WWW FAQs: I am a pay-per-click advertiser. How come my clicks don't turn into sales?

2006-06-01: Many sites pay for advertising on search engines or other sites on a per-click basis, usually via Google Adsense, Kontera or a similar online advertising broker. Pay-per-click makes sense because if users don't come to your site, you don't pay.

Problems develop, though, when the service you're advertising with claims large numbers of clicks and you don't see any actual business.

How can you know whether the clicks are real? Here's a simple method to verify clicks: make sure your ads direct users to a special "landing" URL on your site that then redirects the user to the final page. This is easy to do with PHP, ASP, Perl/CGI or just about any other dynamic web programming technique.

This gives you an opportunity to do two things before the advertising-driven user is redirected to your home page: log the user's IP address, and get a rough count of the number of clicks. Again, both of those things are easy to do with PHP and its relatives.

Keep in mind that there are several ways a user's web browser can go astray between clicking on an ad and reaching your site - so your click figures are not expected to be exactly the same as the advertising broker's figures. However, if they are wildly inaccurate, you may have found a problem. And if most of your "clicks" are coming from the same IP address, that's a big red flag too.

If all traffic appears to come from only one IP address, it's possible your web server is behind a reverse proxy and can't see the user's true IP address in the usual way. So before you blow your top, check for that possibility.

What To Do If Your Figures Disagree

If your click figures are consistently much lower than those reported by the site you're advertising on, you should demand that they justify their figures, or end your relationship with them.

If Your Figures Agree, You May Still Be Getting Ripped Off

Surprisingly, this kind of simple "we claim a big number, you see a small number" fraud is not very common. Such problems have been largely solved by the use of reputable, well-known advertising brokers like Google and Kontera. These companies have too much invested in online advertising to risk it all by making up bogus numbers. So, more than likely, your click figures will be similar to theirs.

But: you could still be a victim of click fraud! Advertising brokers work with individual "publisher" sites where your ads are placed. For the most part, this is a great thing. Most publishers are highly ethical, creating quality, free content for the general public and earning an income from the ad broker program. Unfortunately, though, there are always a few bad apples who start bogus sites just to profit from these programs... and then they click on the ads themselves, or have their friends click on them, or trick strangers into clicking on them.

Most of these sleazy operators aren't very smart, and they eventually screw up, generating such a high click rate on their site that Google calls their bluff and visits the site, quickly discovering that it has no real content. But a few have the brains to put together a convincing fraud.

So, what can be done? Complain to the advertising broker - politely. Point out that you feel this may be happening in your case. Ask them to check out the sites where your ad appeared during the time period when you received an unrealistic number of clicks that didn't produce any real business.

But before you complain... read the final section. It's not pleasant, but it's honest!

Then Again... Sometimes It's You

No one likes to say it, but sometimes an ad just isn't right for your site... or your site doesn't deliver on the promise of the ad. If your ad says, for instance, "mortgages at 3%!" and your actual website doesn't deliver that exciting rate, you're not going to convert those clicks into real business. And that doesn't mean anyone is defrauding you. It's just a question of creating ads that are honest and a product that customers actually want. If you find that you get similarly disappointing results with several different ad broker services and other means of advertising, then you should take a hard look at your own product and your own ads before complaining to the advertising brokers.

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