In this week’s episode of In-Ear Insights, John and Chris talk about a subversive Google Ads scam that may be putting fake leads into your lead generation efforts. Learn what we’ve uncovered and what you can do about fighting Google Ads fraud.
John details more of his findings:
Kind of an odd title I know, but it’s what one of our clients was asking me about after they were unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation of why they were getting bogus leads in from their Google Ads.
From the view of the advertiser it’s perplexing. You are running paid ads and you get in some leads, but when you follow up on them they either don’t exist, or the person you email has no idea what you’re talking about.
Why is Krystal of Krystal’s Kreations filling out a form like she’s interested in buying something, but when called (I guess that would actually be Kalling?) she has no idea what this is all about?
So it’s a spammy lead but the question is “Why?” Why would someone take the time fill out a form that’s got a captcha on it with a stolen name and email?
For it to make sense, like everything else on the web, we have to find and follow the money.
The problem here is that the Google Ads are not just running on the search result pages (specifically the Search Engine Results Pages, or SERP to those in the know) but also on the Google Advertising Network. Running across the network can get you millions more impressions than SERPs but the problem is that you’re outside of the walled garden, and there’s some sketchy neighborhoods out there.
Here’s how the scam works:
A website is set up and runs Google AdSense. AdSense will dynamically place ads on this website (which makes it part of the Google Ad network.) The ads on the site are then clicked by either bots (automated traffic) or turks (low cost human traffic to defeat anti-bot measures (can you imagine doing Captchas all day?)
After clicking through on the ad the bot or turk fills out the contact form, and this where the spammy leads come from. Here’s the rub, the site hosting AdSense gets paid for the ad impression and because there’s a conversion its reputation improves, eventually being rewarded with more organic traffic. In other words, there’s a financial incentive to drive traffic and clicks.
I’ve also heard some discussion about bots visiting our site to get cookied for retargeting. (In the Google world they call it remarketing, which is the right thing to do, military terms for marketing are tired and dehumanizing.) Retargeted audiences are usually far better traffic than the general public (more qualified because they’ve already had some interaction with you) but if this is true, in this case it’s being used against you. The theory is that by visiting our site first then the retargeted ads will show up for them to click through. While the logic seems valid, I have no evidence that this “pre-visit to trigger retarget” actually happens.
Of course this is not just a hustle to drain money from Google, when the click happens that means the advertiser has to pay, ultimately they are the one getting bilked and Google does not have a lot of incentive to be proactive stopping this. The tools are there, as an advertiser you can exclude sites in the content network that you don’t want your ads to run on, and you can request a refund on spammy clicks. We recommend that you begin your campaigns only on SERP pages and stay away from the ad network not just because it’s lower quality but also because of that you can burn cash at a rate far greater than staying within the Google walled garden.
That covers the marketing angle and “The Case of The Worthless Mystery Leads” but unfortunately it’s not just limited to advertising. Facebook has been taking a PR beating for years about their algorithm getting readers hooked, and fake news spreading like wildfire but that’s only half of what’s going on. Why would someone spend so much time writing fake news? The media will call out Russian propaganda but now you know the rest of the story – fake news generates massive traffic to outbound sites.
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What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.
Christopher Penn 0:02
This is In-Ear Insights, the Trust Insights podcast.
In this week’s in your insights, Katie is off this week.
So we have John here as our special guest.
For marketing over coffee listeners, this will seem like a lot of deja vu this week want to talk about some stuff that we’ve been seeing, we’ve been running a lot of ads, probably the last 60 days or so, from things like the data science 101 course, things like that, the book launch, etc.
and John, you had noticed in some of the ads that you were running, that there was an awful lot of like bogus, and spammy form fills it, but not like automated it was clearly a human had to have to beat in the captions and stuff.
So what’s going on? Why are we Why are we suddenly seeing is rash of really crappy, you know, people just filling in random stuff on forums.
John Wall 0:52
Yeah, it’s interesting that this is, you know, right at the core of a bunch of stuff that has happened in the past couple of years.
And it really even goes around the whole fake news thing, which is insane.
So we were running these ads, and then we flipped them onto the display network.
And so people get that straight.
