The Dark Side of Search – hijacking and click fraud

The benefits of paid search have been extolled throughout the online industry. But with reports of brand hijacking and click fraud on the rise, is the search model really all it’s cracked up to be? Adam Woods reports

Paid search has entwined itself so thoroughly in the travel sector’s marketing habits in the past few years that it is now said to account for up to two thirds of the sector’s online advertising.

The mechanism is simple, the results are trackable and, have you noticed, everyone’s stopped quoting the aphorism about not knowing which half of their advertising is working?

But while well-run search engine optimisation campaigns do indeed deliver regular truck-loads of traffic to travel websites, the search model is sufficiently mysterious to make some specialists wonder whether all is quite as it seems. If reports of escalating click fraud and so-called brand hijacking are any guide, search appears to be revealing its dark side.

According to a report released last year by specialist intellectual property law firm HallMark IP, almost 60% of UK travel companies have uncovered instances of brand hijacking, where third parties bid against competitors’ brand names as search keywords.

The figure represented a 245% increase on 2005, and what’s more, some of the culprits weren’t even trying very hard to hide – more than a quarter of those surveyed admitted they had done the same to their rivals’ brands.

“Rule number one in online marketing is to protect your own name,” says Dave Simmons, chief executive of travel search engine Global Travel Market. “The amount of people who don’t bid on their own company name is astonishing. They bid on ‘flights to Australia’, but they don’t think to bid on their own brand.”

In the travel sector, the issue is complicated by the fact that brand hijacking comes in several shades of grey. Frequently, those bidding on other companies’ brands as keywords are not competitors trying to steal traffic, or even search engine affiliates trying to railroad consumers through their own sites for profit, but resellers dealing legitimately in other brands’ inventory. As a result, the attitude of the brands themselves can vary.

Nick Jones, managing director of search marketing firm I-Spy, says: “Some merchants rely on affiliates to bid on their brand and sell products, whereas others want to keep their full brand equity.”

There are good reasons to do the latter. Apart from the fact that the cost of search rises when more organisations are bidding on a term, travel companies that allow their brand to be shared, legitimately or otherwise, will not see the full power of the medium.

“The return on investment you get on brand terms when you clean it up is fantastic,” says Annelie Ritari, travel vertical strategist at search engine optimisation specialist Bigmouthmedia.

As the clear market leader, Google has the most to lose from search scandals, and accordingly, outside the US and Canada, it acts quickly to remove trademarked material from the text of ads and to prevent particular companies from bidding on those terms, at the copyright owner’s request. Yahoo! and MSN have historically been slower to act, though both have recently extended the protection they offer to brand owners.

The result of the search engines’ diligence is that clued up inventory owners are reaping a rising proportion of their rightful traffic. According to Hitwise, 92% of searches for British Airways were going straight to the airline’s site last month, compared to 76% a year ago. Ryanair’s share of its own brand traffic rose from 89% to 91% in the same period, while EasyJet’s increased from 90% to 92%.

Harder to quantify – but potentially a more costly search loophole – is click fraud. This is where organised groups or individuals click repeatedly on ads to drive up a rival’s pay-per-click bill or to boost a website’s ad revenue.

Google recently put a figure of 10% on the total number of invalid clicks on its network. This is the proportion Google detects with its own systems, and where there is any suggestion of impropriety, advertisers aren’t billed.

Cases the company doesn’t proactively catch but which are reported by angry advertisers – reactive investigations – account for a tiny proportion of searches, Google claims. “While those get the majority of the coverage, they actually account for less than 0.02% of all clicks,” says a Google spokesman.

In theory, then, the problem belongs to the search engines and they appear to have it under control. However, while the ability of search engines to detect click fraud on their own sites is impressive, the common belief is the vast majority of nefarious clicks come through the millions of partner sites that host Google, Yahoo! or MSN ads.

“The vast majority of click fraud in travel comes from people who go into the content network,” says Lewis Lenssen, managing director of specialist travel consultancy Netizen Digital. “As soon as you are outside the environment of a search engine’s website, its ability to detect it is greatly reduced.”

To combat the problem, travel firms should keep a close eye on their sites and ensure they have basic analytics in place to detect unusual patterns of traffic. Unfortunately, many do not.

“There is still an enormous number of companies who rely on the search engines to give them information on how much traffic has been generated,” says Simmons. “If they had better tracking facilities themselves, instances of click fraud would diminish quickly.”

Where click fraud is concerned, the travel industry can be thankful it is not a prime target. Typically, click fraud gangs target sectors with far higher CPC rates than those found in travel, such as the financial or online gambling industries, whose margins allow them to pay up to 10 times as much for their clicks.

Nonetheless, there is a possibility that click fraud is far more common than anyone can ever prove – indeed, some click fraud theorists suggest that up to 50% of all clicks are fraudulent.

However, what can be proven is the ROI companies derive from search, which is why other voices suggest advertisers, having done what they can, should try to put click fraud out of their minds.

“If companies get sufficient ROI on search, it is worth it,” says Lenssen. “There’s a certain natural wastage in every medium – if you see somebody pulling down a poster, you don’t cancel your poster campaign.”

Case study

The problem with the search infrastructure, as clever as it is, is that it is occasionally too clever for its own good. Given that the onus is on the copyright owner to report instances of brand hijacking, Google’s regional targeting – which is intended to allow advertisers to target more relevantly by only showing their ads in certain areas of the country – creates an intriguing opportunity for hijackers.

“What the smart affiliates now do is identify where the company themselves and their agency are based and bid furiously on the other areas, on the assumption that nobody will ever see it,” says Netizen Digital’s Lenssen.

An unnamed hotel client of Netizen fell prey to just such a trick last year, when an affiliate site employed the popular scam of bidding on the brand name and routing traffic to the hotel company’s site via its own page, gaining an affiliate fee in the process.

“We are in London, the client is in Manchester and they were using an SEO company in Brighton, so as long as [the hijacker] didn’t target those three areas, they thought they probably wouldn’t be spotted,” says Lenssen.

The appearance on the hotelier’s site of a disproportionate amount of traffic from particular regions alerted Netizen to the con and the affiliate was swiftly barred by Google. As with most click fraud, says Lenssen, basic systems should easily detect such practices.

“If your campaign is being run properly, these instances stand out immediately,” he says.

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