Click-Farming and the Challenge of Online Content Integrity

November 11, 2013

Money, keyboard and hand on computer mouseMany forms of online content, advertising and social media materials for example, develop substantially greater economic value if they are accessed by more Internet users.  This fundamental principle of the online world has led to the dramatic increase in the use of the “click-farming” process as a method to inflate Internet traffic statistics.  Click-farming is an example of an online activity which, although technically not illegal, can be deceptive and misleading for Internet users.

The click-farming process is simple.  It takes advantage of advertisements, online sign-ups, and other interactive systems that invite individual users to click on a specific icon to demonstrate their interest or support.  Organizations and individuals seeking to inflate their online traffic pay click-farms to provide that service.  Click-farming companies pay individuals to click on the target icon repeatedly, simulating input from thousands of different individuals.

Some of the most popular targets for click-farming operations are online advertisements.  The inflated number of hits received by the targeted ads increases the commercial value associated with the ad.  Other popular click-farming targets include Facebook, Twitter, and other social media content.  Click-farming companies are frequently paid to inflate the number of Twitter “followers” and Facebook “likes” associated with specific content.

Click-farming can be deceptive for Internet users.  For example, it has been reported that individuals planning to run for political office sometimes retain click-farming services to inflate the number of apparent supporters their campaigns have attracted to their websites and social media pages.  The popularity of commercial products is also inflated regularly using click-farm services.

The economics of click-farm operations have reportedly caused them to be popular businesses in developing economies in different parts of the world.  In those countries, the click-farming companies pay wages that are extremely low by American standards.  Generally, each click-farm employee is paid a small amount for each click.  Click-farms located in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh are now frequently considered to be important employers in their local communities.

Online companies recognize the potentially deceptive nature of the click-farm process.  They are engaged in an ongoing struggle to limit the impact of click-farming.  Those efforts have, however, apparently had only limited success.

For example, social media sites have tried to require user registration prior to participation in interactive exchanges.  Click-farms responded by paying registered social media users to allow the click-farm employees to access the legitimate social media accounts and then engage in the click-farming operations.

Artificial inflation of Internet traffic statistics can, under certain circumstances, constitute a deceptive and unfair commercial practice.  It is likely that government authorities regulating commercial trade and consumer protection will, in the near future, focus greater attention on click-farming and other efforts to influence Internet traffic statistics.