In an astounding conflict of interest, a local online marketing company that charges its corporate clients to promote their products and services online, has been revealed to be behind a local website that may sell fake Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and YouTube views.
Depending on the method used, buying Twitter followers, Facebook fans or YouTube views is at best a violation of the Terms of Service of these services, and at worst, fraud.
Private individuals and brands have been able to buy fans, followers and views for a long time. Services like Fiverr enable black hat marketers to juice the statistics of selected Twitter handles, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos by multiples of a thousand for as little as $5 at a time. Of course, more expensive and extensive options are offered by a glut of competing service providers, clamouring to pump up metrics on demand. OnlineCart.co.za is one such service provider.
Last year 2oceansvibe brought the issue of purchased Twitter followers to the fore by highlighting the questionable statistics of a number of local Twitter personalities and digital agencies, who charged brands for exposure on Twitter handles that were crammed with fake followers. A follow up story led to an exposé on Justin Harrison, a little-known direct online marketer from Durban, who massively over-inflated his Twitter following and Facebook fan count while professing his expertise as an online marketing guru.
OnlineCart.co.za has entered the stage as the latest local player in the peddling of likes, fans, and views. With little to no contact information that might indicate ownership or address, OnlineCart looks for all appearances to be an independent enterprise. However, 2oceansvibe has established that OnlineCart is owned and operated by Merloni “brand support consultants”, an online marketing agency based in Norwood, Johannesburg and whose clients include Standard Bank, Deloitte, and Fruit & Veg City.
Merloni CEO, Yaseen Theba
Why would anyone pay for fake Twitter followers, Facebook fans, or YouTube views?
Habits of internet use are steadily maturing in South Africa, and the Digital Advertising industry is keeping step alongside. And an increasingly competitive industry places added pressure on agencies to demonstrate to clients in the simplest possible terms that a campaign has been a success. Be it the view counter on a YouTube video (“How much for a viral video?”), or a massive increase in a given number of Facebook fans, pointing to an impressively high figure reassures clients that their message has been heard on a suspiciously foreign platform. By the same token, there is pressure on individuals within companies spending money on digital advertising to demonstrate to their superiors that the marketing budget allocated to them has been well spent. In some cases, an individual or team within a company may ask a digital agency to purchase artificial metrics for them for this very reason. Perhaps more simply, a company may not be concerned with online influence – they only wish to present an impressive face to the world by way of a sprawling follower network, army of fans, and millions of views. Whatever the case, the end goal is always deception.
Given all of the above, what does OnlineCart offer its clients?
OnlineCart offers Facebook fans, Twitter followers, YouTube views, and Intagram followers (forthcoming) for purchase in package deals to South African buyers. The pricing model works on the bulk principle, i.e. the heftier the purchase, the more units (followers, fans, views) supplied per Rand spent.
Browse the entire price and product list at your leisure, here.
The offering is extensive. Philanthropic customers can even purchase gift cards.
In addition to serving the additional stats, OnlineCart guarantees follower, fan and view retention over a period of one year.
By way of explanation for how they amass the vast numbers of fans, followers and views offered to clients, OnlineCart claims that:
We have built up a large list of subscribers/followers who have agreed to follow our clients. Best of all, we don’t need your passwords or require you to follow back.
The claim from OnlineCart is unequivocal. In their view, they lead real people to their clients’ online assets.
Instead of waiting for fans to pick one’s social networking page, you get them immediately within a few days, guaranteed. And these fans are 100% real, not fake ones, bots or impostors. [Source]
Strangely enough, a website based in the United States offering the exact same set of services as OnlineCart and catering to a global customer base has the same claim, verbatim on their website. They, too, stand by the promise that behind every follower, fan and view that they provide is a real person.
That service is InterTwitter, a company which has the worst possible Web Of Trust rating on the Internet, with many moderators stating that the site’s business practice is fraud. The Web Of Trust rating is a typically accepted user-generated metric for determining the trustworthiness of a website.
The poor impression created by the less than favourable Web Of Trust rating for InterTwitter is compounded when InterTwitter’s Twitter handle, which boasts over 114 000 followers is analyzed using SEOmoz, widely regarded by industry professionals to be an accurate analytics tool.
