Click Sentinel, a commercial antifraud application that's been on sale for more than a year, has just been converted to a free-software model. In addition, the new 2.0 version runs on your own machine, keeping your data private, whereas the older version required a remote server.
I've written many times about click fraud, most recently on Sept. 21, 2004, when about 10 percent of PPC clicks were assumed to be generated by thieves draining your bank account. Most experts feel the problem is now worse -- but Click Sentinel might be an inexpensive way for you to fight back.
Changing Commercial Software to Free
"We're aiming to get a large user base," Stockwell told me in a telephone interview. "The only way we can do that is to give the software away for free."
He and his developer, Cameron Slavosz, are hoping to support their antifraud efforts by selling a premium level of service in the future. According to Stockwell, this will include:
A real-time list of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that are considered to be the source of fraudulent clicks;
A multiuser version of the software, which will allow different people within a company to log on and use the pay-per-click tools.
Software support for fine-tuning of the application.
Stockwell says he's also close to releasing some new features that have been requested by Click Sentinel users. For example, a dynamic-tracking method is planned that can quickly create thousands of keyword-based PPC ads on the fly, using simple Web addresses such as example.com/t/1/1/ keyword/keyword.html.
Fingering the Click Fraudsters
Describing his software, Stockwell says it uses about a dozen measures to detect fraudulent clicks on PPC ads. For instance, receiving a large number of clicks on an ad from the same IP address can indicate that a competing company is maliciously clicking your ads just to exhaust your budget.
When you find patterns such as this using Click Sentinel, the evidence the program gathers can be helpful in submitting refund claims to Google and other search engines.
Finding more creative ways to help the search engines shut down click fraudsters is one of the purposes of Click Sentinel's other major project: its elaborate "community forum." This forum, which already has more than 1,000 members, is home to many useful pointers for any business that uses search engine advertising.
His experience in combatting click fraud has given Stockwell some ideas of his own. It should be easy, he says, for search engines to stop people from publishing hundreds of Web sites solely for the purpose of tricking Web surfers into clicking one or more ads.
"They could easily just have a threshhold," Stockwell says. "If there are 25 or more sites using the same publisher ID [the number search engines assign to site owners], they should subject them to manual checking." Web publishers who are generating garbage clicks could then be kicked out of the program before they collect any checks.
Installing Click Sentinel
To try out Click Sentinel's approach, I installed version 2.0 on an Apache Web server. The program requires that your server provide support for the PHP programming language and the MySQL database back-end. Both are open-source software applications that are widely used and easy to obtain.
Businesses that buy PPC ads, but don't yet have a way to measure the response rate to their ads, may find Click Sentinel to be the jump start they need. The program measures responses down to Google's "ad group" level -- not to the level of individual keyword searches -- but this should be sufficient for many companies with simple ad campaigns.
Click Sentinel tallies the actions of visitors, especially those who arrive at your site by clicking one of your ads. If a large number of "visitors" immediately leave your entry page, for example -- with none of them providing an e-mail address for a free white paper or taking other actions that require a human being -- the traffic is probably fraudulent.
Click Sentinel isn't as complete as some competing antifraud solutions. But those products can be more trouble to install and most of them are far from free.
It seems absurd that the search engines themselves haven't stamped out click fraud, since the engines have the best store of data on the suspicious patterns. But, until they do, tools such as Click Sentinel can give legitimate businesses an edge.