Does Facebook fake their numbers?

I don’t like commenting on news stories; I’m not really that kind of blogger (I don’t know what kind of blogger I am; but the prognosis isn’t good.) For one thing, it takes me a while to make up my mind about stories; to dig around and get the facts. For another when I have some facts, I usually discover that either there’s no real story, or that the actual story is so complex and nuanced I’d have a hard time writing about it. By this time, it’s a fortnight later, and no-one would be interested anyway. So I don’t comment on news stories.

A couple of days ago I was interviewed for a radio show that counts “the global economy” as its beat. I was a bit awed that they wanted to talk to me about Facebook advertising when there’s so much other global economy stuff going on these days, but I suppose it is mid-August. I thought we were going to be rehashing some stories from late July and early August. This one:

Startup Claims 80% Of Its Facebook Ad Clicks Are Coming From Bots (TechCrunch, July 30 2012)

Bots Raise Their Heads Again on Facebook (New York Times, 30 July 2012)

And this one:

Facebook quarterly report reveals 83m profiles are fake (The Guardian, August 3 2012)

Facebook reports that 8.7 percent of its user accounts may be phony (The Verge, August 3 2012)

The BBC’s got the bit between its teeth slightly: Rory Cellan-Jones wrote his searing exposé of Facebook advertising, Who ‘likes’ my Virtual Bagels back in mid July. What follows is a rehashed version of the talking points I wrote myself. Where I work, we have a huge wealth of experience dealing with Facebook ads. We’ve been working with Facebook for 4 years, and have a large specialist team who more or less only buys Facebook ads. It’s one of the fastest-growing bits of our business. So this is important to us.

LimitedRun

The LimitedRun story is an interesting one, but there’s insufficient evidence to make a really sensible call, and insufficient evidence that they knew what they were doing in the first place. If asked to speculate, I’d say that their checking code fell foul of Facebook’s security systems that check to see whether the website that the user is being sent to is behaving suspiciously — which could threaten the user’s security in some way. But as I say, there’s really no evidence one way or another, and it seems like an isolated incident. We’ll keep our eye on this.

Numbers seem big, but aren’t

The fake Facebook numbers seem big (8.7%) but aren’t. If you were looking at — for example — an average email marketing list that might be managed by a business (small or large) the annual decay rate is more like 10%. The numbers only seem big because Facebook numbers are big; ~15% of the world’s population (~1bn people) checks in at least once month. Why aren’t the numbers bigger? After all, they’re bigger on other social networks! It all comes down to how Facebook is used; we all go to Facebook to connect with our real life social graph (read, “friends, family, colleagues, and that cute guy/girl you met at that party one time). If we pretend to be someone that we’re not, what kind of experience do we have? You’ll have no friends. There’ll be no point to it. That’s the main reason that these numbers are so low. Another reason is that Facebook is pretty good at managing this stuff. It’s important to them that the overall user-experience should be authentic — that is, after all, what set them apart from the crowd of social network platforms in the first place. Here’s a quote from Facebook:

Authentic identity is important to the Facebook experience, and our goal is that every account on Facebook should represent a real person.

I’ve seen Insights data from other Page admins (I’m afraid I haven’t asked for their permission to publish) that shows spiky fan attrition in recent days; fan attrition that’s unmatched by explicit negative feedback data (e.g. explicit Unlikes). Facebook says:

…we recently refined and improved our methodology for recognizing what we call duplicate or false accounts… We have dedicated teams that constantly monitor and remove false accounts to make the Facebook experience as authentic as possible…

It’s hard to do the wrong thing

I’ve tested this for a while. It’s awkward to maintain a fake account on Facebook (even in the name of scientific research!) for any length of time. As part of the process, I need to maintain multiple email addresses and keep spare pre-pay mobile SIMs in my desk drawer: Facebook insists that suspicious-looking accounts confirm their identity by linking the account to a unique (and verified) mobile numbers. Nothing will stop a determined no-goodnik, of course. But it’s far, far easier to be a no-goodnik on other social platforms.

Registered accounts versus active users

These numbers aren’t “bad for advertisers”; as advertisers, we only pay for active users (or “real people.”) If the person isn’t active, they won’t be shown an ad (actually, it’s more complex than that; much of the time, advertisers only pay for “real people who interacted with the ad” – but let’s not go into that.) More than a quarter of the accounts under discussion are simply whimsical pages for pets or babies. My old boss had a Facebook profile for her dog so that she could tag him in photographs. My sister does the same for her 3 year old daughter. Both these accounts are clearly against Facebook Terms and Conditions, but no-one’s pretending that Sydney the dog is using Facebook. There’s a world of difference between “registered accounts” and “active users.” If Facebook advertising works for you, that’s great. Facebook is the second biggest site on the internet (after Google) with ~500m people logging at least once a day all over the world. So if Facebook works for you as an advertiser, you’ve got it made: an excellent media platform that will scale really well. If Facebook advertising doesn’t work for you, you’ve got to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Can I say, based on my limited experience that Facebook advertising doesn’t work for anyone? I have to bear in mind that Facebook took $1bn of advertising revenue last quarter. Surely some of those people know what they’re doing? Maybe I should talk to some of Starcom’s clients?
  2. Should I instead focus on how I can best build Facebook (and its huge, responsive audience) into my business?

But I have to point out that the number of bad news stories we hear reported just underline the fact that Facebook advertising – like any advertising – isn’t as simple and straightforward as it may seem to the uninitiated. It’s always worth talking to an expert.

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