A fake business set up on Facebook by the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones received thousands of fake endorsements – and Facebook doesn't seem to care.
Rory concludes, not unreasonably, that firms may be "wasting large sums of money on adverts to gain 'Likes' from Facebook members who have no real interest in their products". He also poses the much broader question of whether Facebook's $100bn valuation can possibly be justified – for Facebook distinguishes itself by its authenticity, insisting users must declare their real-life identities.
The BBC's phoney bagel outlet sold no products yet generated endorsements over a week, particularly from the Philippines and Egypt. Three-quarters of clicks were generated by profiles purporting to be 13 to 17 years old.
It's a lovely story since it highlights an aspect of the threadbare internet economy that people don't like to talk about very much – the virtual worlds of sparring robots. His experiment is a close analogue of what's happened to the news business. Several years ago, website owners realised they could exploit Google's advertising business by creating "content farms", generating huge quantities of spurious articles. The articles were not tailored to attract humans, but Google's robot search crawlers. It was so successful that soon the mainstream online media was following suit.
Executives were urged to tailor their output for robots, sprinkling digital pheromones throughout the copy, this time to attract crawlers.
"Just as clever headlines, delayed drops and other journalistic tricks evolved to suit the medium, so we will learn new ways to take advantage of the opportunities SEO provides to reach a vast audience," urged the Daily Telegraph's Shane Richmond.
The spell was broken in 2010, when the Times newspaper shielded its content from Google's web crawlers, and demanded people pay real money for it instead. A few months later an executive reported the pleasure of journalists being able to write headlines for humans again, not machines.
The Times was able to break free of the dreadful imperative to second-guess a Google algorithm because it decided to insist on real money changing hands.
The BBC is able to rise above the market pressure too, because of its unique role and charter obligations. Businesses that focus on attracting a significant number of potential buyers to companies selling real product are much less likely to feel the pressure too. Others face a ceaseless race in which traditional skills are largely superfluous.
Rory poses the question of whether Facebook's $100bn valuation can be justified. It's a good one. Facebook may argue that the endorsement programme is peripheral, and not a barometer of its revenue. Either way, however, there's a statistic in the BBC report that ought to cause advertisers pause for thought. A significant number – over 50 million – of Facebook accounts may be fakes. So much for the authentic experience. ®