Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

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Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

If you are a marketer, you probably have heard about the somewhat new and emerging enemy: The Email Security Bots. The war is on and we have been standing clueless for a while, watching from the side while the Bots were messing with our numbers, with no real solution available.
Well, it’s time to fight back!
It all started a couple of years ago when some of our customers noticed a surge in email click metrics and they also pointed out some interesting and strange behaviors in their data:

  • Seconds after email is delivered, they see a high volume of clicks
  • They noticed a high volume of clicks from the same account/company
  • The activity log shows ‘clicked a link in an email’ before the ‘email open’ event and in many cases without visiting the actual page

Our research concluded those behaviors are typical for Bots, and NOT for humans. The bots' role is to click each link in emails, sent to the domain they protect, to prevent harmful clicks that can harm the company by flagging them as a phishing scam.
The implications of those Bots clicks can be devastating for marketing teams worldwide.
All your marketing numbers could be way off. It means you’ve been counting clicks completely wrong in your marketing automation program. Not to mention the impact on your scoring, interesting moments and nurturing campaigns and obviously your reports.
We, at eDigital.Marketing, did an extensive research and came up with a solution that we would like to share with you. We implemented it in our customers' instances and our customers are surprised by the findings and are satisfied with the results.
We started by running a test on an email that was part of a nurturing campaign already built in Marketo.
The test was using a Smart Campaign that was listening to page visits and email delivery.
The program was running for about five days to allow enough time for prospects to actually click on the link in the email.
Five days later we ran a new Smart Campaign just to collect data from Marketo about "clicked the link in the email" without any filters at all.
We downloaded both lists to excel and checked for clicks in Marketo that were NOT in the list we have created. Here are the shocking numbers:
Marketo counted 327 clicks WHILE the Smart Campaign only identified 91 of those clicks as real people who clicked the link and actually visited the page.

So at that point, it was pretty simple to calculate that approximately 72% of those clicks were fake and were made by ‘Bots’, we then identified and created a list of the companies that are using bots as part of their IT security infrastructure.
To make things even more complicated, we then went ahead and made some additional research on the list and found that a third of the remaining ‘humans’ can NOT be counted as clicked anyway since they visited the webpage in the past and NOT by using the email we've tested. The Smart Campaign was flagging them since the email was delivered to them and indeed in the past, they visited the page.
BUT since we compared the Marketo clicks to the Smart Campaign clicks, those ‘humans’ (that didn't click but visited the page) where excluded and therefore no extra calculating was needed.
To make sure the data is correct, we sampled some ‘Bot’ leads and checked their logs in Marketo. All leads from all companies who were suspected to be using ‘bots’ were showing the activity of a ‘bot’ - clicked but no open nor visited page.
In conclusion, out of 327 clicks identified by Marketo, only 91 were Humans.
Now all was left for us to do is to add a few Smart Campaigns to neutralize the Bots and stop them from disrupting the scoring system, the interesting moments and all reporting.
We now have a Bot system running in the background making sure all our numbers are correct and not just making us look good.

Ronen Wasserman
53 REPLIES 53
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Level 6 - Champion

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

We've definitely seen the same issue. It's fairly isolated in our industry and we see bot-clicks in a pretty specific region, but our numbers are even farther off than the 72% you're seeing. We're talking 93-96% inaccurate.

We've since started utilizing the page view as the trigger for those groups as well which has helped, but the biggest issue for me is associating those clicks (web views) back to the program level in an automated way. Since the clicked link in email activity has a program ID associated, but the web page visit activity log will not.

It's a serious issue that Marketo itself needs to bake into the platform. We've been trying to get cleaner data with our own workarounds, but it really only works in a program-to-program basis and haven't been able to come up with an instance wide solution that we could set up to have running all the time.

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Level 10 - Champion Alumni

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

To ensure you’re truly dealing with human activity, you need to measure one additional step - and that’s identifying those that are web page visits are also clicking on a link (or submitting a form) on the landing page. Today, bots can trigger web page visits as well.

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Level 10 - Champion Alumni

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

Agree.

I'd love to see a clearer set of images or diagrams for how you did this Ronen.

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Champion Moderator

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

Yes! I appreciate learning about what you discovered but I feel like you yada yada yada'd past the good part!

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Level 10 - Community Moderator

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

bots can trigger web page visits as well.

Ab-so-lutely!

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Level 6 - Champion

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

It's really interesting you're seeing bots trigger page views, I really haven't seen that correlation in our data yet. We operate in a pretty specific B2B sector, so I actually think it more likely has to do with the most commonly used technology in our sector. Barracuda seems to be our biggest problem, and from my research and own testing, it does not appear that Barracuda specifically downloads any javascript when it gets to the landing page, as I'm not seeing broad bot-click activity in Marketo, GA, or other web analytics tools, but I AM seeing the corresponding click activity in Marketo. The honeypot idea someone posted below seems like a decent way to avoid that, but only if you're batch reporting OR mass-suppressing known bot-click addresses.

Dan -- When you track that additional activity on the landing page, is that trigger based? Do you have a way you associate that activity with the program which the user originally clicked? That's my biggest gap that I'm trying to solve for at this point.

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Level 10 - Champion Alumni

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

Chris - the way we used to do this (until we saw false-positives with page visits) was to add a "Visited web page" choice to the "change program status" flow step.  You can't add it as a filter in the smart list since it can sometimes take several minutes for Marketo to register the page visit when it has already triggered off of the email click.  So we add a 15 minute wait step and then something like this:

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But now that we're faced with a third variable - and since Marketo doesn't support conditional "choice" logic (where we would need a second level choice of "clicked link on specific web page") - we're kinda stuck. Heck, there's not even a choice that allows you to select the link constrained by a web page.  I believe Sanford has been toying with a custom activity that would identify when all three of these actions have occurred, but nothing's been published as of yet.

Obviously, if the person has visited this page in the past - and not part of the email click session - then this too will result in a false-positive.

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Level 6 - Champion

Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

Ahhh yea this makes sense. Agreed on the previous visitors issue. Conditional choice logic would be amazing, the trouble I face is I really want to use the "Clicked Link" trigger, but want to wait for a period of time after that activity and wait for the 2nd or 3rd layer activity like you're describing here (page view, page click, form fill, etc.). I can watch page activity and use querystring filters to identify users who visit pages via email clicks, but that activity isn't associated with the email program and the trigger is now the "Visited Webpage," which doesn't help our sales team understand what content or marketing campaign is driving engagement.

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Re: Bot or Not? – Are you suffering from ‘bot clicks’?

Hey Dan Stevens​ -

Re: "Heck, there's not even a choice that allows you to select the link constrained by a web page", I'm sure you know that there IS a constraint for web page for the trigger/filter clicks/clicked link on web page (see below) so I'm wondering what you meant by that.

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The limitations in the flow step choice logic have often frustrated me too. Have you considered using "Member of Smart List" as the Choice in Change Program Flow step and putting your multiple criteria in the Smart List?

Denise