First, let me just say that this story is non-fiction. Besides a few specifics like names the emails below are word for word.
I’ve personally managed cost per click advertising of various types since January of 2007. I realize that 5+ years isn’t a humongous amount of time and I’m not quite the “grey beard” I sometimes feel like. With that said, I’ve seen enough to know when something just isn’t quite right in the numbers. It starts with a suspicion that is either validated or debunked with PROOF.
This click fraud story started when I discovered one or two of products in one of my shopping engine feeds was getting a larger than normal amount of traffic and had lower than normal conversion rate. I use Google Analytics. I track my shopping engine feeds by manually tagging the landing page URLs with the name of the product name as the campaign and the product SKU as the content. I’ve done it this way for years and it’s always worked out well for me.
I used this data to track, in Google Analytics, the performance trends back for the past several months. For the products in question, traffic data in Google Analytics has been steady and predictable and so has the poor conversion rate. Having made no major changes to my feed data during that time, I thought it would be important to make sure that the data was all correct.
I checked my data feeds to make sure all the landing page URLs, prices, titles, images, descriptions, etc were all correct (the were). After that, I wanted to dive in and see how my return on investment was doing for those low converting products. Let me just say, ROI wasn’t even break-even.
That’s when I noticed something startling. Not only were the metrics horrible when looking at conversion rate per Google Analytics’ numbers, the shopping engine was charging me for many more clicks than I was receiving. I’m not talking about 10% or 15% more, I’m talking about 200%.
To recap - I’m being charged for two times more clicks than visits. Conversion rate for the products in question is less than 1%, whereas the average for all other products is over 7%. This looked fishy in Google Analytics but after looking at the cost report and data reported by this particular shopping engine it looks a lot like click fraud.
I decided to submit a ticket to get more information. If you aren’t aware, most of the big cost per click advertising programs make monthly adjustments to account for click fraud and other billing mistakes. This shopping engine doesn’t. While I’m not going to say which engine it is, it just happens to be one of the biggest.
My Click Fraud Ticket
This is the original ticket that I submitted:
This problem is relevant to my two most popular products.
It appears that I'm being charged for over twice as many clicks as what's being delivered to my site. I tag all of my product links using Google Analytics campaign tracking.
This does not affect the majority of our products, just the top two. How can we reconcile charges to represent actual traffic sent to my site? If this isn't possible then I may have to remove those items from my submitted products because they aren't profitable.
Thanks in advance.
This is the first response (edited to remove the customer service person’s name and company name):
Thank you for your message. Please keep in mind that Shopping Engine XYZ takes click fraud very seriously and thus adheres to the strict IAB guidelines regarding click spam and bots. By following these rules, our search engine and framework system is built to make click fraud on the site virtually impossible.
With that said, Google analytics results differ greatly from other analytics programs. The parameters and settings that each program uses are proprietary and therefore employ different parameters and cookies. This discrepancy is so widespread and prevalent that Google in fact released their own documentation explaining why their reports will differ from others:
In addition, we find that Google's analytics do not always reflect the clicks/traffic that is coming from our affiliate network. We display your product offers on Shopping Engine XYZ, Shopping Engine XYZ, in addition to a number of affiliate sites. The affiliate network is regularly monitored very closely to ensure that quality traffic is being driven to our merchant partners.
Also, in the event that someone is just repeatedly clicking on one product over and over, Shopping Engine XYZ does not charge merchants for clicks from any user who clicks on them more than once in any session. Subsequently, in order for anyone, or any bot program, to attempt click fraud, that person, people, or program would have to time out their session, erase every protocol on their computer, find and erase all of their cookies, reset the log on their IP address, scrub their hard drive and computer drivers, and basically find and erase all of the markers that our engine uses to identify and prevent click fraud. All for the ability to register, at the maximum, two more clicks onto a site.
If you find that the traffic for two of your listings is not profitable for your store, it might be best to remove these items from your feed or to zero bid them. This will help minimize CPC costs.
I would also strongly recommend that you install our free ROI performance tracker. While reviewing your feed, I noticed that you did not have the tracker installed. This tool will provide valuable performance data to help you further optimize your account/improve your performance. You will receive detailed performance data in your cost & performance reports.The data gathered by our ROI tracker will help you adjust your bidding to maximize your campaign.
It is very easy to implement and setup should only take 15 minutes. To get started, please log into your account and click the 'Manage Listings' tab. Then, click on 'Performance Tracker'.
If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out!
Customer Service Rep
Shopping Engine XYZ
This is not the first time I’ve had to fight click fraud battles. Back when Yahoo used to run its own Paid Search offering, I used to submit click fraud investigation requests on a monthly basis for many many clients. Most of the time I won. The fact is that most advertisers don’t pay enough attention to their data to notice issues like this. And then even when they do, they’re not confident enough to argue their case. I can proudly claim responsibility for several instances were as much as 40% of monthly click spend was refunded from Yahoo to my client due to click fraud on Yahoo’s content network. Over the years, the industry as a whole has improved so much (in my experience). That is why I was so surprised by this particular response.
There’s so much that’s wrong with the response I received from them. Here was my response to them:
I understand that Google Analytics (or any other 3rd party analytics provider) data will not match XYZ Shopping Engine's data exactly. However, I'm not talking about small discrepancies that I see with every product. I'm talking about one or two of my top trafficked products that have HUGE differences, where all the other products are within a few clicks. By a huge difference, I mean that you're charging me for double the amount of clicks for which I can account for.
Also, I call BS on several of your claims about click fraud. The most ridiculous claim of them all, "scrub their hard drive and computer drivers". Seriously? What does tracking website usage behavior have to do with drivers installed on a computer? If XYZ Shopping Engine is serious then I'd like to know more about about your official click fraud prevention policies and what 'markers' are used for detection. Frankly, the explanation below is insulting.
I hope to hear back soon.
Seriously? What the fuck. Do they really expect me to believe that a click fraudster would have to “scrub their hard drive and computer drivers, and basically find and erase all of the markers that our engine uses”? You don’t have to try that hard to remove viruses from a hard drive. Are they really saying that they install unauthorized software and/or drivers on the machines of their users to prevent click fraud?
No, they hope the claims made in this email will sound impressive. They expect that you’ll have no idea what they’re talking about and accept these claims as fact. But, in fact, it’s bullshit. There’s no flipp’n way they’re installing “drivers” as markers to detect multiple clicks in one session.
The fact is that they are in the business of charging for clicks, the more the better. They sure as hell aren’t going to break their back trying to prevent click fraud. Apparently they’re trying harder to prevent giving due credits to their paying customers than they are to prevent click fraud in the first place.
In the initial response, they claim to adhere to IAB guidelines. I’m starting to doubt it. In fact, if this company really cared about preventing click fraud then it’s likely I would see their name on the list of companies who participated in creating the IAB guidelines. Unfortunately they didn’t and I’ve been managing accounts on their platform since before 2009.
I’m not giving up. I plan to post updates as the story continues to write its-self. If anyone has advice please let me know!