Namah Chawla

Bad bots: a rising threat to the digital presence of brands

It is 2023, but the digital marketing sector is still plagued by ad fraud - what can marketers do to safeguard their interests?

About half of the Internet’s traffic consists of bots, of which 65% are bad bots. Elon Musk almost deciding to drop out of the $44 billion Twitter deal due to bot accounts, shows how deep-rooted the issue is. As per recent reports, bad bots can cost brands much more than just money. 

But what exactly are these bots? Simply put, bots are programs automated to carry out actions on websites, apps or APIs, just like a human would, but much faster. Not all bots have negative intent and some may actually be helpful. Search engine bots like Googlebot that ‘crawl’ the web to find content to improve search engine results, is an example of a good bot. 

However, bots can also act maliciously, exploiting websites and customers, whilst hiding amongst real users. Bad bots are used by fraudsters to commit ad fraud by misusing and attacking websites, APIs and mobile apps.

They not only impact a website’s traffic, but also inflate data that is extremely crucial for marketers to make the right decisions. Bad bots have the ability to scrape websites and steal confidential data that users fill into forms and comments, including personal contact information like email addresses, which can breach the privacy policies of the brand attacked.

Amit Dhawan, partner & CEO, Art-E Mediatech (a digital marketing agency), equates bots with steroids, as they provide the pump a brand may need at the beginning, but takes a toll later. 

Amit Dhawan
Amit Dhawan

Stating an example, Dhawan says, “A consumer electronics brand’s website mandate was recently given to a new tech agency, whose KRA was to improve the bounce rate of the website. Surprisingly, within a month, the website’s bounce rate reduced from 65% to a mere 2%.”

It was later observed that the traffic on the website had also shot up by over 150% from unknown sources. Upon deep audit, Dhawan’s team realised that these weren’t real users, but bots, with predefined engagement metrics, that were bringing down the engagement rate. 

And while the bounce rate reduced and traffic jumped, sale numbers remained constant and didn’t increase.

Amit Relan, CEO & co-founder, mFilterIt (an ad fraud detection and elimination company), informs that bad bot traffic has a devastating impact on a brand’s growth journey. “The first hit is on the ad spends of the marketers. The bots are deployed by the fraudsters to either steal or drain the ad budgets of the brand. And, some of the sophisticated bots can also be programmed to fill a lead or make a purchase.”

Amit Relan
Amit Relan

Bad bots have the ability to corrupt the flow of organic traffic to a website. They can reduce the app availability and business resiliency. Web portals that are spammed with bots, may become unavailable for real-time customer inquiries, leading to disturbed user experience. This severely hurts a brand’s reputation.

Impact on marketing analytics

In today’s digital-driven world, to come up with effective marketing strategies, marketers need access to authentic data and metrics. Bot activities on web portals can lead to skewed marketing analytics.  

Vineet Malhotra, CTO, Hashtag Orange (a digital marketing agency), says that harmful bots are capable of engaging with special ads that are targeted to attract a specific audience base. “Almost 68% of businesses suffer financially due to the manipulation of data clicks executed by bad bots on their official websites. E-commerce and travel brands are a few categories that are severely affected by harmful bots.” 

Vineet Malhotra
Vineet Malhotra

Knowing the success of a campaign, what works for the brand and what doesn’t, also becomes a challenge, in case a brand’s online presence is under a bot attack.

Elaborating on the purpose of bot attacks, Dhawan of Art-E Mediatech says that the reasons could be two-fold. “One when the agency/marketer is trying to cheat the brand by showing false numbers; and two when the brand itself asks for it to inflate the numbers for business and PR purposes. It unfortunately is the dark reality that is hard to escape.”

Keeping bad bots in check

As marketers strive towards data and performance-driven strategies, it becomes important to understand whether a brand’s traffic represents genuine users or bots. Especially because of the kind of impact that bad bots can have on marketing analytics. Bad bots hamper the growth of a business, and active measures must be taken to eliminate them. 

As per Relan of mFilterIt, brands must partner with an ad traffic validation outfit that is capable of a full-funnel analysis and provides real-time analysis. “This will help brands to curb the impact of sophisticated bots and other evolving fraud threats. It will also help the advertisers to get the transparency and confidence to advertise fearlessly.”

Regular audits of any suspicious or malicious activities on digital properties like unauthorised checkout/login attempts and general bad bot traffic, can help brands to stay alert from a potential bot attack. 

Hashtag Orange’s Malhotra suggests, “Brands can also incorporate additional practices like blocking unidentified or untrustworthy IP addresses, deleting spam from web pages, blocking known bots, filtration of traffic intended towards the specific web pages, etc., to reduce the effects of bad bots on their online presence.”

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