Facebook has been criticised in the past for not tackling the problem of click farms generating ‘fake likes’, and new research suggests the problem continues for the social network- even when ads are paid for via official Facebook channels.
The February 2014 research, conducted by Derek Muller from science blog Veritasium, suggests the social network profits off fake likes that dilute the real audience for Facebook pages.
Muller’s research, shown in the video below, continues the BBC’s ‘virtual bagel company’ experiment from 2012, which uncovered fake likes from paid Facebook ads.
These ads came from the official Facebook ads services, as opposed to the shady practice of buying ‘likes’ directly from click farms.
This new research suggests that fake likes are still present within the social network’s ad schemes, despite Facebook’s assertions that it has tackled the problem. Muller cites evidence from the high amount of traffic his and other pages receive from dubious profiles in nation’s where click farms are abundant, such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Inflating numbers but diluting quality
It’s no secret that Facebook page owners can buy fake likes from click farms, that generate no value to brands beyond inflating a page’s numbers to make it seem more popular (attracting legitimate fans because they think it’s popular).
The practice of click farms is banned by Facebook—but Muller believes that these Facebook fakers are clicking on legitimate ads and liking pages for businesses that don’t buy fake likes.
In the video, Muller suggests that click farms are disguising their paid activity by randomly clicking dozens of other pages they are not paid to click (so Facebook thinks they are genuine people).
The upshot is paid Facebook ads are still sent out to loads of fake likers, which in turn drives down engagement and return on investment and drives up prices for the advertiser.
To test this theory, Muller created a fake Facebook page, which had never posted before and suggested that “only an idiot would like this page” in its description.
He excluded countries with known click farm activity from his targeting, but still gained fans who liked hundreds of other pages and had seemingly conflicting interests.
Image source: Veritasium
Because pages like this have a low reach on their posts (because no one is engaging with them), they may even pay Facebook again to reach more people.
Facebook shows page updates to a small portion of its fans to see which posts stick (more likes and comments means more people see the post). If Facebook pages are attracting fake likes, that’s less real eyeballs on updates. If click farm accounts are clicking on advertisements, that’s money down the drain.
“Wherever you’re targeting, advertising your page on Facebook is a waste of money,” Muller says in the video.”
The chart below shows the level of engagement of each cluster of fans from different regions. The blue clusters with low engagement come from areas where click farms are common,such as India or Bangladesh.
Image source: Veritasium
The new findings come despite the fact that Facebook deleted over 83 million fake accounts last year, of which 14.3 million were spam or undesirable accounts which violated Facebook’s terms of service.
There have been numerous other studies that have suggested fake likes continue to plague Facebook’s legitimate ad business, including research from science marketing firm comprendia.
The August 2012 study suggested that up to 40% likes for a life science company Invitrogen came from fake users. The study also found that 54% of likes come from India, Mexico, Indonesia, and Portugal, while these countries make up only about 15% of Facebook users.
It even created a graph documenting the geographic breakdown (see below).
How Facebook ads work
Facebook now generates around 90% of its income from paid Facebook ads. These work by letting organisations or people promote their pages with advertising tools called “Suggested Posts” or “Suggested Pages.”
For small sums of money, companies with a few hundred fans can dramatically increase the reach of their Facebook material so it gets seen by thousands of new users. Prices for these campaigns can cost as little as $50.
Facebook has responded to the video with this statement:
“Fake likes don’t help us. For the last two years, we have focused on proving that our ads drive business results and we have even updated our ads to focus more on driving business objectives.
“Those kinds of real-world results would not be possible with fake likes. In addition, we are continually improving the systems we have to monitor and remove fake likes from the system.
“Just to be clear, he created a low quality page about something a lot of people like – cats. He spent $10 and got 150 people who liked cats to like the page.
“They may also like a lot of other pages which does not mean that they are not real people – lots of real people like lots of things.”