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Have you heard of Virtual Bagel? Their Facebook page has over 4,000 likes.
They use the page to promote their brilliant business model 'we send you bagels via the
Internet -- just download and enjoy.'
It sounds like a joke, and it is, sort of. This page was set up by BBC technology correspondent
Rory Cellan-Jones in 2012.
He wanted to find out what is the worth of a like on a Facebook page, so he bought some
likes for Virtual Bagel. Now there are two ways to buy 'likes', the legitimate way and
the illegitimate way.
The illegitimate way is to go to a website like purchase some likes. You
can get 1000 for $70.
Sites like these use clickfarms in developing countries like India, the Philippines, Nepal,
Sri Lanka, Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Here employees are routinely paid just 1 dollar per thousand clicks of the like button.
So Facebook explicitly forbids buying likes this way.
Instead they offer the 'legitimate' way to pay for likes by advertising your page. Prominently
displayed is a link to "Get more likes" with the promise: "Connect with more of the people
who matter to you."
And this is how Virtual Bagel got its 4000 likes. Rory Cellan-Jones paid 100 dollars
to Facebook and the likes rolled in. He targeted his ad to the UK and the United States, but
also to countries like Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines. Now where do you think Virtual
Bagel was most popular? I'll give you a hint, it wasn't the US or the UK. But within a day
he had over 1600 likes mostly from developing countries.
Now what was more problematic was the people who followed Virtual Bagel looked suspicious.
For example there was one Cairo-based follower whose name was Ahmed Ronaldo.
His profile consisted almost exclusively of pictures of Cristiano Ronaldo and he liked
3,000 pages.
Cellan-Jones also observed that his new throng of fans was particularly disengaged, just
as you'd imagine those from a click-farm would be. But he hadn't hired a click-farm, he had
paid for Facebook ads.
This story was reported in July 2012. In August, Facebook reported it had identified and deleted
83 million fake accounts (that was 9% of the total at the time). This resulted in noticeable
drops for popular singers and celebrities.
So did they delete all of the fake likes? Nope, not even close. I know because most
of the likes on my Facebook page are not genuine.
In May 2012, I received a number of emails from Facebook offering me $50 worth of free
promotion of my page, which at the time had only 2,000 likes.
My YouTube channel had twenty times that following so I thought surely this free 'paid' promotion
could help me reach more of the people who mattered to me. And immediately I could see
results. Within just a few days my likes had tripled, and they kept on growing, thousands
per day.
And after a few months I had about 70,000 Facebook likes, which matched my YouTube subscribers
at the time. Now what was weird was my posts on Facebook didn't seem to be getting any
more engagement than when I had 2,000. If anything, they were getting less engagement.
I didn't understand why at the time, but I have since realized it's because most of those
likes I was gaining through Facebook ads were not from people who were genuinely interested
in Veritasium. How do I know? Well because fake likes behave very differently from real
Have a look at this graph of the engagement of my Facebook followers. Here I'm plotting
countries as bubbles, so this is Canada and the size represents the number of likes I've
received from that country. So this is the United States, it's a nice big bubble. Now
I'm ranking these countries on the horizontal axis based on what percentage of those likes
have engaged with my page this month. So as you can see roughly 30% Canadians and Americans
have engaged with my page, but they're not as active as the Germans where over 40% of
my likes have engaged, and they are not as active as the Austrians a small but passionate
group of Veritasium fans at nearly 60%
These are all of the other Western countries. So you can see that it's common for between
25% and 35% of my page likes to engage with my page every month.
Now here is Egypt, where less than 1% of my likes have engaged with my page. Now this
is India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
That's a big followings, but no engagement. Together all of these countries make up 80,000
likes, that's roughly 75% of the total likes I had before the last video. And these are
the profiles that followed me when I used Facebook advertising. And they are worse than
useless. Here's why:
When you make a post, Facebook distributes it to a small fraction of the people who like
your page just to gauge their reaction. If they engage with it by liking, commenting,
and sharing then Facebook distributes the post to more of your likes and even their
friends. Now if you somehow accumulate fake likes,
Facebook's initial distribution goes out to fewer real fans, and therefore it receives
less engagement, and so consequently you reach a smaller number of people. That's how a rising
number of fans can result in a drop in engagement.
And from this Facebook makes money twice over -- once to help you acquire new fans, and
then again when you try to reach them. I mean your organic reach may be so restricted by
the lack of engagement, that your only option is to pay to promote the post.
What's worse, there is no way to delete fake likes in bulk -- all you can do is target
posts around them.
And I should re-iterate I never bought fake likes. I used Facebook's legitimate advertising,
but the results are as if I had paid for fake likes from a clickfarm.
Now you might think the solution to all this is just to exclude countries with click-farms
from your ad campaigns. But unfortunately the problem goes much deeper.
Meet Virtual Cat, a virtual pet like none other.
Its page is committed to supplying only the worst, most annoying drivel you can imagine.
Only an idiot would like this page. And that's not just my opinion, that's actually what
it says in the page description.
And I should know because I wrote it. I created this page yesterday and I then paid $10 to
advertise the page through Facebook targeted only to cat-lovers in the United States, Canada,
Australia and the UK. Now I expected that because I had excluded all of the big click-farm
countries and because the page is so terrible that I basically wouldn't get any likes. But
within 20 minutes I had blown through my whole budget and I got 39 likes. So who are these
people liking a blank page and costing me 25 cents a piece?
All of the profiles were all from the places I had targeted, mostly the US, but there was
something strange about them. All of these people liked a LOT of things, like hundreds
and thousands things.
And a lot of the things they liked were odd too. Like in one account this person liked
T-mobile, AT&T and Verizon. They liked Jeep and Lexus and Mercedes and Volvo and Volkswagon.
They like everything. Other accounts I saw, they liked kitchen scrubbers and they liked
mouthwash. Who reports that on their Facebook page? It just baffles me.
So the real mystery to me is why someone, somewhere would click on ads they didn't care
about without making money from them. I mean I don't think these likes came from bots - they
are too easy to identify and eliminate. And I also don't think for a second Facebook would
pay click-farms to click on those ads to generate revenue for them, so it really seems like
a mystery.
And then, in this article I found what I think is the most reasonable hypothesis.
Click-farms click the ads for free. In order to avoid detection by Facebook's fraud algorithms,
they like pages other than the ones they've been paid for to seem more genuine. I mean
you can imagine 1000 likes on a particular page coming from one geographic area in a
short period of time would seem suspicious. But buried in a torrent of other 'like' activity?
They would be impossible to identify.
So workers at these click-farms will literally click anything. I mean where do you think
Facebook's Security page is most popular? Dhaka, Bangladesh. What about Google? Dhaka.
What about soccer star David Beckham? It's actually Cairo, but you take my point.
So wherever you're targeting, advertising your page on Facebook is a waste of money.
I wish Facebook would remove the fake likes from my page and all the others. But that
would mean admitting that they have generated significant ad revenue from clicks that weren't
genuine, which then suppressed the reach of pages who had low engagement, forcing those
pages to pay again to reach inauthentic fans. So the truth is Facebook benefits by maintaining
this status quo because the reality is nobody likes this many things.