You know, you have your just stuff that’s in network.
So when somebody searches for a term on the site in Google, you know, your ad comes up over there, and that’s fine.
And what had happened to us that we see with a lot of people is you run those ads, and you you run out of inventory to buy, you know, you say I’m willing to spend 100 bucks a month on these four terms, something really focused, and you only spend, like 20 bucks are 15 bucks, and you just can’t get any more out of it.
And so eventually, you hit a point where Google keeps bugging you, or if your bigger account manager bugs you and says, Hey, you know, turn on the ad network.
So now, your ads are actually showing up on other websites.
You know, they’re not just for Google ads, they’re not just showing up on Google, they’re showing up on all these different, you know, trail, head magazine, calm and faster skier calm or whatever stuff that’s related, but it shows up all over the place.
So we flipped the switch on that.
And we started to see all these spammy form fills come in.
And it was really bizarre in that, you can kind of tell the bot ones where, you know, you get 45 form fills, and three seconds, you know, at two in the morning, or whatever.
But these were individual people that were actually there, there was some work being done to to fill these out.
And it took us, it took some digging to figure out what the heck The story is.
But it’s still again, as I mentioned, to start with, it goes back to fake news.
The whole idea with this is there’s sweatshops creating fake accounts and fake form fills for you filling out the forms.
And then ultimately, that gets them into the retargeting loop.
So that now when they go to, you know, super spammy site hosting Google ads.com, and they, you know, over on their site, visit that site, your ad shows up again, over on that content site.
And so they’re running ad words over there.
So they actually get paid on that ad showing up on that other site.
So they’ve created this whole network.
And so it’s weird.
So that the spammer goes to a, your site fills out a form? Or, or do they just go to your site in general, just get just the cookie, they need to just go to get cookied? And that I’m not too clear about I don’t know if they go and while they’re there, they fill out the form or if and this part of it may be automated, they may have this account, run and hit hundreds of sites, and then just see what ads come back.
It’s, it’s all pretty grand sketchy, but I okay,
Christopher Penn 3:20
so that maybe a bot does that with just the first
John Wall 3:22
Christopher Penn 3:24
And then it goes, and so then the spammer goes to their spammy website that has the adsense ads on and they click on that ad to go back to your site to fill out the form.
John Wall 3:34
Cuz the form fill
Christopher Penn 3:36
So that can be hard.
So the spammy site gets the credit for the conversion, and it gets paid.
John Wall 3:43
Yeah, yeah, they get it, because that’s ultimately this is all part of these fake news things to where, you know, they’re just putting all kinds of random crap on Facebook and all this stuff, because it generates traffic.
Christopher Penn 3:55
so yeah, because CPA ads wouldn’t fire until they you fill it out for me took the action, but they pay better.
John Wall 4:02
Well, and that’s and I don’t know, to me, you know, yeah, getting the acquisition would be bigger would pay them better on their side, too.
So it’s got to be that and the width.
And so how I had dug into this is that the the form fills are real people, like their real email addresses of people who have done stuff.
But then when I would try and follow up with these people, they were like, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
You know, I’ve never been to your website.
I haven’t done anything.
So that so the spammers are hijacking people’s identities.
There’s identity theft in there, too.
Because these are real, they somehow go out and get, you know, email addresses that are active.
And so that’s the thing you know, so if we had on our form filled that we were doing one of those automated pings to see if the email was live.
The emails are real.
Huh? So just,
Christopher Penn 4:52
this is a, it’s like turning into an FBI investigation.
So they go after they go to the site, they fill out the form And then we have we get a junk lead.
So that so really the way to shut that down then if you want to keep running display ads would be just to stop that, that junk traffic that first bought touch because if you can block that, then there’s no cookie for them to fire on.
And their efforts are wasted.
We saw in February and I would encourage everybody go, if you’re running ads, go to your Google Analytics account and look for like big one or two day spikes in traffic.
But look specifically for you’ll have to go to behavior site content, and look for traffic that goes to a page that has no title assuming all of your pages, I just like to have titles, one of the identifiers of the spammy traffic because we noticed a huge traffic spike in February for like two days.
