BlowSearch Stakes Its Rep on Click Protection

BlowSearch is a metasearch engine with a mission: They want to reduce the amount of automated click fraud on the Web, and make themselves a strong mid-market search contender in the bargain.

Joe Holcomb, the outspoken marketing vice president for the Brooklyn-based BlowSearch, has maintained at conferences and in his own blog that the level of fraudulent clicks in search marketing may be as high as 35%– higher than the 20% level many other industry experts posit. And while some of that may come from competitors trying to blow out a rival’s ad budget, Holcomb says most of it—as much as 99%– is the work of unscrupulous affiliates lining their own pockets with clickthrough fees, usually using automated “hitbot” software to click on ads on their own sites.

BlowSearch claims that a proprietary technology called Click Defender, which went into beta test across its publisher network in April, will eliminate the threat of these automated bogus clicks. “We’ve identified between 18 and 20 different points of computer information that are passed back and forth between your machine and our servers when you click a link,” says BlowSearch chief operating officer Rick Kahn. “By themselves, a lot of those are duplicable; they can be replicated in script so software can look like a real person clicking. But we’ve identified combinational pairs between those points that can’t be mimicked, and that’s what we rely on.”

Holcomb and Kahn maintain that Click Defender can tell in real time whether a click comes from a human or a machine. “It’s what I call ‘on-the-click’ software,” Holcomb says. Advertisers are guaranteed that their clicks are real; if not, they get

“Competitor click fraud makes good press, but the reality is that if you’re going to make a lot of revenue at click fraud, you’re going to have to use an automated tool,” he says. “They can be set to keep a low enough level of clickthroughs to avoid seeming suspicious, and they can go after awkward keyword terms, even minimum-bid terms.”

BlowSearch does let its advertisers address the problem of competitor click fraud with its Competitor IP Blocking tool. This allows an advertiser to enter into the system any IP address that they feel is being abusive to their ads. Those ads will then not be served to that address. IP blocking requires a little work on the part of advertisers to identify those addresses; but Holcomb says BlowSearch is more than willing to help them do that research.

Another BlowSearch tool can also be used to guard against clicks: the engine’s Traffic Source Selector, which allows advertisers to monitor and perhaps delete ad serving to specific sources. That could serve as click fraud protection if you are an advertiser who is not interested in selling into geographic regions that are commonly sources of fraudulent clicks. On the other hand, if there are legitimate prospects for your product or service in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, Holcomb says, you can keep those lines open with confidence on the BlowSearch network, since Click Defender will filter out the bogus traffic.

BlowSearch’s real aim in launching all these tools and technologies across its networks—both its publisher network now and, within a month or so, the AdOn advertising network of which it is a member—is to deliver traffic of much higher quality than is currently available on other mid-tier search engines.

And BlowSearch maintains that its automated click fraud monitor is superior to the human bloodhounds used by the big boys, too. “We could be like Google and Yahoo! and have a team of guys analyzing server logs all day long and still miss a lot,” says Holcomb.

“I’ve been a Web developer and Webmaster for about eight years now and can spot this stuff in traffic logs, and I’m still going to miss 60% of it that way,” adds Kahn.

Holcomb has made himself something of a lightning rod by asserting that the search industry has generally been slow to confront the click fraud problem because it stands to lose too much by doing so. The major pay-per-click engines are interested in “effectively managing” fraudulent traffic, but not necessarily eliminating it, he has written.

“If click fraud is as prevalent across all systems as I believe it to be, that would mean that Google’s revenues would take an immediate hit of 30% to 35%,” he says. “Talk about a wake-up call for your investors.”

But the other factor in the persistence of the click fraud problem is advertisers themselves and their agencies, who often view some false clickthroughs as acceptable losses in search marketing. That’s exacerbated by the entry of large branded advertisers into the search market in recent years. “A lot of companies are advertising in search simply because they want branding impact,” Holcomb says. “They’re not primarily concerned with clickthroughs or return on investment, believe it or not. They just want to hammer their names across people’s eyelids”

If and when those top brand advertisers complain about click fraud, they get quick action from the major engines. Meanwhile, the small and mid-sized businesses get the occasional mysterious refund and a boilerplate notice that some undocumented amount of fraud was detected in their accounts.

BlowSearch is currently working with some click fraud monitors to develop a program that would certify the efficacy of technology like Click Defender; no certification programs currently exist.

All these tools and the high search ROI they can afford advertisers will, BlowSearch hopes, gain it a solid niche in the middle market of the search industry. “We aren’t aiming to be a Yahoo! or Google,” Holcomb says. “But we think the market is still big enough that a clearly-defined company can gain a following. We hope to become that with Click Defender, Traffic Source Selection, Competitor IP Blocking, and a powerful metasearch technology. These are all things that are helping to set us apart from what our competitors do.”

Besides aggregating query results from 27 different search engines, BlowSearch offers a number of amenities to users of its portal site, including a downloadable toolbar and an enterprise-level instant-messaging application that uses 4,096-bit encryption, available to users for $9.95 for three months. (A 56-bit version is free.) That encryption may also migrate to a BlowSearch e-mail offering down the road.

“There’s now a severe lack of innovation in the middle search market,” Holcomb says. “Everyone’s doing what everyone else is doing. But if you have innovative products and services, tools that retain users and visitors on your site, if you build a good name and brand, then you’ve got it made. We’re trying to lead by example, particularly on the click fraud issue. We want to provide quality for publishers, advertisers and user, and to let them control what they’re doing on our network.”

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