How Many Websites Have Totally Bogus Traffic Numbers Due To Facebook Bug?

from the just-wondering... dept

For a while now, we've heard of websites claiming that they now get a ridiculous amount of referral traffic from Facebook. We've certainly noticed that we get a decent amount of traffic from Facebook, but it's rarely in the top five sites for referrals. For a while, I've just wondered if people just don't like to pass around our stuff on Facebook (as opposed to Twitter, which does drive lots of traffic -- or if, perhaps, we didn't do enough to encourage people to follow our Facebook page). However, something odd happened a couple weeks ago. All of a sudden, we noticed a ton of traffic coming from Facebook. Before noon, we'd already passed a normal day's worth of traffic, and by the afternoon, we were on track to more than triple a standard day's page views. But, then we noticed a few oddities. First, a lot of the traffic was going to relatively old stories. Second, doing a search on Facebook didn't turn up anyone linking to those stories. Third, and most importantly, looking at the number of unique visitors, as opposed to pageviews, showed that those were more or less in line with a standard day's traffic. Clearly something was off.

I started chatting with a few folks about it, and Marcus Carab pointed us to information on a Facebook bug that's been around for about a year, in which Facebook's "like" button adds a string (fb_xd_fragment, for those who are curious) to the URL that leads to a blank page... often causing multiple pageviews. There are workarounds, though it's stunning that Facebook -- which is pushing use of the "like" button all over the place -- has not implemented its own fix. By that evening we'd installed a workaround, redirecting the bogus links to legitimate links, and stopping some of the false reloads. Yet, over the next few days, we noticed that even when we fixed that "known" problem, we were still seeing a hell of a lot more traffic from Facebook than made sense or that we had seen before.

Eventually, we used the referrer URL (www.facebook.com/plugins/like.php?....) to track it down to a problem with the way Facebook's "like" button behaves when our pages are accessed with IE7 (and possibly IE6). Something in the button basically goes into a loop and just keeps requesting the page that it is on -- essentially, repeatedly "reloading." This makes page views shoot up like crazy. Because of this, if you visit our page with IE, we no longer show you a "like" button. Since doing so, our pageview numbers have returned to expected levels. (For our IE users, now that we've confirmed that the problem was the like button on IE, we plan to try an alternative implementation of the like button to see if that avoids the problem.)

Apparently, we're not alone. Other sites also just noticed that they were dealing with similar issues and put in place similar workarounds.

But here's the question: how many people don't realize that these Facebook bugs exist, and are happily lapping up the not-really-there pageviews and reporting them as legit? I would guess that many people who are recipients of such a traffic deluge honestly don't realize that it's a bug and that the traffic is phantom traffic. But it wouldn't surprise me if a few sites are simply happy for any way to "juice" their numbers. Over the years there have been a few big cases of newspaper circulation scandals. It kind of makes you wonder when we'll start to see something similar with websites that report fake numbers concerning their traffic?

Of course, for us, being honest probably costs us money. Since many ad campaigns work on a page view (CPM) basis, if we can report triple our existing page views, that certainly would boost our ad revenue. But it's also incredibly dishonest, and, for those who know this is happening, potentially fraud. It seems like only a matter of time until we hear about sites purposely leveraging such things for their own advantage.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 11:02am

    *likes this story*

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 11:03am

    I noticed some wonky stuff of Techdirt last week

    It only seemed to happen on IE 7 (and not Safari, which is the other browser I use). The page would throw a javascript error, and just continuously reload. Not the whole page, but I would just see URLs flash by on the status bar, and some of them seemed related to Facebook. It actually made it really annoying to type.

     

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  3.  
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    chuck, Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 11:13am

    +1 (or possible a lot more)

     

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  4.  
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    timlash (profile), Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 11:35am

    Hmm...

    Tons of websites reporting gobs of Facebook generated traffic. News organizations observing the wild popularity of Facebook and the new importance of social media. Investors jumping over each other to jam money into the pockets of Facebook equity holders...and you say "stunning that Facebook has not implemented its own fix"? Yeah, "stunning" that Facebook hasn't shut that loop down.

     

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  5.  
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    Greg G (profile), Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 11:40am

    I never noticed any issues, and I'm stuck with IE7 here at work.

    If I'm at home, then I use Firefox (or Chrome once in awhile) and there are no issues.

    AS for inflated page views, I'm sure there will be some out there, most likely newspaper related, that would love to "juice" their numbers to increase ad rev, especially any numbers that come from behind a paywall.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 1:31pm

    Saw the same problem on our site

    I saw this same problem on our site, switching to the "old" version of facebook like (that uses iFrames instead of XBFML) fixed the problem. IMO this is the problem with using code from a third party on a site, you run into the problem of them changing something that causes a problem on your site.

     

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  7.  
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    FatGiant (profile), Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 5:30pm

    "or if, perhaps, we didn't do enough to encourage people to follow our Facebook page"


    I can only speak for myself, but I've noticed how little use there is on your Facebook Page, other then reposts of the tweets.