But it was all two pages didn’t exist, it had no title, they were essentially spamming the site with with with crap referral traffic, but to a URL that wasn’t there that had no title.
And so we were able to put a filter in saying, you know, just deny traffic to a page that has no title.
And we were able to shut it down somewhat that way.
John Wall 6:02
Yeah, that’s the other one with that is to manage it on the ad network side, you know, you can go in with your ads and be like, okay, I don’t want to show up on these sites here.
And that one’s kind of tough, because, you know, Google has no real incentive to encourage you to do that, right? Because you’re going to be lowering your impressions and it’s, your quality will go up, but the amount you’re going to spend per month is going to go down.
And so yeah, I never went down that rabbit hole that far.
It was just like, forget it, let’s just turn off the ad network.
And we can, you know, find more organic stuff to do or other channels.
Christopher Penn 6:35
But well, you know, I guess then the thing that would make sense to do there would be if you know what your keyword is, let’s say a data science course or whatever, go into a tool like h refs or something and look for the top ranking pages in there.
And then use those as your placements in Google ads, say I only want appear on kt nuggets.com? What and if they’re in the network that will show up if they’re, I would say, I don’t know what site you’re talking about.
But then you could, I guess hand curate a list of these are the places where we know, these are legit sites.
So we don’t mind them getting paid if our ad show there.
John Wall 7:07
Yeah, that’s a great idea I never thought of but that’s really do it from a whitelisting perspective, rather than blacklisting, you know, rather trying to fight back the whole world.
And then that would make it very much like the organic stuff.
Like you’re just kind of slowly adding stuff.
Because Because you could tear those into you could do even one a week to see which ones are good and not good.
And, and hopefully with those, those are all quality sites.
So they’ll just be ones where you don’t get anything.
You don’t have to shut them off.
But you know, you’re not going to worry as opposed to the Yeah, I guess it’s much easier to go look in a new little corner, as opposed to kind of like turning on the floodgates and having to, you know, beat back the the rotten stuff.
Christopher Penn 7:45
I mean, I run into this with my younger kids.
Kindle web browser, they’re like, you know, do you want to blacklist some sites? Do your whitelist some sites? How do you want to do it? It’s so much easier to say these are the sites you can go to? How do I
you anticipate every possible points on the internet? It’s like now Now you could go
to the BBC Disney.
five other sites? And that’s it.
John Wall 8:08
And or even just to put the burden back on them, make them come back to you and be like, Hey, can I visit you know, Minecraft calm or whatever? And Yep, yeah, you if you leave any door open, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before somebody comes to steal stuff from you.
Christopher Penn 8:21
So you have the place actually, that wouldn’t really work.
Well, the placements, the whitelisting placements to because you then know, like, if you go into your Google Analytics, and you look at your referral traffic, and you see what sites are already sending you traffic, you can see a gal show some more, let’s just adds to the sites that are already sending us traffic, because we know then that their audience, you know, is in right enough for us that they’re already visiting us.
And so we can say, Okay, yeah, that’s those buttons, you throw a few bucks there, wait, because if they’re running adsense ads on their site, then you sending ad traffic to that site, will Google sending checks will pay them so it actually kind of helps support them to.
John Wall 8:59
Yeah, and I really like that because, you know, a lot of your traffic could be coming from a specific branch of the site where somebody’s like looking for one piece of content.
Whereas if you ran the ads, now, you’d have run of site, they’d be all over the place.
So hopefully, you’d be gone, you know, further with that, and then be able to get more stuff to show up.
So mentioning href do that would be another thing to take those sites that you’ve got throw those in H refs and find out who are the competitors and similar sites, so maybe you could find some new places to work with or run with there too.
Christopher Penn 9:28
Okay, so you like go to HS put like kt nuggets calm and would spit out like like toward data.
science.com would be a competitor site.
But I think I think the two towards data science is slightly larger.
But you could then say, Okay, I want to show your kind of hunting the competitors of the sites that are already offering you traffic.
John Wall 9:46
Yeah, yeah, just find similar stuff.
Again, you probably are going to want to branch out as fast as you can.
And as quickly as you can cover as much ground.
It’d be interesting to see how much they really compete to you know, you may find that certain sites are well you You know, this one’s data science.
