Overture Click Fraud

Overture’s “Click Protection”

Overture’s “click protection” is reported by Overture to analyze each click through; it is designed to detect click fraud based on the following factors:

– The user’s IP address – The network range of the IP address
– The user’s cookies
– The user’s browser information
– The search term requested by the user
– The time of the click
– The rank of the advertiser’s listing
– The bid of the advertiser’s listing
– The time of the search
– The time of the click

Over 50 factors are considered when determining whether or not a click is “genuine”.

The Problem With Overture PPC

Overture operates one of the most widely distributed pay-per-click search engines on the Internet. Overture’s only real competition is Google Adwords; Overture – formerly known as Goto – is older and more well-known.

The problem of Overture click fraud has been the topic of hundreds of discussions on Internet message boards, and by any estimate has cost advertisers millions of dollars. The term “click fraud”, however, is misleading. I may go to Overture and search for “web hosting” (Advertiser’s Max Bid: $12.99) and click on the top listing. Did I commit a criminal act of fraud? No. To be sure, the advertiser would prefer that potential customers click on the listing. I am not a potential customer – I own Quality Web Hosting, so I’m in fact a competitor. But I did not commit a criminal act. A more accurate term would be “nuisance clicks”.

Who Is Clicking On Who?

I’ve consulted with several clients who use have used Overture to advertise their products and/or services. To date, every one of these clients has complained of suspected click fraud. So who is doing the clicking?

Competitors. It is often another site competing for the same keywords. You may think this is rare, but say you have a bid of $3 per click on a specific keyword. Now the site in the #2 position was previously bidding $2 a click; he now adjusts his maximum bid to $2.99 – this ensures that you will indeed pay the full $3 per click, while he pays nothing more than one cent over what the guy in the #3 position is paying. This is seen by many as an “attack”. One client has asked me to click on a competitor’s listing “once a day”.

Some competitors who are not even using pay-per-click may be clicking through a competitor’s listing if for no other reason than to cost the competitor money – I personally would not mind if every other hosting company on the Internet wasted their money on PPC and went out of business.

Internet Marketing Professionals. When you’re an internet marketing professional and you’re looking for a job, where better to find clients with deep pockets? The very fact that you are paying $2 or $3 per click proves to these guys that you are willing to pay big bucks for advertising. In managing some campaigns where our company info was listed on the whois, we often received calls that began with, “Hi. I saw you are using Overture and paying $3 per click. We can drive more traffic for less…”

On occasion, I would ask the salesperson if he clicked through from Overture. Annoyed, I would then ask that he send me a check for the amount the click incurred.

Overture Partners. It used to be that Overture required a search engine to have one million searches per month in order to be eligible for partnership. This is no small feat – most Internet users refuse to search anywhere except a major search engine; Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, ETC. In order to reach the magic number, many of the smaller operations have sent out mass emails to their user base requesting that faithful users perform searches and click through – whether you are legitimately interested or not. There’s no doubt the webmasters themselves performed hundreds if not tens of thousands of searches and click-throughs.

Overture’s Search-in-a-Box. Perhaps the biggest offender is Overture’s pure genius – a search box that any webmaster can install on his or her site. Often seen on free servers such as Tripod, these little boxes gave many webmasters dreams of riches. At one time, every click-through generated by a search-in-a-box was rewarded with three cents. Now, get all your schoolmates together, your family and your friends, and urge them to use the box a couple of times a day. Ten thousand searches and you got $300; one million searches, and you’ve got $30,000. I vaguely recall a young father quitting his job and proclaiming he was going to be rich in a year’s time – Overture’s search in a box held the key to his future. As a friend, I used the box almost daily; sometimes several times a day. He eventually went back to work – landscaping, I think. He was the loser in that deal; but so were the advertisers.

My guess is that the search in a box click-throughs are almost entirely incentivized clicks – that is to say, the user clicked through because he or she had a vested interest in the 3 cent bounty, or was a friend of a person with a vested interest in the 3 cent bounty. (It has currently dropped to 2 cents.) One member of my forum has posted: “Is anyone willing to help me earn money?? … Log on to (my site) and use the search box frequently, I get paid per click.”

As you can guess, the traffic generated by Overture’s Search-in-a-Box is not high quality; this is incentivized click-throughs for the most part.

Overture Stock – The Interactive Stock. If I were to own stock in Boeing and wanted that stock to go up in value, how could I help that company create wealth without spending a dime of my own money? Impossible. Same for Pepsi’s Stock, or Ford, or any other stock of which I know. Overture, on the other hand, is the most interactive, and attractive, stock to be had. Overture stock has a cult following. As an Overture stockholder, I told all my friends to buy Overture. I also told my friends when I found a good search term.

“Mesothelioma” is at $35, “online gambling” is at $10.12, “home loan” is at $9.50, “hosting” is at $11.95, “conference calls” is at $11.90, “data recovery” is at $10.48. Get clickin’! – From the Yahoo! Finance Message Board/OVER

If you want to know which search terms are the most expensive, ask a stockholder. It is no secret that the Overture stockholders are an online community unto themselves – when you have thousands or tens of thousands of dollars invested, the responsible thing to do – for your children, and for yourself – is helping the company turn a profit. We are not going to waste our time on search terms bidding at fifty cents or a quarter. We are not going to waste our time clicking through the same search term from the same IP, so we have to know all the high paying search terms, and using broadband is out of the question – Overture stockholders know you can never click though on the same keyword twice in a day; you need to disconnect from your dial-up, and reconnect after manually cleaning out your cookies and history. Overture stockholders often have several dial-up connections available. When I lived in Seattle, I had 4 ISP’s for that reason. Advertisers are paying for traffic, so let’s do them and ourselves a favor and click through. Overture stock went from $11.61 on September 21 of 2001 up to $40.80 on January 4th of 2002. It did so because it is an interactive stock.

You may be wondering, “With all these nuisance clicks, what percentage is real?”

Detecting Nuisance Clicks

Overture has refunded money to all of my clients who’ve used PPC at one time or another. If you are intending to ask for a refund, you must be prepared with statistics and compelling proof. One way of doing this is to set up a mirror site of your main site; disallow search engine spiders to ensure that you are not getting any search engine traffic mixed in with the pay-per-click traffic. You may now closely monitor each visit, each IP, each IP range, and total unique visits for fraud. If Overture reports 4,000 click-throughs in one day, and your web stats show only 1,000 uniques that day, you may want to see which IP range is responsible for the most page views.

When it comes right down to it, you can never stop or detect all nuisance clicks. An Overture stockholder will never click twice on the same listing, and your competition might just do the same. I just clicked on a listing, costing the advertiser $15, Why? I don’t particularly like that company, and if I’m going to write an article on nuisance clicks I’d better be familiar with the issue from every angle, right?

My first recommendation is: Don’t use PPC. Professional search engine optimization using both on-page elements and an aggressive link acquisition campaign is the better investment.

If you insist on using Overture, I recommend keeping your bids low, and on more specific search terms. Instead of bidding $4 for “search engine optimization”, try “professional search engine optimization” for $1.50; or if you’re based in the Seattle area, try “Seattle search engine optimization” for under a dollar; or “Boston search engine optimization” for 10 cents. The lower your bid is, the less chance there is that you’ll be the target of nuisance clicking.

In the end, if you do use Overture be prepared to pay for nuisance clicking. Think of it as a tax on those people who are too lazy to learn search engine optimization.