March 16, 2005

Making sure pop-ups are click fraud

Last week I found out that 90% of clicks on pop-up ads are crud accidental. I've been thinking a bit more about this. Specifically, I've been thinking 90% is too low.

Pop-up advertisers have started getting through Firefox's pop-up blocker, which annoys me way more than pop-ups in IE used to. I've only seen a couple, but there will always be an arms race between the people and the advertisers and the pop-up makers can spread new code much faster than we can. So instead of stopping pop-ups at our end, why don't we stop them at the start? Luckily my plan doesn't involve dealing with pop-up advertisers personally, I think talking to a pop-up advertiser would be a deal-breaker for most people.

Here's my lazyweb request: a Firefox extension that works like the standard pop-up blocker, with one difference — it clicks through. I don't mean it clicks through and shows you the ad. Instead it just clicks through the ad and clicks around the site a random number of times (with a random delay, and possibly reporting itself as a weighted random browser), all without displaying the site. On the server side it would look exactly like someone had clicked the ad and was checking out whatever geriatric porn they were advertising, on the browser it would look like there was no pop-up.

Once the plugin got popular enough, the advertisers would find out that people were automatically clicking their ads - costing them money - and would raise holy hell. How could they tell which click-throughs were legit and which were automatic? They couldn't, and they certainly aren't going to pay for pop-ups that cost them money when no one sees them. If the economic incentive is there, they will find a way around pop-up blockers.

The main drawback I see is that while it discourages advertisers from buying them, it also creates an economic environment that encourages site owners to display pop-up ads. Initially, it would probably lead to more pop-ups as site owners encouraged their users to install the pop-up clicker/blocker because they would see more ad revenues from blocked/clicked pop-ups. They could even put more pop-up ads on their site and earn more money without pissing off their users with the pop-up blocker/clicker. Between the time the plugin hits critical mass for users and when the advertisers stop paying for nothing, there will be a lot of pop-ups for people caught in the crossfire. Also if you consider pop-up ads a legitimate business, you might have problems with this.

It would require publicity to work. One or two people using it would just make a couple of sites a little cash. Thousands of people using it would cause the media to publish stories about how pop-up advertisers were paying for nothing. I think the idea of "install this plugin, cost pop-up advertisers money" would be a strong incentive for most people to make the effort to install the plugin.

I've collected some of the problems with block-clicking pop-ups, thanks for taking the time to think about this with me!

Posted by george at March 16, 2005 10:21 AM
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I love it. I'd install it! If I knew how to code better, I'd be all over this.

Posted by: Brian at March 16, 2005 11:25 AM

Sounds an awful lot like one of Paul Graham's ideas for spam. Once you've identified an email as spam, programatically visit it (without showing anything to the user) thus costing the spammer money (through bandwidth).

Posted by: Thomas David Baker at March 16, 2005 05:51 PM

Good post. I hope web browser developers are listening out there.

Posted by: Jenny J. at March 16, 2005 11:20 PM
Making sure pop-ups are click fraud
Excerpt: Making sure pop-ups are click fraud...
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Trackback from: :: Links at March 17, 2005 11:41 AM


Posted by: Eric Anderson at March 17, 2005 11:50 AM

I am privileged to share a state with you, George. You are an evil genius.

Posted by: Phil at March 17, 2005 12:00 PM

Wow, this is the most awesome idea in the fight against pop-ups that I have ever heard.

Posted by: Mike Steinbaugh at March 17, 2005 12:49 PM


So... click around randomly.. hit that executable link, and randomly press okay?

Even if you only 'clicked on links' (and not new buttons), i don't like the idea of blindly following links.

Posted by: gabe at March 17, 2005 12:51 PM
A Firefox extension for making sure pop-ups are click fraud?
Excerpt: George at 90% Crud is evil in a good way. He proposes a Firefox extension that automatically clicks through pop-ups, without actually showing them, to eventually discourage the use of pop-ups: On the server side it would look exactly like
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Trackback from: Jeroen's Repository at March 17, 2005 01:24 PM


Posted by: keith at March 17, 2005 01:28 PM

That *assumes* that all popups are purchased on a per clickthrough basis. I'd be surprised if they are. I imagine they are on a per impression basis.

But I don't sell or buy pop-up advertising so I don't really know for sure...

Posted by: rampy at March 17, 2005 01:29 PM

Admittedly, a Great Idea. But what happens when all those websites with popups that you're visiting aren't there any more due to lack of advertising dollar?

