Imagine this: Your company needs help securing higher organic search rankings, and it is perfect timing. You have just been contacted by what appears to be a great up-and-coming SEO agency, promising guaranteed traffic and results, and the price is finally within budget.
Nothing to lose, right?
Alas, things are rarely guaranteed in the marketing world — especially in search marketing. From PBNs and outdated paid link networks to bot traffic and other illusory tactics, it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with an SEO agency.
Below is just one example of a shady, albeit rare, SEO agency tactic. You should be able to feel confident when engaging with an agency, but if you suspect foul play, keep reading, and see if this may be happening to you.
What is Bot Traffic?
Firstly, it is essential to establish that not all bot traffic is the same. Most bot traffic is perfectly normal. This “regular” traffic falls under a few main categories: search engine crawlers, other crawlers from SEO tools, copyright bots, and more.
Then, of course, we have directly malicious bots (scrapers, spambots, DDoS bots, and more); that won’t be the focus of this article today, but you should always keep in mind the potential of being targeted by these, even though the likelihood is low.
Paid bots and traffic tend to lie somewhere in between the above. The risks aren’t particularly high, but they are there nonetheless, and in most cases, you won’t see any benefits. After all, bots won’t convert on your site or buy your products.
This traffic isn’t illegal unless obtained through illegal means (this is rare), but I am going to cover why and how you should look out for it — especially if you are paying a marketing agency expecting real, genuine traffic.
How It is Used or Bought
I haven’t yet infiltrated the underground network of traffic bot buyers and owners, so I can’t outline exactly where this traffic tends to originate or who the ultimate sources are.
I can, however, explain who tends to use it and how dirt cheap it tends to be.
The primary culprits:
- Supposed white-hat SEO agencies that are desperate to claim increased traffic or results without putting the real work in to generate them.
- Agencies wanting to demonstrate increased CTRs but have to resort to doing it in this manipulative fashion.
- Site owners that monetize through ads, so impressions will increase dramatically while their costs of buying the traffic are comparatively very low.
I am sure there are plenty of others unbeknownst to me, or so rare that I wouldn’t be able to guess them, but the above three are certainly more common than you might think.
And the cost?
Typically less than one cent for the person or company buying directly from the bot owner; this is somewhat variable, but it appears that this is a reasonable cost to expect if you are the direct buyer.
Of course, if you are unknowingly buying this traffic through an agency, it is likely that just a small fraction of your monthly spend is even going to this, while most is being pocketed or used in other potentially unscrupulous ways.
Why You Should Care
- This kind of traffic is not valuable traffic and will not create any additional revenue for your business* (as I mentioned before, bots won’t buy your product or start using your software — until they become sentient, which at that point, you will obviously need to disregard everything I have said here).
- Even if you believe that user signals like time on page could be boosted by these bots and as a byproduct, improve your overall rankings — is it worth what you are paying? There is also no direct evidence to indicate this is the case; there have been industry studies showing correlations but no proof that should motivate a decision to continue buying bot traffic.
- It is extremely cheap to buy this traffic. The margins your agency or SEO freelancers would be operating at if they were buying traffic are much higher than you should be comfortable with.
- Finally, it can potentially be dangerous or harmful by:
- Eating up your hosting plan bandwidth for no legitimate reason.
- Slowing down your website for actual users.
- Clicking on your PPC ads, causing you to directly lose money.
*I’d be remiss to not mention that depending on your business model (primarily ad-based or selling display ads), you could theoretically benefit from this traffic. It is more likely that if you have engaged with an SEO agency that you don’t operate under this type of business model. But nonetheless, if someone is willing to use this traffic in an unethical manner, there is admitted value to be had from these bots for some.
How to Tell if This is Happening to You
Here are some red flags to look out for.
1. Your Agency is Making Grandiose Promises of Quick Traffic
“We’ll triple your traffic in 3 months!”
‘You’ll be ranking number one in no time!”
“We’ll improve your rankings for X queries in X time!”
Long story short, no agency can guarantee you rankings or traffic, especially certain numbers or timelines. Are the above scenarios possible? Absolutely. But no one can predict Google rankings, algorithm updates, competitor activities, and movements, or any of the other hundreds of factors that come into play with SEO.
2. There Is Rapid Growth in a Short Timeframe with a Small Marketing Budget
This, by no means inherently indicates something fishy. But, if none of this traffic is converting and has spiked out of nowhere despite no organic ranking changes, then it may be worth examining further.
3. Strange User Information in Google Analytics
- Is the geographic trend of traffic suddenly and significantly skewed to foreign countries or obscure areas for no apparent reason?
- Do you get notable traffic spikes for an hour or two, comprised of nearly all your organic traffic for the day?
- Have your bounce rates increased significantly while pages per session decreased? Bot traffic often has 100% bounce rates and only 1 page per session (the landing page).
- Are these users coming primarily from very old internet browsers or using very old devices (i.e., 10+-year-old versions of Internet Explorer or Nokia browsers)?
Here is where you will find browser information. Underneath Mobile > Devices you can also see specific mobile devices used.
How to Filter Out Bot Traffic
If you suspect that your agency may be pulling the wool over your eyes with “fake” bot traffic, it won’t be easy to filter this traffic out or in other words, “prove” that this is occurring.
To start, you should have a candid conversation with your agency and outline the reasons you feel are warranting your suspicion or confusion in the case of odd analytics behavior. Ideally, they will help work through the concerns with you and explain the status of things and why this is not the case.
If you want to take some initial steps on your own, though, here is what you should do.
1. Go to Admin > View Settings > Make sure the box under ‘Bot Filtering’ is checked.
2. Start regularly analyzing your traffic for strange patterns like the ones mentioned above.
3. If there are clear trends you can filter against — say, high rates of Russian traffic where your content doesn’t rank, isn’t meant for, and isn’t translated into Russian — then set up filters and wait to see how traffic looks after the fact.
4. Rinse and repeat Steps 2 and 3.
It can be effectively impossible to completely filter these visits in Google Analytics. This traffic can even be obtained manually at slightly higher costs to the buyer or agency, meaning there aren’t technically bots behind it, superseding any effort to identify and analyze it.
Look for unusual patterns, but be warned that you won’t know for certain unless you talk to your current agency and hash out the campaign status.
Other Ways to Identify a Scamming or Subpar SEO Agency
Here are some questions to ask yourself when looking at a prospective SEO agency or even when revisiting an existing contract:
- Have they claimed guaranteed or fast results or given any expectation of results in less than three months?
- Do they offer set “SEO packages” with little flexibility or unique addressing of your needs?
- Do they have a public presence, reviews, employee bios, or any other accessible information?
- Is there expected work clearly defined with line items, or are you paying a monthly figure for general “SEO work” without a clear outline of what that entails?
- Are they providing “link building” that consist of paid links, has aggressive anchor texts, is comment or forum spam, or is surrounded by bad link neighborhoods?
- Is their content well thought out with sufficient topical coverage and word counts, or is it more like a 500-700 word average with no concern for the topic(s) being addressed?