Thumbs in the Shadows: The Story of Fake Likes and Click Farms

Like some of you currently do or have done in the past, I manage a Facebook page. Some of you may have done it to promote your own business, a client’s, or just made one up for fun. If you are the page manager for a business, one of the common things you hear people talking about is the importance of likes for your page, specifically, the number of them. When Facebook pages started becoming a default requirement for businesses, so too did the notion that a page would appear more impressive than their competition’s if it had more likes.

A business opportunity was created.

Companies that yielded the premise of buying likes began surfacing shortly thereafter. The basis was basic: for a relatively low cost, you could purchase a specific number of likes for your business’ Facebook page. How were these likes generated? Simple: like “farms”, which are essentially sweatshops only with computers, were set up in developing countries and employed locals to “like” thousands of companies’ Facebook pages. Later on this practice evolved and was applied to purchasing Twitter and Instragram followers as well.

goldfarmers01

World of Warcraft gold farmers in China.

The  business model was not a new one: menial computer tasks had been outsourced to third world countries ever since Diablo II and World of Warcraft became profitable enterprises. In these cases, employees worked long hours in front of a computer to “farm” gold and items for buyers in overseas. These workers were paid the typical terrible wages found in sweatshop conditions, and the prices for their products were rock bottom since the level of skill in order to produce them was next to nothing. Even children were employed in these item and gold farms for this same reason.

When Blizzard Entertainment, the game design company responsible for producing the Diablo and Warcraft franchises, cracked down on the online sale of gold and items, these gold and item farms were all but forced to cease operation. With a relatively low upkeep and start-up cost, these farms were extremely profitable enterprises with extremely adaptable equipment (all that these farms required were computers). When one door closed, another one opened, and that was when these gold and item farms overhauled themselves into “click farms” to generate more likes and followers.

The business model took off. Anyone from small business owners to multinational corporations was purchasing likes and creating social media presence with more likes. Unfortunately, Facebook took notice of this, and decided to get a piece of the pie.

facebook-fake-likesAs a page manager, you are encouraged by Facebook to help promote your posts by paying a set fee based on how much exposure you want your posts to get. By promoting a post, it uses an algorithm called EdgeRank to display your business’ post on anyone’s news feed who may have similar interests.

For example, let’s say you manage a page for a bakery that specializes in selling cakes. If you promote your post about a new type of cake you’re selling, your post will appear on news feeds of people who already like cakes, baked goods, bakeries, etc. On top of this, the more you pay, the wider your exposure in terms of geography.

If you pay the low amount and your bakery is located in New York City, then only those in and around NYC will have your post show up. This is, unless, a lot of your friends happen to like the page as well; then it will also show up on your news feed. So if you left NYC a few years ago to pursue a career in Los Angeles, the cake shop that all your friends back home like will still have their posts appearing on your news feed. If the amount that the hypothetical cake shop pays increases, so does the geographic range of their post reach.

Screen-Shot-2012-10-24-at-1.54.41-PMThis is a great form of advertising since it uses personal data gathered by Facebook to target your audience. This is why Google and Facebook are the two most powerful advertising platforms on the planet; they have access to vast amounts of personal data, which is an extremely valuable tool.

This is also why Facebook, Google, or other platforms like Twitter or Instagram will never charge for their services. If you’ve ever seen a viral post circulating around that states something like: “Facebook will start charging $2.99/month next month – sign this petition now and speak out against it!”, don’t believe that for a second: it’s bogus. Facebook would never risk alienating users to make money, because by providing a free service to gain access to the personal data of users, they are mining the necessary data needed for service where they actually make money:  advertising.

How to spot fake Facebook fans.

How to spot fake Facebook fans: Red Bull’s most popular fans are Egyptian males aged 18-24. Very suspicious.

