I was analyzing the AdSense ad revenue for on one of my “throw away sites” the other day and felt that things were under performing but couldn’t identify why. (A throw away site is one that is used to test various marketing tactics and strategies. It’s not a big deal if we push the limits too far and the site gets banned, it’s a throw away.)
This particular site was developed in WordPress, although what I am going to share could be any platform and even custom development.
The attraction of using a content management system for your website is that everything is already there for you and you don’t need to program it from scratch. I use several different CMS systems myself depending on the client and their needs.
The other attractions is that most of these systems also have a robust 3rd party development community that build extensions or plugins that add just about any functionality to your site you could ever want. Even better, many of these extensions are “FREE”.
What’s not to love?
Well the first, and certainly not the only thing is that word, “free”.
Why would anyone give away free software? I won’t go into the whole freemium business model here but there are very sound business approaches to giving something away as part of your marketing strategy. There is also a direct revenue model that cab be tied to free add-on’s. The obvious one being embedded ads which we see in mobile apps. Another one is a bit more deceptive. It’s called click theft.
What is click theft?
As I examined the lack of performance in the Google AdSense account I started poking around the source code of a few plugins I used to help manage ads. Sure enough I started finding conditional statements that would siphon off clicks from my ads.
Basically it works like this. The click hacker wants to go undetected so it’s smart not to be too greedy and take all the ad revenue from your site at once. Instead what they do is take every 3rd or 4th click (something like that). The rest of the time your ads and reporting run as normal. Taking every 4th ad click doesn’t seem like a lot of money but they aren’t taking traffic just from your site. Remember the click thief has embedded this little function in a plugin that does something really cool for your site like social sharing, text formatting, user engagement or perhaps even in the template itself. So the free plugin is installed across 10’s or 100’s of thousands of sites and runs the same scam on each for the life of the site.
This isn’t just a Google AdSense scam, I have seen this used in affiliate networks like Viglink.
Viglink is a service that will automatically swap outbound content links with an affiliate id. So, if you link to a book on Amazon within you article, Viglink will automatically monetize that for you. Pretty cool service however the scam is a little different. In this case the link thief is just looking for outbound links to vendors in the Viglink network and tagging on their own Viglink account code to it. They can even scan a page for keywords in your content and create a new affiliate link for those words which are tied to their affiliate code.
So which scripts on your site are hijacking your links? You would be surprise.
I have countless examples but I can only share one with you here (sorry).
Shareaholic is a very popular social sharing plugin for WordPress with over 340,ooo installs. This is just one example of how this is system is used. Shareaholic scammed users of it’s plugin with a Viglink affiliate approach. They have since been called out on it and are trying to dance around the issues. Their approach has been to hide in plain site offering monetization services however not transparent on how the site owner gets paid, and how much. Remember, some of these bad actors need to comply with terms and services agreements for their distribution outlets like WordPress.org which is how they gain their audience. They will often walk right up to the line of compliance and no further. In fact they go out of their way to omit key information and hide critical information deep within their product.
Some even set an expiration timer on settings they don’t want you to turn off. For example, they will openly ask if you want to gift a few clicks with them as a thank you for the great free plugin. Naturally the default is set to ‘on’. Once you turn it off the timer begins to count down. After a few days or weeks it resets itself back on. They will also reset gifting click option back on by default whenever there is an upgrade forcing you to recheck your settings.
Contact me if you would like to know more and to have me review your site.