In China, the world’s largest smartphone market with over 800 million users, a unique type of farm springs up in urban areas.
The only crops there are smartphones.
The operations, known as click farms, can house hundreds or thousands of iPhones and Android phones on the shelves. They are plugged in and programmed to search, click, and download a certain app over and over again. The goal is to manipulate the system of app store rankings and search results.
“The business of fake views is so widespread,” the South China Morning Post reported in 2018, “that Chinese state media CCTV reported that 90 per cent of views generated by many popular shows on video sites are fake.”
App developers buy the service to boost their products' visibility in an effort to win a bigger slice of the $50 billion dollar online advertising market in China.
How click farms work
In the traffic driven and metric-obsessed digital economy, the use case of click farms is expanding beyond promoting apps. People use it to inflate posts views to attract advertisers, boost video views, and game the search results on e-commerce platforms.
Click farms use an automated process hacks into the normal App Store Optimization (ASO) practice — which requires developers to use certain keywords in descriptions and attract users by being a useful product — and are programmed to promote apps by imitating a real user by searching for certain keywords, clicking on the app, downloading, and even writing positive reviews.
Setting up a click farm requires both hardware and software investments. Buying hundreds of iPhones, mostly second-hand ones, is not cheap. A click farm also use servers and software that could hack into the app store system. Another big cost is to buy high-quality Apple IDs, as they would be given more weight by the algorithms than a brand new account.
Click farms are deemed illegal in China and have always been under the risk of being detected and blocked by app stores like Apple. Nevertheless, click farm clusters have been spotted around Shenzhen, the Southern metropolitan in China known as a hub of electronics.
Click farms are effective — especially when crowdsourcing
For click farm operators, it’s a constant battle with Apple’s evolving algorithm. In one online ad, a click farm operator claimed they have updated their program after Apple cracked down such behaviors and gave more weight to actual downloads in 2016.
And so click farming evolved and began involving human crowdsourcing.
On China’s prevalent messaging apps WeChat and QQ, people gathered in group chats claim their task to download and review an app and get paid. The cost is usually higher than click farms, but it will look more like organic traffic and less likely to be blocked by app stores.
Despite the risks, buying services from click farm is still seen as effective and relatively cost-efficient way of promoting an app within a short period of time. Gaming apps, for example, are major customers of click farms because users are more likely to browser top charts and try new games. Some paid app can also make quick cash attracting more downloads.
Consequently, click farms are now a substantial, shadowy part of the internet.