The Real Cost of PPC Botnets

On-line advertising is a challenging and difficult job where conditions often change on the go and campaigns have to be micro-managed to their fullest. Marketing budget trends are shifting and most marketing experts now advise to invest at least 60% of the marketing budget in on-line marketing. Of course, the costs of on-line marketing vary immensely, since it involves both steady costs like banner ad spending, as well as a lot of very volatile costs for social media promotions, SEO, affiliate management services and, perhaps the most volatile of them all: PPC costs.

Pay-per-click costs are not generally amongst the most important expenditures of larger companies but they can eat rather significantly into small or medium-sized company marketing budgets. Beginners to this segment of digital marcomm (Marketing Communications) will often fall into the trap of taking these costs at face value. That is to say that, when first trying to budget for a campaign in which the front-end pricing is expressed in cents, strategists tend to disregard the fact that these costs will and do add up. Fortunately, beyond this initial trap, PPC is a time-tested marketing tool with sustainable conversion rates in general.

The threat of click fraud

Unfortunately, PPC pricing leaves the door open for click fraud. Click fraud is perhaps the most common form of internet fraud, surpassing phishing attacks and even such staples as spam. That is because PPC is automated and quite fast but also because to many publishers, including large publishers like Google AdWords or other PPC networks there really isn’t any disadvantage. PPC works indirectly, with bots generating clicks on certain sites, usually ‘in on it’ and advertisers paying the publisher network. The network, in turn, pays the initial site owner after taking a cut. Everybody wins except the advertisers.

Beware the botnet attack

Of course, botnet attacks are quite dangerous for everybody, the publisher networks included. Not only are these networks established through infection and not only are their practices illegal and detrimental to advertisers but they undermine the very basis of the publishing network. Google AdWords is a business and it cannot survive without customers, the advertisers. If the advertisers lose faith in the network and dismantle their campaigns, something easy to do and fast, the publishing network loses as well. Just like in the short run click fraud benefits everybody but the advertiser, in the long run, click fraud benefits nobody but the fraudster: The network loses customers, the site loses advertisers and may end up with bans or SERP penalties and the advertisers don’t manage to sell products. Without even taking clicks into consideration though, the botnet was raking in about 6 million dollars a month in ad views alone. At a cost of circa 0.70 cents per thousand views the scope of the whole network becomes apparent and the necessity for taking it down, one infected computer at a time even more so.

Takeaway: Invest in good security

The prevalence, efficiency and liabilities that botnet attacks have given rise to a highly dynamic and competitive segment of the online security sub-industry. At the moment, there exist several professional security companies out there, among which, most notably spider.io. Their aim is to thoroughly catalogue and fight the botnet, which is slowly but certainly expanding. The most often-encountered fallacy when it comes to Internet marketing is to believe that anything flies – see the massive amounts of pages on Facebook promising thousands of clicks for modicum amounts of money and blatantly violating the social networks’ ToS. The truth is that digital marcomm, as well as all types of internet transactions, are trust-based, so the credibility of large internet advertising networks has to be maintained or the whole community will crumble.

About the Author: Paul Estcott handles affiliate management services for a mid-sized company and has had to deal with the issue of repeated fake clicks several times.