The Dark Art of Bots: How to Make $2 Million Online Without a Human Audience

All it takes is a firm grasp of arbitrage economics and a flexible ethical code.
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Sadly, bot traffic is not a bunch of these guys with iPads (Reuters).

Here is the weirdest thing about the modern web: humans are only one constituency, and maybe not the most profitable one.

Consider the case of an anonymous publishing executive who spoke with the media trade magazine, Digiday, about purchasing bulk robot traffic to his former company's website

By robot, I mean software that is designed to simulate a human being browsing the web. Bots, as they are known, are relatively easy to create, and now you can easily purchase their services to build a nice business, if you are willing to bend the rules of digital publishing. 

Arbitrage... Now With More Robots

In this case, the publisher paid $10,000 to $35,000 for the cheapest possible traffic, which companies domiciled outside the United States could provide for about $0.002 per visit. Then, they turned around and sold those visits for between $0.0025 and $0.004 through advertising networks, which act as clearinghouses for bulk advertising buys across the web. 

That's a pretty weird media business model, but it doesn't take a genius to realize this is a good arbitrage opportunity. Even if you only make one-tenth of a penny per visit, it's not that expensive to buy millions of visits, so you can make some serious money.

Let's do the math here. They were getting between 5 and 17.5 million visits per day and selling them for a fraction of a penny more to generate between $12,500 and $70,000 in revenue per day.

If they maxed out every day, buying the most traffic possible and selling it at the highest price, they'd make $2.1 million a month without ever creating anything that a human might want to look at. 

But Isn't This Fraud?

Yes, it is certainly fraud in the colloquial sense and may be fraud in the legal sense, too, as the publishing executive readily admitted. Robots don't buy anything, and showing them ads remains ineffective. 

The providers of the non-human traffic do not acknowledge that they are sending bots to load web pages. They tell the publishers that the traffic will be of "unknown quality." This is the code word. The publishers know that "unknown quality" means "unknown robots" but they sell ads anyway. 

And yet, the bots (at least the cheap ones) leave tell-tale tracks in the analytics software that companies use to track their visitors. 

"You can tell it’s bot traffic just by looking at the analytics. We’d see a traffic spike in our real-time analytics dashboard and then we would see all of our traffic for the day serve in a couple of hours," the publisher told DigiDay. "Or it would all come from users using the same really old version of Internet Explorer. Almost all our users had Flash versions from 2003, according to Google Analytics. That just doesn’t happen with real users."

In other words, detecting the simplest bots probably isn't hard. But ad networks don't really want to know about the makeup of their visitor pool because it might hurt their businesses. Same goes for publishers.

So, strangely, for now, there's a really tidy profit to be made showing web pages to robots.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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