THE BOTS ISSUE
The week of November 15, 2015
tdd-youtube_bots

The new kings of YouTube botting

By Chase Hoffberger

Safal never cared much about the fact that I accidentally sabotaged his website.

“My business again started, bro,” he told me via Skype in broken English after weeks spent trying to reach him. “Before two months :).”

Three years ago, before his type of work was commonplace, Safal earned a reputation as one of the cheapest and fastest distributors of purchased YouTube views on the Internet. On online discount superstore Fiverr and his home site BulkYouTube, he sold views for nearly a quarter of today’s market price: an average cut of about $1 per thousand views. Safal sold at “crackhead prices,” one longtime confidant in the YouTube view-buying game told me. If you looked behind the curtain at the makeup of the views—the low retention rates and the regions of the world where they originated—it started to make sense as to why the views were so cheap.

In December 2012, YouTube cracked down on view-buying, and Safal’s business went by the wayside in a hurry, as did a number of other sites that occupied valuable real estate on the front page of Google search results. (Google has owned YouTube since 2006.) A few days before that Christmas, the site stripped major music labels—including Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment—of a combined 2 billion total views. Entire botting systems died. Bulk YouTube Video Downloader, a Firefox extension that helped users download a plethora of autoplaying YouTube videos with a few simple clicks, got killed by a related patch. Posts on blackhatworld.com, a forum for these types of hacks, decried the purge and ensuing drought.

Through much of 2013, sellers reported, YouTube engaged in periodic sweeps of videos with inflated view counts, often deleting views that had been ruled to have violated its terms of service. Sellers would find a workaround for YouTube’s prying algorithm and continue selling views until the next time YouTube caught up—an endless game of digital whack-a-mole.

“You want demo? Check back after 6 hours.”

In the years since my initial exposé of the underground video views market, much has changed in the larger digital landscape. YouTube has become a dominant entertainment destination, with its ecosystem of star talent and hundreds of millions of video hours watched throughout the world each day. It is by any measure the most widely used tool for new music discovery, a distinction expected to only grow stronger as YouTube Music—the musical arm of YouTube’s new subscription service Red—begins to challenge other premium options. Likewise, sites like Next Big Data—which aggregate data from services such as Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud—are picking tomorrow’s pop stars, and Billboard’s iconic charts have been factoring in YouTube views since 2013, when Baauer proved through “Harlem Shake” that you didn’t even need a complete song to have a hit.  

In short, looking popular on YouTube has never before been so important or commercially viable. To find out how the underground market has changed with the times—and to learn how YouTube has adapted—I tried to see how many views I could buy for a video that had no chance of going viral: a seven-second mashup of baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy dancing to a trap rap version of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme.

• • •

I first learned about the murky underground of fake YouTube views through some Russians who tried to mess with me, right before the bubble burst.

On Dec. 6, 2012, BuzzFeed published an article about a rapper named Yasha Swag and his music video, “Pickles.” In six days, “Pickles” had picked up 6 million YouTube views. The EDM song—if you could even call it that—was terrible, with a lackluster hook and no-frills production. The cinematic accompaniment appears as though a fourth grader drew it up. By the time the Daily Dot covered the story the following day, “Pickles” had gained another 2.5 million views.

It only took a few searches to find that Yasha Swag was something more notable than just a viral rapper; he was the concoction of a Russian who went through most Internet corners as JacobPOV or Jacob Povolotski. He created, among other things, a Facebook patch called FacebookLikes (that did exactly what you’d expect) and was a regular voice on BlackHatWorld. Weeks later, he told the Daily Dot that the “Pickles” track was nothing more than an experiment to test YouTube.

“I blast some tests sometimes,” he said. “I try to prove [to] some ppl how its easy to get on top.”

Povolotski was the one who told me about the major label cleanup and the impact YouTube’s plundering had on certain sellers. Looking back, it’s likely that Povolotski had other motives. It wasn’t long before his presence in botting circles had reached the point of stardom.

