When Bad Bots Attack: What Digital Publishers Need To Know

    by Rami Essaid
    July 20, 2015
    Photo by infocux Technologies on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    “Steal” is one of the most oft-used words in the English language. Bad guys steal money, cars, identities, elections and countless other valuable things.

    "As more and more of our daily lives move to the digital world, a new and pernicious form of stealing is on the rise."

    As more and more of our daily lives move to the digital world, a new and pernicious form of stealing is on the rise. In this electronic thievery, humans are the perpetrators but machines do the dirty work.


    Digital publishers are especially at risk from bad bots — automated pieces of software that enter a website’s infrastructure and carry out a variety of attacks, unauthorized data gathering, spam and click fraud.

    For the first time in history, bot traffic has surpassed humans this year, accounting for 59 percent of all site visits. Most of those are “good bots” that help a website, from search engines and social media sites, but 23 percent of all web traffic is from bad bots.

    Photo by stavos on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by stavos on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.


    Automated Plagiarists

    Many of the bots that target digital media are automated plagiarists, scraping original content, copying it and posting it on another site in a matter of minutes.

    Digital publishers are particularly vulnerable to bad bots because, plain and simple, digital content is so easy to access. In fact, the “2015 Bad Bot Landscape Report”  we just issued at Distil Networks found that as a percentage of overall traffic, digital publishers were among the hardest hit by bad bots; nearly a third of the traffic into publishing sites were bad bots.

    These bad bots can do a bunch of damage in several different ways. They can drain visitors from a site, damage their SEO rankings and cost advertising revenue. And because of all the bandwidth bad bots use while stealing content, they can make pages slower to load, annoying human visitors and further harming search engine rankings.


    Here are a couple of ugly examples of the havoc that bad bots can wreak on digital publishers.

    After Bright Hub, a site that publishes original articles on science, technology and education topics, was hit with rampant copying of its content, Google penalized the site for what it considered duplicate content and “downranked” Bright Hub in its search listings. As a result, the site lost 50 percent of its traffic.

    CanadaOne, an online publication and resource center for small business owners in Canada, experienced a similar nightmare. The company was shelling out hefty sums to track down copyright offenders and bad bots. Plus, Google was giving sites that had taken CanadaOne’s content the credit and search engine rankings that go to original content producers. It downranked CanadaOne. Furthermore, the web scrapers were slowing down CanadaOne’s site.

    The company saw dramatic improvement on all fronts after installing bot-prevention software.

    Ironically, Plagiarism Today, which publishes articles about content and theft copyright infringement, suffered an outage in 2013 when, according to a report by the outlet, “a botnet attacking WordPress sites tried unsuccessfully to hack into the site but brought it down by overloading its server.”

    Bloomberg is famous for putting only some of its content on the public Internet, thus thwarting thieves from writing algorithms that could scrape Bloomberg’s proprietary content for a competing news feed.

    The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed into law a million years ago by President Clinton (okay, it was Oct. 28, 1998), was supposed to address the kind of copyright infringement that this content theft entails.  But the law is difficult to enforce and really has no teeth when it comes to plagiarism-by-bot.

    Most digital publishers hire a lawyer to try to fight copyright infringement, though I’m amazed by the number who resign themselves to thinking they’re ultimately powerless to stop the problem. That baffles me – no one should let anyone get away with stealing.

    Digital Ad fraud

    Photo by Peyri Herrera on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by
    Peyri Herrera
    on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Bad bots also play a nefarious role in digital ad fraud, from populating bogus websites with purloined content to inflating visitor numbers.

    Plagiarism Today reports that YouTube has fallen prey to a new type of spam — automated videos that plagiarize content from blogs, news sites and other text sources.

    “The result for content creators, especially those who produce text or image content, is that your hard work is being used to fuel spam video blogs and those spammers will have an upper hand in search results because of the way Google shows preference to YouTube in its algorithm,” the site reported.

    As long as there has been content, there have been content thieves. The Latin word plagiarius dates to the 1st Century. But the emergence of bad bots poses a unique and difficult threat to digital publishers.  They must be prepared to fight them with anti-bot technology.

    Rami Essaid is CEO and cofounder of Distil Networks, a bot detection and mitigation company.

    Tagged: ad fraud bad bots bot fraud bot traffic bots digital ad fraud

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