July 25, 2014

The longer one lurks in the Internet underground, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the harsh reality that for nearly every legitimate online business there is a cybercrime-oriented anti-business. Case in point: Today’s post looks at a popular service that helps crooked online marketers exhaust the Google AdWords budgets of their competitors.

Youtube ads from "GoodGoogle" pitching his AdWords click fraud service.

Youtube ads from “GoodGoogle” pitching his AdWords click fraud service.

AdWords is Google’s paid advertising product, displaying ads on the top or the right side of your screen in search results. Advertisers bid on specific keywords, and those who bid the highest will have their ads show up first when Internet users search for those terms. In turn, advertisers pay Google a small amount each time a user clicks on one of their ads.

One of the more well-known forms of online ad fraud (a.k.a. “click fraud“) involves Google AdSense publishers that automate the clicking of ads appearing on their own Web sites in order to inflate ad revenue. But fraudsters also engage in an opposite scam involving AdWords, in which advertisers try to attack competitors by raising their costs or exhausting their ad budgets early in the day.

Enter “GoodGoogle,” the nickname chosen by one of the more established AdWords fraudsters operating on the Russian-language crime forums.  Using a combination of custom software and hands-on customer service, GoodGoogle promises clients the ability to block the appearance of competitors’ ads.

“Are you tired of the competition in Google AdWords that take your first position and quality traffic,?” reads GoodGoogle’s pitch. “I will help you get rid once and for all competitors in Google Adwords.”

The service, which appears to have been in the offering since at least January 2012, provides customers both a la carte and subscription rates. The prices range from $100 to block between three to ten ad units for 24 hours to $80 for 15 to 30 ad units. For a flat fee of $1,000, small businesses can use GoodGoogle’s software and service to sideline a handful of competitors’s ads indefinitely. Fees are paid up-front and in virtual currencies (WebMoney, e.g.), and the seller offers support and a warranty for his work for the first three weeks.

Reached via instant message, GoodGoogle declined to specify how his product works, instead referring me to several forums where I could find dozens of happy customers to vouch for the efficacy of the service.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and at the University California, Berkeley, speculated that GoodGoogle’s service consists of two main components: A private botnet of hacked computers that do the clicking on ads, and advanced software that controls the clicking activity of the botted computers so that it appears to be done organically from search results.

Further, he said, the click fraud bots probably are not used for any other purpose (such as spam or denial-of-service attacks) since doing so would risk landing those bots on lists of Internet addresses that Google and other large Internet companies use to keep track of abuse complaints.

“You’d pretty much have to do this kind of thing as a service, because if you do it just using software alone, you aren’t going to be able to get a wide variety of traffic,” Weaver said. “Otherwise, you’re going to start triggering alarms.”

Amazingly, the individual responsible for this service not only invokes Google’s trademark in his nickname and advertises his wares via instructional videos on Google’s YouTube service, but he also lists several Gmail accounts as points of contact. My guess is it will not be difficult for Google to shutter this operation, and possibly to identity this individual in real life.

72 thoughts on “Service Drains Competitors’ Online Ad Budget

  1. Edward

    My company ran an ad campaign last Sep through Nov and AdWords was a small part of it. The budget for the AdWords portion was $100 a day / $10K total. I sat in on the briefing when the campaign ended. The overall results were what was expected with the exception of AdWords. The entire $10K budget for AdWords was used up however the click through quality was poor. For example the engagement from the landing page was overall excellent in all outlets except for AdWords hits. Over 95% Ad Words hits were quick “one and done”. I wonder if they were actually bot hits?

  2. S scott

    Given the extensive use of small display mobile phones I fail to see how AdWords can make a buck. The serious limitations of the small screen display prohibit advertising generally… Just an unqualified opinion.

    1. Aaron

      I’ve worked for several small businesses that operate on revenues in the 10’s of millions per year that are solely generated from Adwords. The company I currently work has been in business for 10 years and has revenues near 5 million, yet would go out of business in 30 days if they halted their Adwords campaign.

  3. Rider

    Why would Google want to shutter the guy. He generates ton of revenue for them. I gave up on adwords for just this reason. You start to wonder how many of those clicks you paying for are people actually interested in you. I’m convinced most out clicks in the local market down here are all business owners either clicking on links checking the competition or clicking on purpose using up the competitors budget for the day.

    When you start paying attention to the online ad world it’s really dark and crazy and I don’t think it’s as effective as the people who get paid to tell us how great it is keep telling us.

    1. Aaron

      It’s easy to develop this mindset for beginning advertisers, however Adwords is an extremely lucrative, effective advertising method and some businesses rely (or exists solely because of) on it for a large percentage of, it not their entire revenue/profit.

      It is however, very difficult, to jump into a competitive niche as a small advertiser. For the first week all that seems to go on is your competitors clicking to see who the new guy is.

      I manage a site that is just coming out of a 3-month launch on Adwords with a spend of about 25K. The revenue is totally upside down and at this point it’s mind-boggling how our competitors are making any money. It’s really tough to ‘get it’. How are these guys in business and seemingly spending more on advertising than us? It’s a mystery than spans across many different niche markets/products, but seems to affect everyone.

  4. cruelfate

    Regarding the opening sentence of this fine article:

    “The longer one lurks in the Internet underground, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the harsh reality that for nearly every legitimate online business there is a cybercrime-oriented anti-business.”

    I propose that this be known as “Kreb’s Law of the Internet”.

  5. Sawyer

    Hmmm, this story is very interesting, because some Adwords adds and cklick a SO EXPENSIVE …. 🙁

    For example if your competitor have a $ 100 daly budget as Edward from the first post it will be just a matter of 20/30+ clicks just to kick him off from Google for the rest of the day …

  6. Kyle

    you could always just make the bots search for your site in google all the time, but of course, you’d wanna limit the times it does so in short periods of time, or you get blacklisted quickly.

    ads are one thing, sure you get money if bots click on it, but what about the money gained from stolen CCs by increasing your infect rate? more visits does not mean more infections, but it does increase the threshold for which chance of infection happens.

  7. Jeff

    I don’t feel too bad about people losing money that advertise on Google/Youtube. Google has made it to its position buy making stolen content readily available. Youtube takes an artist’s album and makes the whole thing available with ads all over them. Who is the bigger thief?

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