Mashable just reported that Plenty of Fish, the free dating site run by Markus Frind, is now the #1 dating site in the US, with a 17.02% share, 3-5x that of Match.com or eHarmony.
I'm sorry, but I'm calling bullshit on this. Do you know anyone who met someone on Plenty of Fish? (PS... I have no doubt I'll get anonymous comments to this post... Seems such remarks, always supportive of the service, always turn up mysteriously.) If it had 3x the share of Match, you'd think it would have at least half the brand awareness.
Supposedly, this one man operation is netting millions of dollars of ad revenues--of this doesn't wreak of a Web 2.0 Madoff scheme, I don't know what does.
But let's think about it for a second. What's actually going on here? It would be irresponsible to dismiss this out of hand without some kind of logic, right?
Well, thanks to a little deductive reasoning, I've figured out exactly what's going on here.
Let's start with what we know to be real--the money. We've seen the million dollar check, not to mention the fact that, if logic holds true, someone at Google would have commented on the situation if he wasn't making nearly what he said he was or if his checks were fake.
So if the money's real, it's got to come from clicking traffic, right? The question is whether or not the clicks and traffic are real or if they're fake.
If these were all real people, you would have imagined more of a buzz among real people. A scan of Twitter reveals a lot more people talking about actually using Match.com than Plentyoffish, even though the latter supposedly has 3x the market share. So either, for some reason, everyone who uses this site isn't telling anyone, or these aren't real users.
Since this isn't a porn site, it seems unlikely that the audience here would be so silent, so it's probably the case that these aren't real users. That doesn't explain, however, all the clicks. If these were bot clicks, Google would have picked up on it right away and stopped sending him checks.
Could he have fooled the Borg? What are the chances that one dude outsmarted all of Google into believing his phony clickstream?
That seems pretty unlikely, too. Thousands of people are out there trying to fool Google. The idea that one dude cracked the code is far-fetched. Plus, wouldn't he eventually do or say something stupid and get caught? It's human nature. If you had tricked Google into paying you millions per year, wouldn't you just be bursting to tell someone?
Of course. That's how I came to my next conclusion: Markus doesn't actually know the clicks are fradulent.
Yes, that's right. He's totally unaware. Remember what George Costanza said. It's not a lie if you believe it.
It's too good a secret not to get out. Someone else is generating all the fake clicks.
But who? Who would have any interest in having a site get fairytale-like traffic and click numbers out of a service that looks like a 9 year old built it? Who could possibly benefit from a story of someone making millions from Google Adsense? Not only that, but who would have the sheer brain power on hand to create an undectable army of clicking bots that model human behavior so much that they dupe Google's own servers? It wouldn't be enough to just have the brainpower, though--you'd need extensive data models on how real users actually behave on real sites.
Who might have that...
Yup. Google itself. The story of Markus Frind is better than any PR Google could possibly buy. What's even more amazing is how it happened.
Such a plan would have to be held to a very small number of Google engineers and PhDs (And you wonder why Google has so many PhDs in the first place...). It might actually have to be abstracted away from them, too. They might have to think they were running some kind of simple, more mundane task... because, again, such a story would find it's way out if it got out to too many people. No, each engineer would have to think what they were doing was pretty harmless.
That's where Steven Johnson's book, Emergence, kicks in. It tells the story of very simple software programs that were meant to mix and match with each other to create smarter offspring, using simple survival of the fittest tactics. By design, strong traits survived and weaker ones didn't.
Under the guise of "testing" their click fraud conrols, Google unleashed millions, even billions, of tiny little bots out on the web, clicking away--little testers that could be divided up among all these PhDs and engingers so well that none of them would ever suspect a thing. You've even seen them--random one-offs from sites you've never heard of showing up in your server logs. The ones that get caught clicking die right away. The ones that don't get caught have time to run into other little clickbots and they spawn... again, and again, and again.
Eventually, given the millions of combinations of bots, they get smarter and smarter, until one day, one set of bots at a given site gets so smart, it disappears--seemlessly blending into that site's real traffic, and eventually dwarfing it, but all the while looking completely legitimate to the owner, traffic trackers, and even to Google itself.
Yup... What you have with Plenty of Fish is nothing short of monkeys typing Shakespeare--a site whose audience is mostly made up of incredibly intelligent--almost sensient--clickbots. The bots, not unlike a fantasy franchise league, have even started generating new profiles, pulling names, photos, etc, from other places, each with their own distinct clicking behavior. They've even started plugging into the Aviary API to start creating photos of entirely new people that have never been seen before.
So there you have it. Markus Frind isn't intentially a fraud--he's just the completely random and unsuspecting winner of the Google emergent intellience clickbot spawn lottery. Only through reason and logic could we uncover this--knowing that no matter what the stats say, we all know there aren't nearly as many actual real life humans using the site as we think, and knowing that only Google itself, and not Markus, could have the werewithal to unleash this situation.
Let's just hope this machine city of cyberdating bots sticks to the personals and doesn't have any intention of clicking over to the Department of Defense website.