Posted by: Puck at March 17, 2005 01:33 PM

I dunno -- do you really think that a handful of webheads installing a plugin (think a double-digit percentage of Firefox users is possible? I don't) of a minor-league browser (wow! 5%! let's be honest here) is any sort of competition to armies of Indian clickers? I don't, and I don't even see the advertisers running scared from that prospect. SpamAssassin and other Bayesian filters make spam invisible to most of us now -- a FAR higher percentage of impact -- and it hasn't seemed to stop spam.

So, cute idea, but I hope you weren't serious.

Posted by: dan hartung at March 17, 2005 04:02 PM
Reverse Engineering the Pop-Up Problem
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Trackback from: SearchViews at March 17, 2005 04:46 PM

do you really think that a handful of webheads installing a plugin ... of a minor-league browser ... is any sort of competition

Who cares? It'd be even better if the pop-up advertisers just chose not to send popups to Firefox as a way to deal with this minor annoyance.

Posted by: Tom Clancy at March 17, 2005 05:49 PM

most/all pop-ups are bought on a cost per impression basis (CPM). not a cost per click basis. so, your plan wouldn't piss off advertisers. if anything, you'd give them more clicks and their alexa/nielsen netratings would go up, which would help them sell more cpm based advertising.

attacks on sites that serve pop-ups might work. have some kind of reporting tool in the browser that reports back what sites have pop-ups. then, send enough traffic to bring down the server. And/or have some kind of system that warns users going to the site, that there are pop-ups. Alexa actually keeps stats on whether publishers serve pop-ups. Publishers will learn to not serve them.

Of course, browsers would probably not be able to differentiate between spyware generated pop-ups vs site generated ones. So, this system might unduly penalize publishers.

Posted by: peter caputa at March 17, 2005 09:41 PM

Aren't some pop-ups prompts to install spyware and malware?

If I understand things correctly, clicking pop-ups in the proposed blind fashion could lead to some undesirable consequences.

Posted by: The Geoff at March 17, 2005 09:47 PM


Needs a web site to publicize...



Posted by: jj at March 18, 2005 12:07 AM

hm. or maybe someone could just write a firefox extension to block this latest round of pop-ups. let's face it: the arms race will continue, but the pop-up blockers held the ads at bay for at least the last 18 months. i'm sure a repeat is possible...i'm willing to wait 18 mos. b/t pop-ups.

Posted by: adm at March 18, 2005 12:27 AM

Brilliant! When my boss asks why the corporate proxy logged me clicking through 23 pages of, I can blame it on my FireFox extension.

That my friends is called plausible deniability.

Posted by: mdd at March 18, 2005 01:44 AM

Brilliant! Bring it on!

Posted by: Weasel at March 18, 2005 10:17 AM
A (theoretical) FireFox plugin to ensure click-fraud on popups
Excerpt: This blog entry comes up with a theoretical idea of how to get rid of popups. There have long been pop-up blockers which stop it from loading - but as we have mentioned before, the advertisers are finding ways around...
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Trackback from: spamblogging at March 18, 2005 10:58 AM

Ever stop to give thought to the fact that you're little scheme is extremely easy for pop up servingg companies to defeat?

Simply put.... I can tell if a click is valid by asking your machine for where your mouse is positioned when it make the click. If it is off the screeen resolution of your monitor I know it is a fake click and I will instruct the advertiser that as such.

Go back to school. You'll never stop po ups this way!

Posted by: You're Dreaming at March 18, 2005 04:48 PM

i love such ideas, even if it's purely theorical and somewhat inaccurate

recently i had to imagine a similar thing for my multimedia classes
and i was thinking about a screensaver that would launch in background several instances of a browser/bot, each instance with its own cookies (too look as different users) that will also kind of automatically click on ads (but the idea was also to have a random behaviour on websites that track user behaviours and make stats.. a little like Amazon's suggestions)
and also sending generated mails to the info e-mail addy on banners target

of course it's not really "wise", but the idea was just to imagine some idea of net (h)ac(k)tivism ;)

Posted by: yhancik at March 21, 2005 02:48 PM
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Trackback from: at March 24, 2005 11:06 AM

man, i love this conversation! but for real, wat would happen if the mouse pointer screen position is not over the link screen position

Posted by: perry at March 25, 2005 01:04 PM

If javascript were turned off in the fake browser how would they know where the mouse pointer was?

Posted by: Dan Veditz at March 31, 2005 06:08 PM

great idea. i wouldn't mind seeing something like this, but i think i might ad pop ups just so i could get bonus clicks from these users.

Posted by: ethan at July 19, 2005 08:15 PM

Sorry, comments are closed.