Yes, AVG's LinkScanner is spewing fake traffic across the internet, messing with the log files and bandwidth budgets of web sites large and small. But there's one thing it doesn't mess with: search engine paid clicks.
Used by roughly 20 million people worldwide - and counting - AVG's new security tool scans search engine results before you click on them. If you type a keyword into Google, for instance, it automatically visits each site that turns up on Google's results page.
That includes sites that appear as "sponsored links" - a clever name for adverts. And in the wake of our recent AVG-annoys-webmasters story, many assumed the scanner was generating not only fake web traffic but also fake ad clicks, forcing advertisers to pay for eyeballs they aren't really getting.
But in scanning sponsored sites, AVG is careful to bypass the Google mechanism that records paid clicks. Rather than use Google's hyperlink, it uses the site's raw URL. "We parse out the target and go straight there, skipping any Google click counter," says Pat Bitton, head of communications at AVG, a Czech company with regional offices in the US and the UK.
And according to Bitton, this has been the case since AVG paired LinkScanner with its anti-virus engine in late February.
But sponsored sites - like other sites that frequently turn up on search result pages - are still plagued by the fake traffic problem. When it scans, LinkScanner does its best to disguise itself as an actual user. The average webmaster may have no idea the tool is skewing his traffic numbers, and in the long run, that too can damage a site's bottom line.
At the moment, webmasters can weed out this fake traffic by filtering a specific user agent from their log files: "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1;1813)." AVG insists this will not affect legitimate traffic.
"[With a real user click], the user agent does not show with 1813. It will use the standard browser agent because the browser still handles those requests," says AVG CTO Karel Obluk. "Our traffic to scan and the user traffic from the browser are completely separate."
But during an interview last week, chief of research Roger Thompson - who designed the AVG LinkScanner - indicated he may do away with that unique user agent. His chief concern is security, and he doesn't want webmasters or malware writers gaming his scanner. "In order to detect the really tricky - and by association, the most important - malicious content, we need to look just like a browser driven by a human being," he argues.
That said, AVG has also promised to explore alternative solutions to the problem. A fix could arrive as early as this week.
But there's one problem the company can't solve without bagging LinkScanner entirely. Some webmasters complain that the scanner forces them to pay for extra bandwidth. And this problem will only grow. AVG's anti-virus engine is used by a total of 70 million people worldwide, and 50 million have yet to install version 8 - the version that comes with LinkScanner. ®