Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is caught up in a firestorm after allegedly paying for Youtube views and comments. Intrigued by how it works the LA Times even ran a test with videos of paint drying (literally).
“Black Hat” is often used to describe hackers involved in tactics that if not illegal are certainly unethical (This is taken from old westerns where bad guys wore black hats and good guys wore white hats) so a white hat hacker is internet slang for someone involved in ethical hacking often times involved in internet security and thwarting black hats - where as a grey hat falls somewhere in between.
There is “Black Hat”, “White Hat” and “Grey Hat” Marketers as well sometimes called Crowdturfing. Do you remember the JC Penny search optimization scandal? Or Newt Gingrich buying Twitter followers? Trutanich or at least his campaign we’re involved in a form of black hat marketing.
The temptation to use these tactics is certainly real. In the past, I myself have engaged in this type of activity. I’ve bought Facebook fans, misleading Facebook ads, and directly paid for Youtube views on a much smaller scale. At the dawn of Twitter I was heavily involved in gaining Twitter followers by simply following people and spambots in the hopes that they would follow me back. If they didn’t follow me, I’d simply wait a few days and then follow a new group and repeat.
Google’s SERP pages that include social functions in their search listings only adds fuel to the fire. If part of the algorithm is based on how many followers I have or how many views my video has then it’s in my best interest to have this number as high as I possibly can.
It’s difficult to tell what Tunatich actually did to get all those video views, but based on the article all signs point to some sort of unethical gaming of the system. These companies come and go that promise views for cash. I’ve ran tests with companies in the past that seemingly disappear after a few weeks.
Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, etc. are involved in a cat and mouse game with shady advertisers, with the platforms eventually catching on and making efforts to stop this behavior (Twitter no longer allows you to follow massive amounts of people at once and does it’s best to remove bots) Youtube recently had some major changes to the way it counts subscribers and removed inactive users.
At the end of the day if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Check out Youtube’s blog post on these type of services. But there’s other ways to “hack” the system…It’s common practice for people to upload a video, pay a bunch of money to promote it in an attempt to trick Youtube’s algorithm into thinking it’s a popular video because it got a large number of views in a short period of time and get on the fast track, the holy grail is being feature on the Youtube home page. If this doesn’t succeed they simply delete the video and start over.
The current battle is over reply girls where big breasted women post video responses to whatever the newest popular video is…this is essentially link baiting, men can’t help but click on the thumbnail of cleavage and the girls collect the advertising revenue. (This guy has a funny rant about it.) Youtube product manager Bing Chen recently came out against them and said they were working on a way to combat the spammy videos.
The most wide spread of these tactics is the use of misleading tags and metadata like tagging your marketing video with things terms like “Justin Bieber” trying to capitalize on other popular videos. But there’s countless more hacks and questionable promotional techniques that I’m not privy to but the secrets are exchanged in online forums like Black Hat Forum.
The world of online video and especially video metrics is still in it’s infancy compared to other forms of online advertising and especially television advertising, What Alpha Bird, quoted in the article and other mostly reputable companies are selling is display advertising. Content publishers generate revenue by “renting” out space on their websites (Google Adwords / Adsense is the largest and most profitable of these companies.) this has been done since the dawn of the internet in the form of banner advertisements. Advertisers will pay when users to any given site click on advertisement. With the wide spread acceptance of high speed internet, videos and rich media ads are the logical next step in that evolution…hence forth the click-to-play Advertisers fill that space with an embed code that makes a video display and often times with an accompanied banner or similar formats (See Tubmeogul for most existing video ad formats. Recently Roll over units have exploded) and the site owner gets paid when someone plays that video, you’ll often see these companies bill themselves as “Social Video Distribution Platforms”
In my opinion there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of advertising but the system is easily abused with Auto Plays where a video is simply playing somewhere in a browser somewhere often times below the fold and often times with the sound off. Advertisers will count these as legit views when in all likelihood people are not engaged with the video. With social gaming (Farmville, Mafia Wars or whatever the moms and teenagers are playing these days) came incentivized plays where someone playing a game on Facebook or elsewhere is rewarded virtual currency in exchange for watching an advertisement. The attraction of these type of views to marketers is they are extremely cheap and can bring in big numbers fast, their bosses and clients are impressed and everyone is happy, right? This certainly isn’t in the best interest of the brand and makes for a spammy interruption filled user experience across the internet when everyone is trying to game the system.
Are these people interested in your marketing message? Probably not, this is why I’m in favor of user initiated non interruption plays. This is the whole idea of content marketing or as Chris Brogan defines it “Content Marketing, in my definition is the ability to produce useful and entertaining information that is worthwhile on its own, but that might also be useful towards a sale or subsequent action”
Other major problems with most of these companies are a lack of frequency capping (Have you ever watched a show on Hulu or elsewhere and been served up the same video 5 times in a 20 minute show?) and a lack of transparency often times advertisers don’t really know where their video is playing but they are just happy to get a cheap view. Some people would consider this somewhere in the grey hat area.
Brands and marketers are looking towards these companies and the big placement agencies when they really should be looking for paid search (PPC) companies that specialize in video. Google recently launched Adwords for video and a variety of Youtube video formats you’ll notice a theme that none of them are really interruption based formats. Even the In-stream videos have the option of skipping the ad after 5 seconds and an advertiser isn’t charged unless the video is completed or 30 seconds is reached before someone hits “Skip this video” The problem for marketers is that these campaigns are time and effort intensive, they are used to the world where they can just send an IO and have their television ad served up their allotted amount of times. Adwords is complicated sometimes unnecessarily so, the important metrics and terminology are completely different for video so it makes sense to have a separate platform that’s PPV (Pay Per View) based instead of Pay Per Click.
So what is the difference between what I do and what Trutanich did? I’m honestly interested in getting videos viewed by exactly who they want to see it (their target audience) I’m not interested in the quick fix and meaningless metrics. Sometimes that means putting in more effort and spending more money per view but at the end of the day if your target audience isn’t seeing your video then your wasting your money anyway. We’re not creating fake Youtube accounts and fake youtube comments trying to game the system we’re applying a series of best practices (often recommended by Youtube themselves.) and investing money with reputable vendors and tactics that help our clients increase their ROI.
The LA Times article could just as easily be an article about a big brand that puts their trust in agencies that don’t offer transparency and get caught up in the numbers game.