Chances are you’ve already seen the video Facebook Fraud, produced by science video blog Veritasium. In the video, Derek Muller reveals some pretty interesting findings, and makes some bold allegations both about widespread fraud perpetrated by click farms, as well as Facebook’s vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Following is a brief synopsis of the video, as well as an overview of the current landscape when it comes to Facebook advertising.
The Situation: Facebook Appears to Be Allowing Likes from Click Farms
Let’s backtrack a bit. There are two ways to quickly increase the number of people who like your page: Buy likes through click farms, or invest in Facebook ads targeting people who may be interested in your business.
Paying for fake likes is against Facebook’s policy, leaving paid ads as the only viable option for paid audience growth of business pages.
When Veritasium decided to invest in Facebook ads in 2012, their numbers quickly grew from around 2000 to over 80,000. While this may seem great on the surface, the company found that reach and engagement didn’t increase at a corresponding rate; in fact, if anything, engagement levels fell.
The question arose: Why would thousands of people who obviously weren’t interested in or engaged with what they had to say like their page in the first place?
Upon further investigation, one of the biggest surprises lay in where the likes originated and how engaged fans in these various countries were.
The graph below represents Veritasium’s fan base and engagement levels. The bubbles represent fans in different countries; for instance, the big bubble that’s around the 30% mark represents the engagement level of US-based fans. Most western countries fell somewhere around the 25-35% engagement range.
But now here’s where everything started to unravel. Muller found a significant number of fans identified as being from countries such as Egypt, India, the Philippines and Pakistan – and these just happen to be countries where most click farms are based.
But while these countries represented a majority of the page’s fan base, engagement rates for these countries were, on average, only around 1% (remember, this is compared to around 30% for fans from western countries).
On a mission to figure out what was happening, Muller created a new page that no one in their right mind would follow – Virtual Cat. The description of this page read: “A virtual pet like no other. Here we’ll post only the worst, most annoying drivel you can imagine. Only an idiot would like this page.”
Since it appeared that the suspicious likes he had acquired for his Veritasium page largely originated from non-western countries, he decided to target his Virtual Cat ads to Canadian, American, British and Australian users. The theory was that this would eliminate any ‘fake’ or suspicious likes that would originate from countries where click farms are often based.
He quickly accumulated likes, despite his targeting limitations. But surprisingly, the behavior of these new fans was suspiciously similar to those he acquired for his Veritasium page, despite these new fans being from non-click farm countries.
He then decided to investigate further, looking at the profiles of these new fans, most of whom were based in the US. What he found was surprising: The majority of his new fans liked a lot of things…hundreds or even thousands of pages. And given that the average Facebook user likes around 40 pages, warning bells went off.
How could this be? How could you pay for legitimate advertising, and yet still end up with fans that quite obviously weren’t real? Who behave in the same way as fake fans gained from click farms?
According to Derek Muller’s theory, link farms are clearly located everywhere – not just in non-western countries – and they are clicking on random Facebook ads (and liking random pages) to avoid detection.
After all, if click farms set up thousands of fake profiles, all of which were liking the same pages, Facebook would quickly catch on. However, set up thousands of fake profiles and have them like some of the same pages, as well as other random pages, and they’d be more likely to fly beneath the radar.
What’s the Problem With Fake Likes?
You may be wondering what the big deal is…so what if some of your likes are fake? At the very least, having larger numbers means increased social proof, right?
The problem lies in how Facebook determines who they’ll show your posts to. When you post an update to your page, Facebook broadcasts your post to a small ‘test’ group of fans, to see how popular it will be. If enough of them interact with your post, they’ll send it out to more of your fans. If very few people engage with your post, however, Facebook assumes it’s not worth showing to the rest of your fans, and it essentially goes into hibernation.
So, if a majority of your fans are fake, this means they aren’t interacting with any of your posts. This means you’ll receive overall lower engagement rates, and less of your real fans will end up seeing your posts.
Is Facebook Benefiting From This?
According to Muller, Facebook is benefiting from this scenario on two levels: First, they receive revenue when marketers pay for Facebook ads to acquire ‘legitimate’ likes. And second, they benefit when marketers are forced to pay to boost or promote their post (as only a fraction of their fans are seeing their posts due to overall low engagement numbers).
And according to a sales deck that Facebook sent out to its partners, organic post reach is only expected to decline over time. They write, “We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.”
Translation: Page owners are going to need to pay increasingly more to reach the fans who already like their page.
So, while Facebook isn’t directly responsible for these fake likes, they also aren’t doing anything to delete these likes from pages.
I know there is a lot of controversy about this video. Criticisms include the small sample size, the poor targeting used, and the fact this experiment was carried out back in 2012. In any case, it does give us reason to pause and carefully consider our current strategies when it comes to using Facebook advertising.
Before you lose faith in Facebook all together, be sure to check out my article, “How to Maximize ROI on Your Facebook and Twitter Campaigns,” which covers ways to use Facebook and grow your audience without using paid advertising.
What are your thoughts? Do you think Facebook is complicit in this deception? Should they be doing more to combat the negative impact of fake likes? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.