The Ugly Side of Pay Per Click Advertising: What Happens When People Search for Your App?

Becky Doles

Viewability tools are helping platforms like Facebook ads adopt independent verification.

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

Congratulations, your app has finally made it! You’ve reached a critical mass of users, and you’re starting to get the recognition you deserve. Your app is becoming the buzz of blogs, social media, and even some review sites. All of that free marketing is great, of course. It’s everything you could have hoped for! So what’s there to worry about? Well, in two words … PPC advertising.

Popularity can be a bit of a double-edged sword. The more awareness you generate, the more likely it becomes that other apps (or sites) will try to borrow some of that popularity. While this isn’t exactly the most above-board way to operate, it’s easy to understand why someone would do this. After all, it’s much simpler to piggyback on the success of others than to build something from scratch.

This is usually accomplished through some form of misrepresentation or false association. Unrelated parties can pretend to have a relationship with your company, or worse, they can even masquerade as you. This can happen in many different channels, but is particularly common within the realm of pay-per-click advertising. Why? There are a few aspects of PPC advertising that make it an ideal format for this form of brand abuse.

1. PPC Advertising Provides a Large, Captive Audience

By placing ads on Google, an advertiser can garner a significant number of impressions and clicks from any keyword with a decent search volume. For example, there are over 6 million monthly searches for “Angry Birds” on Google – that’s a lot of opportunities for advertisers.

2. Searchers Are Already Interested and Motivated

Unlike other forms of online advertising that have to persuade the viewer into taking an interest, search ads are well-targeted because users are actively looking for something specific. This is especially true with branded keywords (any keyword that includes a trademark or brand name), and makes searchers very likely to click on these ads. So whether they’re looking to download your app immediately or simply heard your name somewhere and are trying to learn more, they’re quite receptive to these messages.

3. PPC Is a Low-Barrier Platform

By design, paid search has very little barrier to entry. The costs are relatively low (particularly for branded keywords), there’s no artwork needed, and you pay with a credit card. Your account can be up and running in minutes. While this is great for marketers, it also means that bad actors can easily abuse the system.

4. Your Brand Is Up for Grabs

Unfortunately, Google and Bing cannot just police all the ads that appear on their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). It’s downright unfeasible. Manually reviewing each ad would be a gargantuan task, developing a set of automated rules would ignore so many of the gray areas within search engines’ policies (as well as the law), and there are many tactics that clever advertisers can use to get around such measures anyhow.

So, how are apps being targeted with brand abuse? We decided to investigate using BrandVerity’s PPC Monitoring system, testing the names of more than 20 popular apps from Google Play and the App Store. Searches were conducted on Google and separately on Google Mobile, and they each returned some interesting results.

Where’s that App Download Really Coming from?

If you cross-promote your app within other apps via one of the mobile ad networks, you might be surprised by the true sources of some of your traffic. In a number of cases, we saw these referring apps inflating their in-app ad clicks by placing paid search ads. This operation is simple: all the referring app has to do is figure out the link structure associated with a user clicking on a particular ad within their app, then use a URL consistent with that link structure as the destination of their paid search ad. To the user, this isn’t even noticeable. Here’s a sample, hypothetical sequence that one might experience (let’s pretend there’s a popular Android game called “Kitten Kraze”):

  1. User searches for “Kitten Kraze” on Google using their Android phone.
  2. User sees an ad with the title “Kitten Kraze App” that says “Download from Google Play” in the display URL.
  3. The user clicks on the ad.
  4. The user is automatically sent through a series of redirects that takes them to the Kitten Kraze page within the Google Play store. These redirects include a URL that would normally signal a click on a display ad served by a mobile ad network.

Although this may be invisible to the user, it can really wreck the economics for the downstream app. Instead of receiving incremental traffic via ad clicks within the referring app, the downstream app is actually having its brand traffic cannibalized by the referring app. Whether the ad network is cost per impression, pay-per-click, or cost per install, this app owner is essentially paying the referring app (where the in-app display ad supposedly appeared) for downloads it would have otherwise received organically. Furthermore, this would also be obscured from the app owner. If anything, their reporting would show that this particular app was doing a good job of encouraging installs. Blind to the true source of the traffic, the app owner would have no reason to be suspicious and correct the issue.

The silver lining here is that this tactic will only work on Google Mobile. Searches made from desktop and laptop devices are unaffected. However, considering that users may be more likely to search for an app on their phone, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of branded searches won’t be affected.

Brand Hijacking to Promote Unrelated Apps

It can get far worse than that. At least in the case above, we still saw the user ultimately get to the app they originally searched for. But that doesn’t always have to be the case! In some other scenarios that we found, ads would masquerade as the app that the user searched for, then would lead to entirely irrelevant apps when they were actually clicked on.

We recently covered this on our blog, but found numerous new examples in this batch of monitoring. There are a few interesting patterns to these ads:

  • They all seem to rely on Dynamic Keyword Insertion (DKI) in order to include the brand name in their headline.
  • The supporting description lines are usually incongruous with this headline, and seem to be a stock piece of copy about the app in general.
  • The logo that appears next to the ad is always the logo of the app that the ad actually links to – fortunately, advertisers can’t hijack your logo.

Irrelevant Sites Siphoning Traffic

One of the great features of Google Play is the ability to initiate an app installation from your laptop or desktop. Similar to Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” feature, this allows users to conveniently browse app information and make app purchases in a more user-friendly interface. However, this also means that users will still make searches for apps’ branded keywords when they’re not on Google Mobile.

That opens up a variety of opportunities for malicious advertisers. Two of the more common advertisers we found in this category were flash gaming sites and toolbar promoters. Each has their own set of payoffs, but the principle is the same: pull in unsophisticated users in hopes that they will stick around. In each case, the advertiser must mislead the visitor in some way or another.

On flash gaming sites, the trick seems to be to convince the searcher that the game/app they were looking for is also available within their web browser. These sites usually make money from ads, so convincing visitors to stick around is all they need in order to monetize themselves. Toolbar sites work a bit differently, generally operating on a cost per install basis. Their trick is to make the app seem like it can be downloaded for one’s laptop or desktop operating system. A fast-acting or uninformed visitor could certainly make this mistake. And even if they immediately uninstall the toolbar after realizing what happened, the site would still have earned its payout.

Other Issues?

Of course, this list of tactics is not exhaustive. It probably doesn’t even cover all forms of app abuse in paid search, let alone across all forms of app marketing. If there are any other schemes or anomalies you’ve experienced, we’d love to hear about them! That’s always the first step towards developing a solution.

Becky Doles

Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.

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