Inside the economy of fake views on YouTube and the role of click farms

MUMBAI: At a time when reaching a million views is considered the gold standard of online success, Kochi-basedmarketing firm Socioblend has orders pouring in from singers and production houses who want to boost views on songs, teasers and trailers on.

“That is our biggest market right now,” said 28-year-old cofounder Rahul Maheshwari, who services both foreign and Indian clients.

While peddling views to entertainment clients works for Maheshwari, it doesn’t for Virtual Social Media’s Sathish Isaac. Chennai-based Isaac’s preferred clientele are corporates who can shell out more moolah.

“It is those medium and small producers, content creators, who don’t have that kind of fan following of big studios who need the extra push. But because they don’t have enough money to buy real views, which may cost anywhere between Re 1 and Rs 4 per view, they go for these fake and cheap bot-generated views. I am focused on corporates who can pay for premium services,” he said.

Maheshwari and Issac are just two of the thousands of players in a rapidly growing cottage industry that’s mushrooming across Indian towns and cities, feeding on the craze to get more views — the ultimate currency on YouTube.

“With so much of content being uploaded every minute, the challenge with the internet today is discoverability,” said Gopa Kumar, executive vice-president at digital agency Isobar India. “So they (content owners) do spend money to push it to the right environment.

The problem is that in most cases, brands take shortcuts and spend money to buy views.”


There is no dearth of websites that offer such services, often with detailed plans and freebies thrown in, such as the first 1,000being free, and that is not just ‘plain vanilla’ views. A few of them even offer ultra-fast YouTube views, promising 50,000 high-quality nondrop views within 6-12 hours for a sum ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000.

For the uninitiated, ‘high-quality’ views are those in which the clicks are by people in ‘click farms’, not bots or malware. The largest click farms are located in China, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

The motivation to generate more views varies, ranging from promotion of a movie or song to a product launch to desire for monetisation from Google Adsense — essentially Google’s monetisation programme for content creators who generate large volumes of traffic.

For content creators, buying views is a booster shot for attaining the ultimate online success — virality.

By some estimates, 300 hours of content gets uploaded to YouTube every minute, so competition for views is tough. “We see most number of fake views where there is a direct monetary benefit by more number of views, such as music videos, movie trailers, and even brand launches, especially in the mobile space. Also, a lot of these social media influencers, who don’t have enough followers, spend money to buy the first set of viewers to get some traction,” said Vineet Sodhani, CEO, Spatial Access, a media audit and consulting firm.

Increasing tech literacy, cheap labour and data, and falling cost of devices have made India an ideal place for viewbotting, which refers to artificially inflating viewership by using bots and malware.

Take Chandigarh-based, 17-year-old Ankit Agarwal and his partner Saksham, who offer 1,000 YouTube views for Rs 200, apart from 1,000 YouTube monetisable views for Rs 250. “We promote ourselves through social media and get paid through Paytm. It’s an off-and-on business,” said Agarwal, who is awaiting his Class 12 exam results.

The agency owners felt YouTube only wants everyone to spend money on their platform. “They don’t want third parties,but it is not illegal. Also, we have two options — Google-approved views, which are slightly costlier, or normal views, which are available for about Rs 130 per 1,000 views,” said Socioblend’s Maheshwari.

“When we started, there were no orders for 8-10 months. In the last couple of years, business is growing over 100% year-on-year.”

A constant battle is on between YouTube and viewbotters. On January 16, YouTube changed the eligibility requirement for monetisation to 4,000 hours of watch-time within the past 12 months and 1,000 subscribers. Only those meeting these criteria could become part of the(YPP), its monetisation plan.

In the last quarter of calendar year 2017, YouTube even removed 8.3 million videos that had been flagged inappropriate by its users and algorithms.

“Views generated by some third-party businesses and services will not be counted or reflected on YouTube, and can lead to disciplinary action against the account, including removal of the video or account suspension,” a YouTube spokesperson said in response to ET’s queries.

Even as YouTube uses algorithms to filter out paid views, the agencies are gaming the system by using sophisticated bots that generate a random sequence by switching between different accounts across social media platforms to trick YouTube’s algorithm.

The second and increasingly more popular way is through private networks, where multiple users click on circulated videos for monetary gains. These networks, some experts say, are very hard to detect and eliminate, as every user exhibits regular activity.

The owner of a Lucknow-based company — who did not wish to be identified, and who charges Rs 4,500 for 50,000 views and Rs 8,500 for 100,000 views — said it’s easy to beat the YouTube algorithm. “We make sure views are a mix of Google-approved and bots from various geographies.

We can deliver as per your timeframe, and gradually, so that there is no sudden spike,” he said.