By the following December, SocialVEVO, a site Povolotski helped run, had grown into one of the most influential shit-stirrers on the Internet, the kind of site that could boost your video with 500,000 views before breakfast. Their first major play came in late November 2013, after Brian, the talking dog from Family Guy, got killed on the show. SocialVEVO leveraged the death with the unveiling of briansannouncement.com, an ultimately nonsensical site that garnered headline coverage and proved just how easily SocialVEVO could attract visitors to its sites.

brian-announcement

Using stormbots, a computer-controlled network of dormant IP addresses, Povolotski and SocialVEVO were able to send tens of thousands of phony visitors to any video they chose. As SocialVEVO, and later under the name Swenzy (after the site received a cease-and-desist from VEVO), its assembly of organizers and merry pranksters built up a reputable view-buying business, sending views, likes, and followers to various YouTube videos and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They sent 75,000 fake followers to the Daily Dot’s Twitter account after we exposed their propensity for messing with YouTube views.

Swenzy ran into trouble on Jan. 10, 2014, after YouTube once again changed its methods. An email to me that week from Richie Romero, an alias for one of the company’s principals, revealed that he planned to shut down the business and rebrand as a reputable advertising agency. Out of those ashes emerged Rantic, even more powerful and disruptive than all that had come before it.

Last September, Rantic pulled a bait-and-switch that caught the entire Internet’s attention. Amid the rush of celebrity photo leaks, collectively known as Celebgate, a mysterious site cropped up with a pledge to release a nude photo of actress Emma Watson. The site garnered media coverage from Business Insider, the Washington Post, and the BBC (as well as us), but when its countdown ended, the site merely announced Rantic’s arrival on the scene.

The idea of looking good on YouTube has never been so important or commercially viable.

By most accounts, it’s the most successful reseller of YouTube views on the market today. The company also wants nothing to do with the Kernel. Rantic’s current principals told the Kernel that Povolotski no longer works there, and they declined to be interviewed for this story.

Screen_Shot_2015-11-10_at_5.20.38_PM

• • •

“Nothing’s changed,” notes Fletcher Batts, an Atlanta-based distributor and acquaintance since 2012, who runs the website viralshowpr.com. “In fact, [view-buying has] probably gotten bigger.”

What’s perhaps more surprising about the fake YouTube views market is that it’s also more professional and, according to the top sellers, largely unchecked. YouTube hasn’t had a serious purge in 16 months, and when the hammer is on occasion dropped, sellers say, the site typically just removes the phony views rather than deleting the botted videos altogether.

Why did YouTube decide to wave the proverbial white flag on true hard-nosed enforcement? To hear the sellers tell it, they beat YouTube at its own game. They employed tactics to throw the site’s spiders off their trails, pulling views from multiple distributors and investing in high quality videos that registered as having higher retention than those sold in earlier iterations.

They also figured out how to give YouTube the runaround. Sellers allegedly started ambushing YouTube’s contracted clients to conceal their own faked views.

“They’re not going to take down the people that they’re paying directly,” Batts said. “If YouTube put out the streaming of the iHeartMusic Festival, we’d go in and add 100,000 views to it depending on the percentage [of views that already existed]. Then, when and if YouTube tried to do a crawl, it would see those views spread out over a large percentage of videos—not just our own.”

The industry began to fortify again, and a new crew of sites started popping up on Google. Safal recognized the trend and got back up with smmkart.com, a far more robust and efficient marketplace that offers members invoicing and tracking services, plus package discounts for subscribers.

“Nothing’s changed. In fact, [view-buying has] probably gotten bigger.”

“You want demo?” he prodded me with broken English when we connected. He noted how many views—44,940—I had on the aforementioned baby Groot video. “Check back after 6 hours.”

When I returned, the view count had climbed over 67,000.

• • •

Not everybody was so willing to throw me YouTube views for free. But some of the rates—like those offered by YTview.com, a site I used to purchase views three years ago—remain ridiculously cheap. Kenzo, YTView’s proprietor, sells views at roughly $1 per 1,000 views.

