5 September 2012

Fake Facebook Profiles: Facebook phoneys muddy the maths

Fake Facebook Profiles

Fake Facebook Profiles

Is Facebook really good value? That’s a question many folk have been asking lately but not just the investors who’ve seen the value of their shares plunge post-flotation perhaps it has something to do with all of the fake Facebook profiles.

Businesses continue to invest in advertising on Facebook, both to increase their web traffic and to generate ‘likes’ for their products. This ad revenue is the lifeblood of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire.

However, a new investigation by the BBC has revealed the dubious origins of many fake Facebook profiles. It suggests the cyber community may be more rife with fakers, bots and scammers than ever we feared. Not to mention the criminal ‘underworld’ Facebook network set up which include celebrities, footballers and even cartoon characters!

To test his suspicions, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones invented a pretend (and deliberately useless) business idea. The product? ‘Virtual Bagels’ delivered direct to your computer. Better for the arteries than the tastebuds. We’re sure you’ll agree.

As permitted by the system, he targeted his admittedly small marketing budget towards users in the US, UK, Russia, India, Egypt and the Far East.

After the first day of his spurious advert going ‘live’, some 1,600 ‘likes’ had come flooding in. Despite the concept being about as much use as, well, a virtual fireguard.

At this point, two worrying trends emerged. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of ‘likes’ originated from Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines, whereas hardly any came from the comparatively cash-rich markets of the US and UK.

Secondly, when the reporter probed the profiles of those Facebookers who had ‘liked’ Virtual Bagels, several proved, shall we say, questionable. One gentleman, apparently hailing from Cairo, had ‘liked’ more than 3,000 retailers around the world. An unlikely number of affiliations for even the most rampant consumer.

At this stage Cellan-Jones narrowed down his experiment, aiming his next investment purely at UK and US users. Overnight, his click-through rate (the proportion of people who click on an advert when they see it displayed) fell from just over 1/200 to a shade over 1/2,000.

Although hardly scientific, the results suggest there are certain individuals, bots or professional marketing agencies who create profiles solely to ‘like’ the brands which advertise on Facebook. Their motivation for the fake Facebook profiles remain unclear.

The experiment seems to indicate that a ‘like’ might not be the genuine endorsement of a product it initially appears to be. Facebook, for its part, denies it has a significant problem with fake Facebook profiles. Facebook says it works hard to discourage them at all times.

The timing of these insights is unfortunate. Given Facebook’s arrival on the stock market with a valuation of $100bn based on expectations that ad revenue would continue to grow.

And it calls into question the merit of the UK government spending our hard-earned cash on advertising via the website. Its recent splurges include £100,000 on The GREAT campaign to promote our reputation abroad. Maybe they should have bought some virtual bagels instead…