But this community over here is data science and our studio.
And that’s why we’re getting everybody because they’re really our studio people, not just generic data science, you know, folks, right, if
Christopher Penn 10:11
that makes sense.
Actually, if you did the whitelist in place, it’d be a lot more work for you or your ad agency.
But if you did whitelisting placements, you could then tag each of the placements, you know, each of the sites separately and say, I want to see just traffic from towards data science, or just, you know, towards data science ads and see if that ad traffic outperforms, say kt nuggets, then you can say, Okay, I’m gonna move one my ad budget over to the site that’s working even better.
John Wall 10:34
Now, how do you think it seems like when we see this is like, B2C companies just reach this point where they just don’t care, they just want the pure impressions.
And so they open it up to the network, and just, you know, the massive traffic and spam is just a cost of getting in there is that really all that goes into? That’s just they are all about the tonnage.
Christopher Penn 10:53
I think it’s probably tiny Joe, I would also guess it is about the cookies, you know, just get as many cookies on to as many devices as possible, which is a little trickier now, cuz obviously this, you know, there’s more restrictions on what you can what you can track Safari, Firefox, if you other browsers will block third party cookies, so you can make these more challenging, but yeah, I think for B2C, it’s also just a question of manpower.
It’s like, do we want to try and anticipate the 500,000 websites are our consumers probably visit all the time, or just want to say, like, we don’t want to be on, you know, hate speech sites and stuff, and they apply some basic blacklists, and even then, like, we’ve got plenty of examples of companies like, Oh, I didn’t know our ad was running on
John Wall 11:33
Well, that’s the whole brand protection, you know, vertical, there’s like a whole cottage industry of that, make sure you’re staying off the places that you, you know, shouldn’t be and causing other problems.
So for you content wise, yeah, that’s a whole nother bag of spiders to open up.
Christopher Penn 11:55
Yeah, no, that’s interesting.
Because then it also brings it like for nonprofits, like if you have a nonprofit that has like a big you know, publication site gets a millions of visitors and so they could make some some bucks on that if they did some partnering with, you know, some of the bigger companies like hey, you know, we can you agree to do a placement a whitelist placement in your in your ads manager for our publication, they could indirectly earn some money that way without the company having to directly to shovel money to the nonprofit because they would get something exchange there, they get the traffic?
John Wall 12:27
And they don’t have to manage it to like you build it once.
And then that’s it, it just runs over there, they don’t have to, because that’s just doing ongoing maintenance on this stuff can just will just kill you.
And that you kind of answered my own question with that all the way in is to get for somebody to manage that.
Christopher Penn 12:42
What about the leads, the lead date itself, all that crap data that is now you know, flooding your marketing automation software? Yeah, I,
John Wall 12:52
you know, we’re at a point where that we’re not as worried about scale.
I mean, you know, those guys just get tagged as unqualified and get flushed.
And then they, you know, with the source code of the ad campaign, we can pull them at any time.
So you pretty much just have to come up with a procedure of like, Okay, once a year, every other year, you know, if they’ve come in, and there’s never been any traffic or any activity, we just flush and delete those.
But yeah, that’s a good a good question.
Especially the weird one with that is, you know, with so many of the leads that come in like that, usually it’s like, Okay, well, you know, this lead got this one white paper, but it’s still a legitimate lead, like the email is still good.
Whereas with these, we were pretty sure that the email addresses are garbage, that it’s been identity theft.
So yeah, maybe we need to do be more aggressive with deleting and flushing those.
Yeah, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing where that will get to be a bigger I, we will have to do this at one point.
You know, we’re able to not have to deal with it today.
Christopher Penn 13:53
I tried something on my newsletter, because I was running into a lot of spam submissions, just general spam submissions, and a lot of them in Cyrillic.
But instead of I thought reCAPTCHA was actually giving my site a really hard time it was it was running into you know, people were submitting and not getting the data through so I ended up putting just a basic reasoning question on my site with it was a radio button so it it’s a what part of your body do you use headphones with no eyes, elbow, you know, nose, ears.
And it’s really easy.
Now when I go in each week to get stuff for my newsletter.