When you pay Facebook to promote your page for you, it exposes it to users who have similar interests to your company in a geographic area proportional to the amount of money you invest. The problem that has been occurring in recent years is that by paying for a national or even international level of exposure, it exposes your page to the millions of fake accounts based at click farms. If the page owner for Pfizer performed some analytics on their page, they would find out that Pfizer’s popularity on Facebook is not the most popular in United States, where over 6 million men suffer from erectile dysfunction, but in Egypt, a country notorious for hosting click farms. Many small business owners who have experimented with heavy investment in Facebook ads have reported exponential growth in terms of page likes, comments, and overall traffic. So what’s the problem?

Engagement.

Even though it’s common sense, research has been done to support the notion that your best fans (and likely customers) are the most engaged on your Facebook page and other social media avenues. Remember the EdgeRank algorithm? EdgeRank essentially forms an “importance score” based on how often: your posts are shared, liked, commented on, and even how often your page is visited. Research has shown that an average of 16% of your page’s fans will see your content at any given time. This percentage goes up for your frequent engagers; the fans of your page who comment the most, like every post, or visit your page often.

Starting to see the problem? Simply liking a page isn’t enough: your page fans have to engage with the content that you’re producing. Some Egyptian fellow who is working in a click farm in Cairo doesn’t care about what cakes you’re serving this week, or the newest promotion on Viagra (well, maybe he does). He does his job, which is to go through a list of thousands of pages to like each day, and “like” it. Perhaps the click farm is offering a promotion that includes comments or shares as well, but this will happen rather infrequently, and because your legions of fake fans have never actually set foot in your business or purchased your products, there is no true engagement.

Because of the lack of interaction your page is garnering as a result of fake likes, your EdgeRank score will decrease, and fewer than 16% of your audience will be able to see your content. What small businesses did in the past during their start-up phase was buy a package of likes to help “seed” their growth. Let’s say our hypothetical cake shop purchased a very conservative 10,000 likes to get started in a big city like NYC. Through organic growth via word of mouth and good old honest hard work, the page received an additional 1,000 likes in it’s first week. Not bad.

World of Warcraft gold farmers in China.

Remember that 16% viewership number? Out of 1,000 real humans who liked our little cake shop, only 160 will see their content on their news feed.  The average percentage of fans who engage with posted content of a page they like is 10%, so out of 1,000 people who like your page, only 16 people will actually engage with each post our cake shop creates. However, one of the reasons EdgeRank was created was to discourage purchasing fake likes; essentially, EdgeRank doesn’t care if your page likes are real or fake, but it does care about engagement, which real people provide, and fake likes almost never do.

EdgeRank would factor in those 10,000 fake likes, those 16 real people who engaged with your post, and instead of an average score of 10%, the EdgeRank score for our little cake shop is a mere .145 percent. Thanks to EdgeRank, Facebook thinks that whatever content you’re posting isn’t that important, so it’s even more unlikely to appear in people’s news feeds. This is why most business owners who purchased a package of likes to “seed” their Facebook page growth experienced fantastic early growth, but soon after, page engagement and traffic dropped off significantly.

So whether you actively buy likes or initially promote your page to a geographically wide audience, you are at a great risk of attracting a large amount of fans that will provide you with likes, but no page engagement. This practice also opens up your page to spammers, which further complicates things.

images-2In recent years, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (and to a lesser extent, LinkedIn) have been cracking down on these fake accounts. It is impossible to cull mass amounts of fake accounts at once; page owners have to manually remove fake accounts one by one, which provides more hours of work for page managers.

Fake accounts will continue to persist as long as they can continue to sell the false promise of page traffic and manufactured fame. As a business owner just getting their start into the social media world, it is in your best interest to grow your page organically through your own local network. Use your employees (if you have any) to spread the word about your business as well. Create engaging content that will get your fans excited about your services and remind them of the value you can provide them. Avoid unnecessary posts and a “water hose” style of posting a constant stream of content, as it alienates and annoys your fans.

images-1Engage your fans with content as well: post testimonials, pictures of your customers if they allow it, and really try to reinforce a sense of community on your social media pages. This will give your fans a chance to be a mini celebrity and will help drive engagement. It will also help remind your fans of the real purpose behind social media: to connect people. As a business owner, your customers are your greatest asset, so why not include and interact with them on a more personal level?

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