Making sure pop-ups are click fraud

Last week I found out that 90% of clicks on pop-up ads are crud accidental. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this. Specifically, I’ve been thinking 90% is too low.

Pop-up advertisers have started getting through Firefox’s pop-up blocker, which annoys me way more than pop-ups in IE used to. I’ve only seen a couple, but there will always be an arms race between the people and the advertisers and the pop-up makers can spread new code much faster than we can. So instead of stopping pop-ups at our end, why don’t we stop them at the start? Luckily my plan doesn’t involve dealing with pop-up advertisers personally, I think talking to a pop-up advertiser would be a deal-breaker for most people.

Here’s my lazyweb request: a Firefox extension that works like the standard pop-up blocker, with one difference — it clicks through. I don’t mean it clicks through and shows you the ad. Instead it just clicks through the ad and clicks around the site a random number of times (with a random delay, and possibly reporting itself as a weighted random browser), all without displaying the site. On the server side it would look exactly like someone had clicked the ad and was checking out whatever geriatric porn they were advertising, on the browser it would look like there was no pop-up.

Once the plugin got popular enough, the advertisers would find out that people were automatically clicking their ads – costing them money – and would raise holy hell. How could they tell which click-throughs were legit and which were automatic? They couldn’t, and they certainly aren’t going to pay for pop-ups that cost them money when no one sees them. If the economic incentive is there, they will find a way around pop-up blockers.

The main drawback I see is that while it discourages advertisers from buying them, it also creates an economic environment that encourages site owners to display pop-up ads. Initially, it would probably lead to more pop-ups as site owners encouraged their users to install the pop-up clicker/blocker because they would see more ad revenues from blocked/clicked pop-ups. They could even put more pop-up ads on their site and earn more money without pissing off their users with the pop-up blocker/clicker. Between the time the plugin hits critical mass for users and when the advertisers stop paying for nothing, there will be a lot of pop-ups for people caught in the crossfire. Also if you consider pop-up ads a legitimate business, you might have problems with this.

It would require publicity to work. One or two people using it would just make a couple of sites a little cash. Thousands of people using it would cause the media to publish stories about how pop-up advertisers were paying for nothing. I think the idea of “install this plugin, cost pop-up advertisers money” would be a strong incentive for most people to make the effort to install the plugin.

I’ve collected some of the problems with block-clicking pop-ups, thanks for taking the time to think about this with me!