The deceit appears to be "strikingly prevalent" at video sites, thanks to Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube.
A substantial portion of online traffic may be an illusion, calling into question the underpinnings of the Internet's advertising economy.
A study by spyware researcher Ben Edelman finds that spyware-driven traffic inflation is common, particularly at video sites. What's more, Edelman said that spyware also is being used to manipulate the popularity of YouTube videos.
The study identifies Bolt.com, GrindTV.com, Broadcaster.com, Away.com, RooTV.com, and Diet.com as the beneficiaries of spyware-driven traffic.
Edelman said he could have written up at least 20 examples if he'd had the time.
Spyware is typically seen as a way to steal personal information. But it also can be used to defraud advertisers and investors by inflating Web site visitor counts.
Traffic fraud is similar to click fraud, but it's not scrutinized as closely. Nonetheless, visitor traffic has a direct bearing on the perceived success of Web sites, which in turn affects their ability to sell advertising and to secure funding.
Traffic fraud appears to be "strikingly prevalent" at video sites. The reason? "Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube inspired others hoping to receive even a fraction of YouTube's valuation," Edelman said in his report. "So far, no competitor has gained much traction. But the expectation that video sites grow virally creates an incentive to try to jump-start traffic by any means possible -- even spyware-originating traffic."
Using spyware to generate fake traffic "is widespread in certain sectors," Edelman said in a phone interview. "Video sites do seem to be particularly cutthroat. They're in an escalation game. When one site turns to these techniques, others sites are tempted to follow, lest they be called less popular."
While Edelman was unable to offer an estimate of the percent of fake Internet traffic overall, he pointed out that last year Nielsen//NetRatings reduced the traffic count at Entrepreneur.com by 65% after discovering significant forced site visits. Among the sites identified in his report, Edelman said he had found traffic spikes of 5 to 10 times that he believed represented fake visitor surges.
"This isn't the whole Web," Edelman explained. "On the other hand, this is representative of the instability of traffic measurement systems."
Spyware also can be used to fake popularity or votes. Edelman claimed this YouTube video is far less popular than it purports to be because the YouTube ranking system was manipulated by spyware. He said he planned to detail the fraud in a future online post.
"The core issue here is it was very, very easy for the spyware to give this a fake rating," Edelman said.
YouTube appears to be aware that users and spyware are attempting to game the system. "We take this seriously and have developed safeguards to secure the statistics on YouTube," said a YouTube spokesperson in an e-mailed statement.
"We updated video rating so that it now is very difficult to fake a high rating or force someone else to get a low rating. When it comes to our attention that someone has rigged their numbers to gain placement on the top pages, we remove the video or channel from public view. At YouTube we are continuously updating the product to provide accurate view, rating, and subscription numbers."
"Our measurement systems are inaccurate for the amount of trust we'd like to put into them," Edelman said. "So that's the puzzle: How do you build an advertising economy when the number can't be trusted?"
One way, Edelman said, would be for Internet metrics companies to improve their measurement techniques. That remains an ongoing project for companies such as comScore, Hitwise, and Nielsen//NetRatings, not to mention companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.
Another way, Edelman noted in his report, is a new, automated system to monitor spyware-infected PCs to see which sites receive fake visits. He said he plans to describe this patent-pending method in a future post.
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