Help a noob fight possible click fraud for a non-profit

by Junes
10 replies
  • PPC/SEM
  • |
Hi guys,

First time here. I'm doing some volunteering for a medium-sized non-profit and I've taken up analyzing their online strategy. I'm pretty much a novice, but they are even more so. I'm hoping you might help me fight what I think is small-scale (or possibly large scale) click fraud.

This is the scenario: they have a large contract with a referral site which supplies 15% of their traffic. They pay that site for referrals through search results and now and then a prominent banner on the homepage.

It started when I noticed the banner didn't convert much at all. Or rather, I'm not sure because the tracking was not set properly (transaction was done at another site). I had to model the conversion statistically based on the sales for each day. The banner came out very low, like 15% of the rest. That was my first suspicion.

I looked for other strange patterns and found unusual activity from a tiny town close to the referral website owner, for years. Almost every day a few visits, both via ads and organic/direct. This stopped in October last year, when the non-profit I worked at implemented an online ticket shop.

Recently I've seen bot activity. Organic search results came in at 100/hr from a certain city, with the same OS/browser, whereas before that city showed very little activity. This bot activity coincided with the second day of a recent banner campaign. It looks like they are "propping up" their ads with organic search results, thinking people won't delve into the channels.

Is there any innocent explanation for all this?

This is still pretty small theft, if it is that. But my statistical model suggests much lower conversion for traffic via the banner. It may just be wrong. I don't see any odd location or server clustering of the sort described above. Is there any failproof way to check whether this activity is from bots? Or maybe it's just a bunch of real people clicking for cash, I don't know.

First thing I want to do is close the measuring loop. But I need approval from the website operator for that, so that may take some time.

Thanks for any responses!
#click #fight #fraud #nonprofit #noob
  • Profile picture of the author yukon
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    First of all, define large contract with referral site.

    What exactly does that mean? Why would anyone create such a contract?
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    • Profile picture of the author Junes
      Thanks, probably just poor wording on my part (English is not my native language).

      They pay per click for ads and a fixed cost for the banner, I think. But I need to check this on Monday, then I can also assess how much this fraud (if it is that) is costing them financially.
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  • Profile picture of the author yukon
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    BTW, Adwords allows up to $10,000 per month of free PPC traffic for legit 501C nonprofits.


    Dump the bot traffic scam and go with the free Adwords money.
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  • Profile picture of the author Junes
    Yeah, they have that too. I've tweaked it to the best of my ability, and it's performing much better now (they didn't get much out of it at all). But much of their traffic is still coming from this referral site. But you're right, they may have to reconsider. I guess I'll have to wait and see, talk with them, see if I can measure conversion when the website has been changed. I just wished I could find out right now to what extent the current traffic is fraudulent.
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    • Profile picture of the author yukon
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      Originally Posted by Junes View Post

      Yeah, they have that too. I've tweaked it to the best of my ability, and it's performing much better now (they didn't get much out of it at all). But much of their traffic is still coming from this referral site. But you're right, they may have to reconsider. I guess I'll have to wait and see, talk with them, see if I can measure conversion when the website has been changed. I just wished I could find out right now to what extent the current traffic is fraudulent.

      Are you checking the traffic IPs in the host Cpanel to see If they're all unique?
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      • Profile picture of the author Junes
        I don't have access to the site, just Google Analytics right now. I will surely follow up with them to check, thanks.

        I'm pretty sure that burst on Tuesday were bots. 95% same OS/browser, coming in at 1-3 at a minute.

        What I'm curious about is the regular affiliate traffic. I've tried segmenting it in different ways, by city, OS, etc. And while I see some overrepresentation in some areas, that's to be expected - it's a website after all, with its own audience. I don't see any clustering of the sort that I saw for Tuesday or the tiny town clicking at the ads.

        Is it possible for a dedicated programmer to build a bot that fakes its location/server/operating system etc.?
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        • Profile picture of the author yukon
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          Originally Posted by Junes View Post

          Is it possible for a dedicated programmer to build a bot that fakes its location/server/operating system etc.?
          Yes, all of that is possible.

          They don't even need to use a browser, website, or online host/server, all they have to do is build an offline desktop app/bot, and cycle through fake http header info, bogus IPs (proxies), etc... to look like legit traffic. This is also known as faking the referrer. You'll see a lot of fake referrer traffic in most/all Cpanels.

          Really If someone knows what they're doing it's hard to catch this stuff. If it's an amateur hack sending bot traffic you might catch them on the same IP number. Still, anyone that knows what they're doing is going to use a bunch of proxy IPs so it looks like traffic is coming in from all over the world.

          I think the best you can do If you think your nonprofit client is getting scammed is funnel all that suspected bot traffic into a conversion funnel, If it doesn't convert for you get rid of it on that basis instead of trying to convince the nonprofit they're being scammed. Some folks get hung up on bad decisions for whatever reasons (pride, trusting an old service provider, etc...).
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  • Profile picture of the author Junes
    Thanks so much! That is very helpful.

    So I can stop messing about in Google Analytics, if they're pros (and they seem to be from their LinkedIn pages) they will make sure it's hidden. I need to speak to IT to check IPs and close the measuring loop so I can measure conversion, like you said.

    It's a bit strange that they're so careless faking this organic/direct traffic. Maybe they think people wouldn't notice. Or maybe there's something other going on after all and they're innocent, who knows. But such a surge of organic traffic at the same time as a paid campaign seems mighty strange. It could be a coincidence.

    I haven't heard from the non-profit yet, I just sent them my report on Friday evening. I'm curious how they will react. It's quite possible that one or more of the employees is an friend/acquintance of the owner of the affiliate company. But my contact is pretty new, so she's probably able to be objective.

    Thanks again, you helped me (and a bunch of kids served by this non-profit) a lot.
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    • Profile picture of the author yukon
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      Originally Posted by Junes View Post

      Thanks so much! That is very helpful.

      So I can stop messing about in Google Analytics, if they're pros (and they seem to be from their LinkedIn pages) they will make sure it's hidden. I need to speak to IT to check IPs and close the measuring loop so I can measure conversion, like you said.

      It's a bit strange that they're so careless faking this organic/direct traffic. Maybe they think people wouldn't notice. Or maybe there's something other going on after all and they're innocent, who knows. But such a surge of organic traffic at the same time as a paid campaign seems mighty strange. It could be a coincidence.

      I haven't heard from the non-profit yet, I just sent them my report on Friday evening. I'm curious how they will react. It's quite possible that one or more of the employees is an friend/acquintance of the owner of the affiliate company. But my contact is pretty new, so she's probably able to be objective.

      Thanks again, you helped me (and a bunch of kids served by this non-profit) a lot.


      Even If it's legit traffic it's only purpose is to make some type of conversion, there's no other reason to have that traffic. You're paying money, you expect some conversions. Bot traffic will never convert, especially when it comes to monetary donations.

      Anyways, that's the angle I would go with, weed out any paid traffic that's not supporting the site/nonprofit.

      This way you can reallocate money towards better traffic. Really it's the same as split testing. Does A perform? Does A perform better than B? etc...
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  • Profile picture of the author Junes
    Yeah I know, that's what I wanted to check out. But I was disappointed to find out the way they set it up the transaction was handled at another site and the user never came back. A mistake, obviously. The website is good enough but it's just not at corporate level quality. This will surely be one of the first things to fix.

    If it's really bot traffic that would be pretty serious because that would mean they've wasted lots of money over the years. They've been working with this company since 2012...

    I've tinkered a lot with A/B-testing using AdWords, getting the hang of it a little. It's quite addictive. Who knows, I might change careers someday... :-)
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