Selling social media clicks becomes big business
Sometimes there are plausible explanations for click increases.
For example, Burger King's most popular city was, for a few weeks this year, Karachi, Pakistan, after the chain opened several restaurants there.
While the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorney generals have cracked down on fake endorsements or reviews, they have not weighed in on clicks. Meanwhile, hundreds of online businesses sell clicks and social media accounts from around the world.
BuyPlusFollowers sells 250 Google+ shares for $12.95. InstagramEngine sells 1,000 followers for $12. AuthenticHits sells 1,000 SoundCloud plays for $9.
It's a lucrative business, said the president and CEO of WeSellLikes.com.
"The businesses buy the Facebook likes because they're afraid that when people go to their Facebook page and they only see 12 or 15 likes, they're going to lose potential customers," he said. The company official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he recently moved his company offshore to avoid litigation or cease-and-desist notices.
In Indonesia, a social media-obsessed country with some of the largest number of Facebook pages and Twitter users, click farms are proliferating.
Ali Hanafiah, 40, offers 1,000 Twitter followers for $10 and 1 million for $600. He owns his own server, and pays $1 per month per Internet Protocol address, which he uses to generate thousands of social media accounts.
Those accounts, he said, "enable us to create many fake followers."
During an interview at a downtown Jakarta cafe, Hanafiah — wearing a Nike cap, blue jeans and a white T-shirt — said large social networks can boost a business' public profile.
"Today, we are living in a tight competition world that is forcing people to compete with many tricks," he said.
Tony Harris, who does social media marketing for major Hollywood movie firms, said he would love to be able to give his clients massive numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook fans, but buying them from random strangers is not very effective or ethical.
"The illusion of a massive following is often just that," he said.
The fake click market has generated another business: auditors.
Robert Waller, founder of London-based Status People, helps clients block fakes. "We have had a lot of people who have bought fake accounts, realized it's a stupid idea and they're looking for ways to get rid of them," he said.
David Burch, at TubeMogul, a video marketing firm based in Emeryville, Calif., said that buying clicks to promote clients is a grave error. "It's bad business," he said, "and if an advertiser ever found out you did that, they'd never do business with you again."
Associated Press writers Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.