Your social media campaign not so well "liked?" Facebook friend-count a little sparse? Don't despair. If you've got the money, somebody's got the time to click, like and Friend away.
Today, offshore click farms are popping up on every digital corner, ready to follow you, like you, link to you or provide any other form of cyber stimulation—for a small fee. Unethical, deceiving, though not illegal, this new form of analytic prostitution is tempting organizations and individuals alike. All for the promise of perceived relevance and ultimately, the Big SEO.
"Friends" with Benefits
The Associated Press (AP) recently shed new light on the click farm phenomenon, an industry already valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. According to an article by AP's Silicon Valley Reporter Martha Mendoza, international click farms have become the new, hot business in the South Asian city of Dhaka, Bangladesh; as well as Cairo, Egypt, and social media-loving Indonesia.
You want friends? They've got friends, at prices as low as one half-cent each, $9 for 1,000; 1 million for $600, depending on your vendor. Popularity no longer comes with a high price; it's now extremely affordable to anyone who wants to sink so low.
The range of takers might surprise you.
Celebrities and sports stars pump up perceived popularity. Wanna-be Justin Biebers buy YouTube video views in order to look like the "next big thing." Job seekers are padding their connections along with their resumes.
But, it's not just about individuals seeking their fifteen minutes in the spotlight. Companies use these farms to pump up their perceived images, betting firmly on the herd mentality to increase followers, likes, links and click throughs. In fact, until a savvy attorney general questioned the expense, even the U.S. State Department reportedly purchased quite a few new friends, many of whom were traced back to Cairo.
"If a company creates a social media marketing campaign and gets a million friends in a week, it looks like a success and will attract additional followers. So initially, paid clicks are used to create credibility and interest up front," explained Scott Richards, vice president of Emerging Technology for Epsilon, a leading digital marketing agency that does not employ paid click tactics. "Eventually, this influences the organic search algorithms used by Google and Facebook, which pushes these companies artificially higher in search results."
Earn Money Clicking from Home!
Of course, if a U.S. company with limited distribution adds a million likes overnight, that's suspect. If they all come from Cairo, eyebrows raise even more.
That's why U.S. and European entrepreneurs are getting into the "I'll pretend to like you if you pay me" game with a less detectible, work-from-home model. Instead of funneling the masses into a warehouse facility to click, click, click their ways through the workday, these SEO accelerators give individuals the opportunity to do the same from the comfort of their homes or closest Wi-Fi hotspot—at a rate of one cent to four cents per transaction. These virtual pals have to allow the company to "interact" with their social media pages and to keep their newfound income-generating friends for 12 months. Premature un-Friending comes with pay forfeiture and the scourge of being banned from ever working with these online organizations again. And who wants that black mark on his or her resume?
Admittedly, these social media-serving, "earn money from home" web sites are pretty darned clever, from their stealth operating models to their positioning and disclaimers. For example, the web sites claim that they don't actually sell likes. No, no, no. Instead they are simply "incentivized brokerage companies" that introduce people to advertisers those individuals might like.
So, it's not prostitution; it's a hook up, with cash prizes. I see the difference, now.
Against Policy, But Not Against the Law
So, why isn't this practice illegal? Part of it is semantics. The clicks aren't 'fake' because real people are doing them. They're paid, yes. But, one could argue that companies that offer a $5.00 percent off coupon for Friending them on Facebook are also compensating their new pals.
That said, social sites are definitely not fans of this practice, with user agreements that underscore the point. Typically, these services suspend or shut down the accounts of users who artificially inflate their numbers by buying links, friends and followers, when they can I.D. the offenders.
"People come to Google for useful information. So, we work hard to encourage an ecosystem of successful publishers and high-quality content. We provide extensive tools and tips to help webmasters optimize their sites, said Jason Freidenfelds, a PR manager for Google. "We also continually improve our algorithms that detect and discourage spam."
That "spam" includes companies and individuals who game the system.
Let's Get Real
But why should a company go legit when its competition is faking it? Our social media experts agree that, in the world of online marketing, it really isn't all about volume.
"Social media is not about numbers and followers but about engagement and connectivity—creating real relationships," explained Kevin O'Keefe of LexBlog, which provides custom blog and social media solutions for attorneys. "If I refer to a company on my blog and they start following me on Twitter, and eventually we start doing business together, that's real. If I blog on a topic and create conversations, that builds relationships. Taking the cheap way out and buying clicks is like tying a pork chop around your kid's neck to make him more popular at the dog park. It's just an illusion."
That engagement factor, not volume, is also the secret sauce of marketing campaigns.
"When you create an online campaign, the goal is to get your target market to engage with your brand—take some additional action, whether that's sign up for email, join a community, share an experience or try your product. A campaign with fewer likes and more real engagement is ultimately going to bring a greater return," Richards of Epsilon said.
But, can a company actually achieve a high SEO quickly without creating the illusion of interest?
"Search engine optimization is based on proper indexing and the popularity of the content, and there are legitimate things you can do to make that happen, like writing good title tags and providing targeted, quality content," O'Keefe said. "Ultimately, if you focus on meeting the needs of the community you want to attract and learn the fundamentals of SEO, you're going to see the search results and the returns you want. But, it's not going to happen overnight."
Spotting the Fakers (And Making Sure You're Not Among Them)
Of course, you and your company would never pay for likes or trump up your follower figures. That's not how you roll. What if I told you that one of your vendors may be paying the click farms on your behalf?
"There are digital marketing agencies and other firms that do buy likes and followers as a technique for attracting more followers, most likely, without their clients' knowledge," Richards said. "This is not to say that everyone is doing it. At Epsilon, we do not. But, it's not an uncommon practice."
How can you know for sure? Well, ask. And if you want to do a little self-sleuthing, Google and Facebook both make it easy to access analytics on where your followers and friends are located.
"What every company really needs is a comprehensive analytics team who looks at all campaigns, from all vendors and all social marketing efforts as a whole," Richards says. "They can spot any anomalies, and they can also make sure you get the most value out of the data you're collecting through your marketing."
What the Future Holds
So, what does all of this mean to the future of social media? Is regulation around the corner?
Our experts say, "no." Or, more significantly, "no need."
"I trust that Google and Facebook will take care of the problem on their own, because there's a lot of advertising revenue at stake. We talk about the click farms being an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but Google and Facebook are multi-billion dollar companies," O'Keefe of LexBlog said. "I am certain they have a lot of smart people at work right now working out the right algorithms to take out the gamers. When it gets too hard to make money, the click farms will fade away."
Or become "socially" unacceptable, at last.