in a variety of ways.
Some individuals who do business in competitive markets may choose to maliciously click on competitor advertisements – on their own, with the help of bots, with automation tools they create, or through a combination of these tactics. Throughout this article, we’ll break down the ways competitors target and take down the ads of other organizations, and how proactive teams can help identify this and stop it from impacting their operations.
How do competitors accomplish this?
Perhaps the easiest way for those with malicious intentions to click on competitor ads is to do it the old-fashioned way – manually. The process is very straightforward – someone searches for their company’s competition or finds their ads on social media or other publications, and just clicks on them over and over whenever they have time. This is a bit of a tedious and time-consuming process but for those looking to underscore their competition, it might be deemed worthwhile. Individuals might also try to enlist their coworkers to do the same thing to maximize coverage.
While Click farms are a common form of invalid traffic on the internet, they are not bots or automation tools. Rather they are groups of workers who are hired to click on assets online repeatedly or engage with content at a large scale. A quick internet search for “hire a click farm” can allow the average internet user to amplify their clicks for a small fee. Some sites even offer click farming as a freelance service for businesses to boost their engagement metrics. Similarly, someone looking to click on their competitor’s ads at scale could utilize a click farm to get the job done for them.
Bots & Automation Tools
Today, some have estimated that 52% of the internet is made up of non-human traffic such as bots. Many of these automation tools are created for innocuous purposes like indexing content or scanning websites for information. However, with many things on the internet, bots can also be used for malicious purposes as well. Bots have been able to significantly harm organizations’ funnels, conversion paths, analytics, and more – and paid advertisements are no exception. Individuals could enlist a bot (or program one themselves) that is designed to click on a certain asset of their competitor’s over and over.
Why do competitors do this?
When someone clicks on an ad, if their competition is on a classic pay-per-click model, they are paying for that click. However, that person does not have the intention to convert, so funds are being used on them but they will never contribute to the ultimate ROI on the competition’s ad campaigns. This is a massive waste of money. Not to mention, when budgets are drained, the business is then limited on how many real legitimate customers they can reach. This makes thoughtful campaigns ineffective and makes it very difficult for the company to justify the cost of future ads.
Improving their own rankings
Sometimes the goal of clicking on a competitor’s ads is not to just make them waste their budgets, but also for personal gain. If the competition is consistently in top-ranking positions on search engines or has a strong presence on social media or other platforms, other businesses might grow frustrated because they want to rank above them. Thoughtful and strategic teams might beat out the competition by targeting new keywords, updating creative and copy, or bidding higher. But individuals who are less inclined to take an ethical approach might just click on ads over and over until the competition loses their budget and therefore their high-ranking spots. This provides an opportunity to swoop in and take over those spots.
When a person, multiple people, or bots start clicking on ads at a rapid and consistent pace, the competition might initially view the increase in clicks as a positive metric. If the business is measured on click-through rates, the volume of site traffic, or any other metrics related to interest and engagement, they might initially welcome and even be excited about an influx of clicks. If that business doesn’t look into the situation any further and just takes the clicks at face value, they might continue pouring budget into those campaigns because they think they are bringing in a lot of great traffic to their sites, when in reality they are just giving the competition more budget to waste. Ultimately, their metrics will become skewed and their picture of reality in terms of how their campaigns are performing will be inaccurate.
Looking to protect your advertisements from bots and fake users? Book a site scan
What are some signs of malicious activity?
Budgets hitting capacity quickly
One key indicator companies can look for if they suspect competitors are clicking on their ads is to examine whether or not ad budgets are running out more quickly than usual. It also might be helpful to dig into specific campaigns. For example, if there are ads that specifically mention their brand name or promote solutions that their competition also offers, those campaigns might be more likely to be a target for competitors. It is important to consider though that just because budgets are running out, that doesn’t mean competitors are automatically the culprit. Before blaming the competition, organizations can first look into the cost per click, difficulty to rank for the keywords or audiences they are targeting, and other aspects of the setup of their ads.
Site visits repeating
Another way to try to determine if competitors are clicking on ads is to examine site analytics. Marketing teams can take a look at the site visits arriving from certain ad campaigns and determine if a single site visitor appears to be visiting from an advertisement over and over. Furthermore, they can broadly look at the number of unique site visits versus overall site visits. If the ratio shows that there are not that many unique visitors from paid ads, but there is an increase in visits – that could potentially mean the same visitors are clicking on ads again and again.
Spikes in advertising activity
Increases in site traffic are generally positive metrics for marketers, but if the team is suspicious of malicious activity from competitors, it could be seen as a red flag. Marketers should look out for spikes in traffic that happen at unusual times or follow unusual patterns. For example, is one campaign suddenly outperforming all others in terms of driving site traffic, but not conversions or sales come from it? Are there spikes in traffic from one particular ad that mentions the company by name or talks about a competitive product? Additionally, if traffic is suddenly arriving from paid ads at strange hours in the night or from locations that the company is not targeting – that could be a sign of bot or click farm usage.
What can businesses do to stop this from happening?
Much of the time, clicks from competitors can go unnoticed. These clicks can be especially inconspicuous if they are done at a smaller scale by an individual, or if they happen at a time when the company is launching a lot of new campaigns. However, if a team resonates with one or more of the potential signs of malicious activity above, it might be time to take action. Some of the things organizations can do once they suspect malicious activity from competitors are as follows:
Report it to the platform
Many advertising platforms have systems for submitting fraudulent clicks. If the claims are accepted, the platforms will sometimes offer refunds for those clicks. This can be very helpful in terms of restoring budgets. However, sometimes it can be hard to prove that it was a competitor who clicked on the ad, especially if they are using a personal device or clicking manually rather than enlisting bots.
Block competitors when possible
If a business can determine with a fair degree of certainty that a specific IP or identifier belongs to a competitor who is clicking on their ads, they can then exclude that IP from future campaigns so that the damage does not continue. It is also generally a good idea to exclude competitor URLs, company names, and email addresses from their audience targeting so that it is less likely they will see the ads, to begin with.
Be proactive against malicious actors
Perhaps the best way to get ahead of competitors, and other types of malicious actors, is to prevent them from interacting with advertisements and marketing funnels in the first place. Many marketing organizations are adopting go-to-market security as a way to protect and secure their efforts from bots, fake users, and those with malicious intent online.