These days, buying views has been made so easy that a 6-year-old could do it. All you need is a YouTube link, a couple clicks to choose how many YouTube views you want, and a PayPal account to transfer payment. I made five deals in total through the entire reporting process. Orchestrating those five purchases took less than five minutes. In total, I bought 20,000 from Kenzo for a flat $20, 10,000 for $22 off authentichits.com, and another 5,000 at 500views.com for $24.99. (I also haggled for those freebies from Safal and another handful from authentichits.com.) Here’s what the geographic makeup of the video’s views looked like after my last purchase from 500views.com.

Map_after_500Views_Order

I found a couple good confidants in Martin Vass and Nick Millard, two North American 20-somethings who’ve been selling views on different sites for three and five years, respectively. Vass, who owns 500views.com, is an SEO guy who came into the job after quitting a 9–5 working for the Canadian government in Ottawa. He said that he taught himself to take advantage of Google’s search engine algorithms and has been slinging YouTube views ever since.

500Views_splash_page

“I was never the type to work for anyone,” he said. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial vibe, since my very first days of working. I decided to go to college and study computer networking—dropped out after three semesters because that’s all I really needed.”

His counterpart, Nick Millard, owns authentichits.com and lives in Virginia. You can find him on LinkedIn. He says that he’s been selling YouTube views since 2010. He learned the game from his buddy who owns YTNuke, one of the longest-running phony view-buying sites. Millard had authenticviews.com before authentichits.com, but he jumped ship in the summer of 2013 when authenticviews.com got “sandboxed.”

Authentic_Hits_Splash_Page

“If you Google it, nothing will show up,” he says.

Though both of their sites are as bare-bones and basic as the others you’ll find online, each employs a certain level of professionalism that I couldn’t find on my first go-round with other sites. Vass retains a programmer and network specialist to help him at his office, while Millard says he employs four workers. “Primarily for SEO,” he says. “And marketing. If you’re not on the first page, you’re nothing.”

“If YouTube put out the streaming of the iHeartMusic Festival, we’d go in and add 100,000 views to it depending on the percentage [of views that already existed].”

To get the views, Millard contracts with Russian bot farms, plugging his orders into spreadsheets tagged onto IP addresses. Vass says that he keeps 500views.com running by paying a monthly retainer to “a number of high-traffic websites to have them run hidden scripts.”

ruskiesThe Russian bot farms contracted by Authentic Hits in action.

“When someone visits one of these sites there is a hidden script that is opened whenever the website receives a unique visitor,” he says. “The script contains the YouTube link we need to increase views on. For every unique person visiting the trafficked website, you receive a view. YouTube counts the view count by unique IP address.”

The system typically costs more—where 100,000 views from Kenzo would cost $100, Millard’s site costs $168 and Vass’s will run you $397—but both say that the accountability they offer is far superior. Millard even offers a “safe section” on his site that provides clients with any YouTube boost but views (including shares, likes, comments, and subscribers)—the only thing YouTube actually looks out for. “Those were the most popular bundles during the dark times” of 2013, he said.

YouTube remains extremely standoffish when speaking to the press about the concept of purchased YouTube views—the company declined to comment for this story—but blog posts and pages within Google’s Help section seem to at least be acknowledging the issue more directly than when the hammer first dropped three years ago. A February 2014 blog post on the YouTube Creator site details the ways in which YouTube “take[s] the accuracy of these interactions very seriously” and noted that engineers have begun “periodically auditing the views” that videos receive.

“While in the past we would scan views for spam immediately after they occurred, starting today we will periodically validate the video’s view count, removing fraudulent views as new evidence comes to light,” it reads. “We don’t expect this approach to affect more than a miniscule fraction of videos on YouTube, but we believe it’s crucial to improving the accuracy of view counts and maintaining the trust of our fans and creators.”

Vass also says that YouTube has banned users from using keywords like “Buy YouTube views” or “YouTube views” in AdWords copy. And while neither of the two fears for the futures of the videos that they help boost, there’s an understanding among sellers that the website they maintain may one day receive their own blacklisting from the search pages.

Authentichits will go the way of Authentic Views one day,” said Millard, referencing his current and past sites respectively. “But we are ready: authenticplays.”

The train rolls on, I suggest.

He quips back: “Churn and burn.”

Illustration by Bruno Moraes