I say okay, delete everybody who didn’t say ears on that and for whatever reason, because it’s a radio button.
The spam bots haven’t figured out how to answer that question yet.
And if the humans are doing it the human you know, I, I guess the mechanical Turks haven’t gotten to my site yet because I don’t run paid ads.
But I’ve not seen any, you know, really questionable submissions that way that I get tons every week, probably five or 600 form fills that are all Cyrillic right now.
You know somebody from one of the confederation of Independent States, whatever they call themselves, but they’re all clearly still 100% badrum.
Like there’s no human copying and pasting.
John Wall 15:10
Yeah, well, NC because that’s a great thing.
It’s if they solve the captcha problem that just rolls across every site that they come across, but they actually have to have a living breathing human answer your one specific question, because it’s not an automation that anyone else is using.
So that totally works.
What is the churn rate on those how many you end up flushing them a month?
Christopher Penn 15:30
Uh, every week, I would say I probably at about 100 new humans to my list.
And every week, I probably end up flush about 1500 spam submissions.
John Wall 15:42
I now say I even thought it would be inverted.
I thought it was just a subset of you.
But basically, you have 10.
Yeah, what you’re at over 6000 a month to mind.
So you’re really doing data mining on your own leads?
Christopher Penn 15:56
But it’s it’s at least as fast.
Didn’t didn’t answer yours, delete.
But one of the things that I have to figure out now, too, is if I can conditionally fire Tag Manager, because I don’t want their spam submissions being flagged as goal conversions.
Otherwise, I’m going to screw up my attribution.
So my next step is to figure out okay, how can I all to the thank you page to have my forum software basically inject something saying like valid submission, if it passes the capture valid submission? And that way, I can say, okay, you know, Tag Manager only fire the conversion pixel, if that slug is in the URL, the thank you URL?
John Wall 16:36
And then what’s the driving money behind that to filling out that many form fills? Is it just are they plugging, you know, putting their own URL in the comments box, and they’re trying to get some PageRank out of that, or what else is going on?
Christopher Penn 16:48
Some of that a lot of its code injection, a lot of us someone is trying to inject hostile cracks.
John Wall 16:54
Okay, that makes it so they’re basically just trying to steal your whole server.
And then they can zactly Bitcoin or, you know, do some power there button that build the button and bigger.
Christopher Penn 17:04
The other thing I’ve noticed is that like, so I use CloudFlare, in front of my site.
And you know, this is, you know, we don’t have a commercial relationship with CloudFlare.
I don’t think we do.
But I use the free version on my site.
And the amount of garbage traffic it rejects is, is equally astonishing in terms of just the sheer swamp of crap.
So I was I was in my closet, I check on my site about once a week just to see what’s going on with it and see if there’s anything unusual.
And looking here in my, in my security stuff.
So I have had rejected approximately 30% of my traffic CloudFlare intercepts as being crap and saying, okay, we’re, you know, this is this is clearly not good traffic, which is just an astonishing amount of, of junk.
Right? And so
John Wall 17:53
that gets ditched at CloudFlare.
So that doesn’t even hit WP Engine at all, that doesn’t even show up as a touch over there.
That’s, it’s just amazing.
You I kind of always thought it’s cloud cloud flares, being more about caching solution, you know, just like with saving you the overhead, but it’s become more of a security appliance than a front door filter.
Christopher Penn 18:13
So it’s really tricky when you think about it, because if you’re a small business that isn’t necessarily technically savvy, or even if you’re a large business isn’t necessarily technically savvy, and you don’t have these multiple layers of defenses, to protect your analytics to protect your your data and stuff, there’s a good chance that your website is probably not doing what it’s supposed to be doing what you want to be doing.
And possibly have things like you know, security holes and stuff opening up.
And so, definitely, you know that the key takeaway there is, if you don’t know what’s in your Mar tech stack, you should spend some time to audit it.
And if you need help with that, let us know.
But even more important, know what kinds of threats you’re trying to prevent.
