The half-minute-long commercial for energy drink IRN-BRU on YouTube isn't all that original or really very funny. All the same, the clip "R0049_TDAU8" garnered 113 million hits and received a five-star review, with more than 70,000 visitors giving the clip the popular video site's highest content approval rating. (Editor's note: the file has since been removed from YouTube.)
Is it a victory for bad taste? No. In fact, YouTube's user-generated "Comments & Responses" area is filled with messages wondering how the clip -- which parodies a woman giving birth to a can of fizzy beverage -- was even flagged as interesting in the first place.
The credit for the success of the clip, researchers say, lies with schemers who are gaming the online voting systems used by content-sharing networks to serve their own ends, including the spread of malicious software and adware, according to Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard University and longtime Internet fraud researcher.
Scammers have created sophisticated programs that mimic legitimate YouTube traffic and provide automated feedback for videos and other content they wish to promote, said Edelman.
In other cases, scammers merely purchase the traffic from companies who have developed a cottage industry in providing artificial Web site visits, he said.
By either method, schemers are corrupting the systems used to drive much of the content pushed to the most popular areas of YouTube and similar sites, Edelman said. In the process, they are also lowering the value of the multimedia portals and finding ways to line their own pockets.
"YouTube is actually the victim in this case, as videos that aren't really that great end up in the 'Most Viewed' or 'Top Rated' categories, and people look at those and it impacts their perceptions of the site," Edelman said. "But it also makes you wonder what steps these types of sites are taking to prevent this sort of thing, as we're only seeing this now because scammers are getting so greedy that it's become noticeable."
According to the researcher, who is based at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., the YouTube energy drink clip in question was probably pumped up by a combination of paid traffic and a malicious program that forces people's browsers to secretly imprint the site as they go about their normal Web browsing.
The paid traffic is provided by any one of a number of companies, such as Buyhitscheap.com, that offer Web traffic for a fee. Individuals at Buyhitsheap.com did not respond to efforts by InfoWorld to speak with someone regarding the traffic pumping issue. The Web site is registered through DomainsByProxy.com of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Slogan "Your identity is nobody's business but ours.")
The malicious programs automatically refresh infected browsers to continually increase traffic to a specific piece of content.