I Ran a Voluntary Botnet

My favorite failure

Posted by  on October 3rd 2022 02:33 pm

In 2013, I worked for a company that basically gave me 80% time. 20% of my time was supporting the products we already launched, the other 80% was experimenting and coming up with new products. These numbers were not super rigid, some weeks I would spend most of the week working on our already launched products, other weeks I might be working from home (across the street from the office) for 72 hours straight because I got fixated on something.

Back then, I was blogging kind of regularly back then (once every week or so), on a sub domain of a domain I wish I could forget, but I'm stuck with forever. My site got decent traffic without any "real" backlinks other than from a few "no-index" and "no-follow" links on social media. So technically, my blog should not have been in the top page for any search term and I shouldn't have had ANY traffic, but it usually was #1 or #2 for various WordPress and jQuery related searches (I had a couple of jQuery plugins and wrote some PHP hacks for WordPress that eventually took down millions of websites), and I amazingly got around 10k monthly visitors on average and around $15/mo in AdSense revenue (all of this is way better than I currently get - probably. I don't really check since it is just a row in my log database saying the page loaded).

So I started looking into WHY I was the top result of those queries, and I found that it was because when someone landed on my site with that query, the bounce rate was only 10-30% (depending on a couple of other factors) compared to most other sources being 85-90% bounce. The exact technical meaning of a bounce is lost on me now, but it had to do with how long a visitor stayed on the site without leaving or if a visitor click on other internal links for the site. I'm not sure if they showed total time on site back then, but if they did, I didn't dig deep enough.

So I proposed to the owner of the company: I would create a "Click Faker". It would work by:

  1. User installs a script on their local computer.
  2. Navigate to google.com on a headless browser.
  3. It would then search for a term a user wanted to rank.
  4. It would scour the top 10 pages.
  5. If it found you, it would click your link, then spend 2-5 minutes navigating around your site before closing the window.

I first tried this with Selenium (or if that didn't exist back then, some equivalent scriptable headless browser), but Google blocked it almost immediately. So up against a wall and a self imposed deadline, I hacked together a headless version of chromium, with some standard but randomly generated user agents (eventually I would expand this to hidden IE and Firefox browsers, too).

And the marvelous thing is it WORKED! And surprisingly well. BUT you had to get your site in the top 100 results, and be running google AdSense before it would work really well. Analytics would work, but it was less effective of a combination. It also seemed to prove what we had long suspected that Google would rank sites with AdSense higher than a website with only Analytics (probably because of increased telemetry data they could gather - I never looked much deeper into this either).

The concept worked, so I spent another week putting together a web application (I had built up over the years a standard template I used for all of our services so I could go from PoC to Launch with payments in about 20 hours). We launched the product, and sent out an email blast. Within the month, we had a few dozen subscribers at $50/mo. BUT no subsequent email blasts or new features (additional browsers, lower cost plans, etc) increased the demand.

The craziest thing, it was a problem I knew everyone on our email list had. We had a list of people who bought backlinks to rank, paid for faster indexing, guest blog posts on other websites, etc. These people were trying to rank, and here was a new tool that was proven. Multiple case studies written up by other "SEO/SEM researchers" showing evidence. We built it, but they didn't come.

So, without a large enough network of consumer PCs on consumer ISPs, it was doomed to fail. The network needed to be around 1000 users before it would work "forever". Even giving away free limited accounts did not help.

Ultimately, I think there wasn't enough education around it, and nothing we did marketing wise really helped.

It died way too young, but I have though back fondly on it many times.

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