    Those, you can't even share them. You can just like or type a comment. That really removes a lot of the usability. Also, there's a considerable time lapse between the post here, the tweet and the tweet post on Facebook. So, if, like me, you follow Techdirt on Twitter and on Facebook, by the time you get the Facebook post, you already read the article, either by a refresh here, or from Twitter. Since the FB post can't even be shared, you'd need to make a like or a share from here, or, a RT on Twitter.

    There are many articles here I do share on FB &/or Twitter, but, it would be a lot easier if the Facebook posts allowed direct share, and there wasn't the significant time lapse.

    Also, I see no interaction on the Facebook page, even when people ask questions or make comments, even inflammatory ones. If you want more traffic from there, maybe that would be a starting point.

    We could easily submit stories to you through the FB page, sharing is effective and easy on FB. And, engaging users in conversation there, could bring them here where you can make money from them.

    :) Just my 2 cents on the subject... :)

     

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  8.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 6:04pm

    Re:

    Those, you can't even share them.

    Interesting. I did not realize this, but will look into it...

    Also, I see no interaction on the Facebook page, even when people ask questions or make comments, even inflammatory ones. If you want more traffic from there, maybe that would be a starting point.

    Hmm. I do try to interact via Facebook, and read the comments there and have responded many times, but a lot of the comments don't have much to respond to, so I haven't...

     

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  9.  
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    FatGiant (profile), Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 6:39pm

    Re: Re:

    Ok, you do interact a bit.

    There are maybe some tricks to invite comments on FB, you haven't tried... :)

    I don't see the FB pages as extensions of blogs like these ones. They can be, and probably should be, separated universes, with a common focus.

    The fact remains, that this blog is in my daily MUST reads, as it probably is to many others. The Techdirt FB page, isn't, and I wouldn't mind that extra dimension to exist.

    I have noticed several blogs that make use of Facebook to spread their stories, that they use a different headline to post directly on FB, usually with a call to comment, or with challenge of some kind. Can't measure their effectiveness, other than I do follow those links to read the stories. And, what do I do with Techdirt? I come here and refresh the page to read the article I saw the post in FB.

    There's maybe something missing or needing to be improved there, don't you think? You still get my traffic, it just doesn't come from where I learned about the article.

    Also, looking at the page, the lack of comments discourages comments. Maybe if the link was posted in a different way, inviting to comment, it could change that.

    Again, this is my personnel view. And it is meant with the utmost respect to your work here... :)

     

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  10.  
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    Joseph, Apr 22nd, 2011 @ 7:34pm

    If it were me I'd prefer to keep the conversation on my blog instead of moving the conversation to Facebook.

    Maybe I'm missing something, but if you have a blog you are tripling your work by repeating everything on Twitter and on Facebook.

    People say that RSS is on the way down, but I depend on it instead of getting bogged down on those "social" sites.

     

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  11.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Apr 23rd, 2011 @ 2:12pm

    Re: Hmm...

    This was the first thing that crossed my mind when Mike mentioned this bug (I had experienced it on a random one of my blogs, but given that it fields about 100 visitors a month I hadn't really considered the potential scale of the problem)

    I'm not quite ready to accuse Facebook of an intentional coverup, but I must admit that it is not just stunning but also a tad suspicious

     

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  12.  
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    wah, Apr 24th, 2011 @ 4:54pm

    Re: Re:

    People should get this:
    Blogs and websites are exactly like they should be, independent.

    Asking for content to be MOVED into a closed silo, which records, analyzes and does who-knows-what with everything you do there, is plain crazy.
    Yes, they record every single page load you do. Every search. Every chat, every message. And it's all stored forever, mined and re-mined.

    So, having just titles posted into "social" media, which I rather call spying media, is fine. It has the link to come on publisher's OWN site to read and discuss about it.

    And btw- sites that have employed fbook comments are 100% dead to me. I won't load a single byte from them.

     

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  13.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 24th, 2011 @ 11:38pm

    Re: Re: Hmm...

    I'm not quite ready to accuse Facebook of an intentional coverup, but I must admit that it is not just stunning but also a tad suspicious

    Man. Wouldn't that be a scoop... But, really, if that was your goal, wouldn't you do stuff like MySpace did in the early days: have pages autoreload every so often to massively inflate your pageviews?

    I guess perhaps this is much more surreptitious and requires someone actually blowing the whistle...

     

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  14.  
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    Robin, Apr 25th, 2011 @ 3:39pm

    Facebook Bugs

    I haven't noticed bugs with the Like button, but I have noticed in Facebook itself I have never seen any stats for how many people visit or like my page (always says 0), but they're always there in the e-mail.

     

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  15.  
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    Overcast (profile), Apr 26th, 2011 @ 7:28am

    But it's also incredibly dishonest, and, for those who know this is happening, potentially fraud. It seems like only a matter of time until we hear about sites purposely leveraging such things for their own advantage

    In a way it's poetic justice. Us - the consumers have been lied to by advertisers for ages. This is a little taste of their own medicine.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Apr 27th, 2011 @ 8:05am

    Re: Re: Re: Hmm...

    If I were to hazard a completely unfounded guess, it's that this was an honest bug, and they know about it, and they aren't explicitly choosing not to fix it or trying to cover it up - but that there very well might be a "well, no rush, right guys?" attitude at play here...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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