Because if you don’t know that something’s a threat, you may be looking at your your marketing automation software saying, Wow, we’d like 3004 pills this month, you know, where and then sales is like Yeah, but where’s all the leads? Like, you sent us like two leads this month? And because you’ve got 2900 pieces of junk in your marketing automation system, do
John Wall 19:09
ya know that it’s all garbage? That’s just yet and fortunately for us, we do it does still hit a human point, you know, at least we don’t have some kind of ecommerce solution or whatever where it’s doing even other crazy stuff.
We finally do have to like actually look at the thing.
You know, the ones that after you’ve scraped out all that garbage there, it still touches a human to, to get into but yeah, it’s just amazing how much you have to kind of fight and run with it.
I had a similar thing to with one of the podcasts sites of getting like 6000 hits a month, you know, I was having to pay like 150 bucks a month for this traffic.
And I still never got to the bottom of it.
It was some kind of weird podcasting bot.
It was weird that it was hitting the RSS feed, but it wasn’t.
I just never could get to the bottom and I couldn’t block the server.
I ended up just pulling the plug on the URL, and it’s basically dead for web traffic.
I still use it for email, but the web traffic is dead.
It’ll be interesting.
I’ll have to fire it back up and see now that it’s been dead for a month or two with, you know, has the bot stop doing it? Or what’s going on with it? But yeah, no, it’s just all of these things are, it’s a horrible Pandora’s box, you know, you kind of have no idea what’s going on, you open it up, and then you just start playing the thread and you keep pulling in, it chews up cycles and time, and there’s definitely no money at the end of it.
But hopefully, you can at least stop the bleeding.
Christopher Penn 20:26
Yeah, no kidding.
So there’s four layers of security and that you probably should have in your digital marketing.
One is at the DNS level service, like CloudFlare Akamai is another well known company in the space that blocks threats at the network level before they even reach your site itself.
So that’s, that’s layer one.
layer two, is your website itself, wherever it’s hosted, we use a company called WP Engine, again, any good hosting company is going to provide you with some basic protection and you know, some other optimizations, layer three is the site software itself.
So if you’re using WordPress, whatever, use the appropriate security plugins, to keep your site safe and clean.
Layer four, after that is, you know, using captures and stuff in the content of the site using whatever protections you have to offer there.
And then layer actually, technically, layer five is the human, you’re looking at the marketing automation software going, you know what, we’re getting a lot of garbage here, you know what’s going on.
And if you don’t have those five layers integrated, there’s a good chance that you’re letting stuff through in one of those layers that you probably don’t want your system.
So definitely make sure you have those five layers configured, if you’re not sure.
This is a great time to go down to it.
And you know, with a pizza and some beers and say, so what are we doing to protect all of our marketing technology, and if they don’t know, or, if you’re in a company where you know, marketing technology is kind of an end run around, it may be the time, just come
Unknown Speaker 21:48
out of the shadows.
Christopher Penn 21:50
Bring out the beer and pizza, and get everybody on the same page, because it’s just astonishing Oh, where it’s may 10 2021, as we’re recording this, and we’re looking at a possible spike of about 30 ish percent of gasoline prices because colonial pipeline got hacked, and 45% of the gasoline that goes to the eastern coast of the United States is currently sitting in Texas because none of the computers that control the pipeline are working.
So, you know, cybersecurity as much as it’s not an area of focus for marketers, somebody on your team or somebody in your company had better at least know what’s what in terms of what you’ve got in place.
Because by the time something bad happens, you won’t be able to close the door once the horse is out of the barns really got to be proactive about security.
John Wall 22:41
Yeah, no, that’s great advice.
Just stay in front of it.
And you know, schedule your regular reviews.
That’s the biggest thing and even is just bear with it.
Make sure you get something on the calendar because yeah, yeah.
minimize the damage.
Christopher Penn 22:52
And have somebody like you looking at the stuff going, what’s going on, be able to raise their hand and say like, what’s going on? Because there are some companies where the silos and the hierarchy are so rigid that you wouldn’t feel comfortable going, guys, something’s up.
John Wall 23:08
Yeah, isn’t it? That’s a whole nother thing of Yeah, there’s plenty of orgs where people are just like, you know, the numbers keep going up.
Let’s just not touch that or tell anyone.
Yeah, that’s exactly, exactly that.
Get ready to visit LinkedIn when that resume.
Christopher Penn 23:23
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