Next time you check out the popular videos on YouTube, should you be wondering if they are *really* popular... or if someone has paid money to artificially boost their apparent number of views?
I've previously talked about the shady underground industry which generates fake Facebook fans for well-known brands and celebrities.
But it's not just limited to Facebook fan pages and boosting Likes for a status update. Similar services also exist which claim to find you thousands of new Twitter followers or bump up the apparent number of people who have watched a company's latest video.
What all these services have in common is they are utterly bogus. There's little benefit in having a hundreds of thousands of fans for your Facebook page, if that audience doesn't actually engage with your brand. And that's because, in nearly all cases, the fans, likes or views are utterly bogus - and generated by automated bots, click farms, or by secretly embedding tiny 1px by 1px versions of a video into a webpage.
Despite that, many companies have (perhaps unwittingly) paid good money in the mistaken belief that they're helping to grow their social media presence.
I can easily imagine that a marketing team, under intense pressure from pointy-headed-bosses, might willingly turn to a social media agency who promise the “secret sauce” for social media engagement without asking enough questions about exactly *how* they will generate legions of new fans for a product, or views for the latest expensive video.
Or maybe some staff do know what's really going on, but don't care enough to speak out.
Regardless of who knows what, it's clear that the public are being duped about the popularity of some brands and might make poorly-considered decisions as a result.
I was pleased to read on Google's blog that it is taking greater steps to check whether views are authentic or not, and decrease the view count for videos if they are believed to be fraudulent.
Websites like Fiverr reveal hundreds of individuals who claim they can give your YouTube video thousands of new views, while charging you a pittance.
While other websites like YTView have been created with the sole aim of manipulating the popularity of social media accounts - whether it be video views, Instagram followers, Facebook Likes or YouTube comments.
YTView claims to have served up over 850 million video views for its customers to date.
Here's what Google has to say in its blog post:
When some bad actors try to game the system by artificially inflating view counts, they’re not just misleading fans about the popularity of a video, they’re undermining one of YouTube’s most important and unique qualities.
As part of our long-standing effort to keep YouTube authentic and full of meaningful interactions, we’ve begun periodically auditing the views a video has received. While in the past we would scan views for spam immediately after they occurred, starting today we will periodically validate the video’s view count, removing fraudulent views as new evidence comes to light. We don’t expect this approach to affect more than a minuscule fraction of videos on YouTube, but we believe it’s crucial to improving the accuracy of view counts and maintaining the trust of our fans and creators.
Google advises companies to be very careful when working with third-party marketing firms because "unfortunately some of them will sell you fake views."
Sometimes it might be better to just tell your boss that there's no guarantee that any video will be a huge "viral" hit, rather than try to keep them happy by buying some fake views as a short-cut to perceived success.