Value of Facebook 'likes' questioned

Cape Town – Companies are wasting large sums of money on adverts to gain "likes" from Facebook members who have no real interest in their products, a BBC investigation suggests.

It also appears that many account holders who click on the links lie about their personal details, according to a news report on BBC News on Friday.

"Likes" are highly valued by marketing departments of many leading brands. But recent events and suspected fake profiles have prompted some marketers to become wary of Facebook adverts.

Facebook, which claims a global audience of more than 900 million monthly active users, makes money by charging companies a fee to show adverts designed to attract new "likes". Some companies have attracted millions of "likes".

The vast majority of Facebook's revenues come from advertising and its performance will be scrutinised when it releases its financial results on July 26 - the first such report since its Nasdaq debut on May 18.

Despite revealing earlier this year that about 5% to 6% of its 900 million users might be fake, ie up to 54 million profiles, Facebook still insists it sees no evidence of a "wave of likes" coming from fake users or "obsessive clickers".

But Security expert Graham Cluley of the security firm Sophos said there is a major problem. "Some of the profiles appear to be 'fakes' run by computer programs to spread spam. 

"Spammers and malware authors can mass-produce false Facebook profiles to help them spread dangerous links and spam, and trick people into befriending them," he said.

"We know some of these accounts are run by computer software with one person puppeteering thousands of profiles from a single desk handing out commands such as 'like' as many pages as you can to create a large community.

"I'm sure Facebook is trying to shut these down but it can be difficult to distinguish fake accounts from real ones."

According to the BBC, at least one marketing consultant has warned clients to be wary of the value of Facebook "likes". 

Michael Tinmouth, a social media marketing consultant, ran Facebook advertising campaigns for a number of small businesses, including a luxury goods firm and an executive coach.

At first, his clients were pleased with the results. But they became concerned after looking at who had clicked on the adverts.

While they had been targeting Facebook users around the world, all their "likes" appeared to be coming from countries such as the Philippines and Egypt.

"They were 13 to 17 years old, the profile names were highly suspicious, and when we dug deeper a number of these profiles were liking 3 000, 4 000, even 5 000 pages," he said.

Tinmouth pointed out a number of profiles which had names and details that appeared to be made up.

An experiment by the BBC appears to have confirmed this was not a one-off issue. The BBC created a Facebook page for VirtualBagel - a made-up company with no products.

The number of "likes" it attracted from Egypt and the Philippines was out of proportion  to other countries targeted such as the US and UK.

One Cairo-based fan called himself Ahmed Ronaldo and claimed to work at Real Madrid.

Confronted with this new evidence, Facebook still played down the issue of fake profiles. "We've not seen evidence of a significant problem.

"Neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook," a spokesperson told BBC.

"All of these companies have access to Facebook's analytics which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue.

"A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms but this is against our rules and we use automated systems as well as user reports to help us detect them."

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