Analysis of InterTwitter’s followers revealed high rates of inactivity. If a user has a low total tweet count, they may not be a “real” user. If an account has an exceptionally high number of barely active followers, that is a strong indication that the account’s followers are mostly comprised of fake accounts. Over 77 000 of InterTwitter’s followers have only tweeted between one and 49 times.
A curious result for the native Twitter handle of a company that pledges to attract real followers.
And the tie between OnlineCart and InterTwitter is made abundantly clear in the “Our Guarantee” paragraph of the OnlineCart website.
Intertwitter will send more Twitter followers your way, increasing your social graph and ensuring your Tweets reach more people
Despite these quotes appearing on OnlineCart.co.za, the company states that they are not in partnership with InterTwitter, maintaining that they “took the concept and looked at ways of providing the same service to South Africans.”
Given InterTwitr’s poor Web Of Trust rating, and OnlineCart’s conceptual mimicking of InterTwitr, there are strong grounds for suspicion that OnlineCart is channeling fake followers, fans and YouTube views to their clients. If OnlineCart didn’t have a ready-made database of over a million real, instantly-contactable, entirely obedient people on hand to like, follow, and view the online assets of OnlineCart’s clients, could they be gaining these numbers via another avenue? Or is it at all plausible that they could be serving real people to those accounts?
Local digital strategy consultant, Gary Meyer explains.
Essentially there are two methods.
I’ve only come across completely automated services.
In the first method, the company has gone out and collected 100 000 twitter accounts which have been set to auto-follow back anyone who follows them. You can find accounts like this by searching through the #TeamFollowBack crowd. Using your login details and automation, they’ll follow 30 000 of these follow back accounts, wait for the accounts to follow you back, and then unfollow them.
The whole process is automated, but in the end, you have 10 000 followers.
The benefit of this method is that the followers appear to be real because essentially the are, they just haven’t specifically chosen to follow you. From a comms perspective, it makes them useless.
The second method is just a script [set of computer code that executes specific demands] which logs into a fake account, follows you, logs out and logs into another fake account, follows etcetera, etcetera. until you have your 10 000 followers.
The downside is that you can clearly see that the followers are fake.
With Youtube views, from what I understand, YouTube doesn’t only count logged in views, which means you could setup a server farm with a few scripts to open browser windows to watch a clip. I don’t know if YouTube double counts views from the same IP, if they don’t, I’m not sure how they would get around the IP issues. My guess is that YouTube counts multiple views regardless of IP address.
The trail of breadcrumbs indicates that OnlineCart has either partnered with InterTwitter, or mimicked the offering and services of a company accused of fraud by internationally recognised ratings organisation, Web Of Trust.
How can we be sure that online marketing agency, Merloni are behind the potentially-fraudulent OnlineCart.co.za?
For a start, much like InterTwitter, Merloni’s CEO Yaseen Theba has a prediliction towards fake followers.
An analysis of Theba’s Twitter handle on TwitterAudit.com indicated that 118 178 out of 176 646 followers were fake.
SEOmoz analytics corroborated the incredibly high number of fake followers.
74,7% of Theba’s followers have sent between one and 49 tweets.
Asked for comment on this point, Theba stated that he purchased Twitter followers “while looking and testing ways to introduce onlinecart.co.za”.
The inference is that many of the followers served by OnlineCart.co.za to Theba’s Twitter handle are indeed fake.
But information gleaned from domain registration service, WhoIs.co.za is much more compelling.
According to WhoIs.co.za, OnlineCart.co.za was registered on Monday 19 November 2012. Yaseen Theba is the listed registrant. The given registrant address is a PO Box in Norwood, which is the same suburb in which Merloni’s offices are situated.
The listed registrant phone number is +27.114830761, which is the same as the office number listed by Merloni on the contact page of their website. Furthermore, the listed registrant email address for OnlineCart.co.za is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posing as customers unsuccessfully attempting to purchase a Twitter followers package on OnlineCart.co.za, 2oceansvibe called the Merloni offices, and asked for technical support relating to OnlineCart.co.za. Support was duly granted, and an employee named Mohammed stated that OnlineCart.co.za is the sister company of Merloni.
After placing an order for 25 000 Twitter followers via OnlineCart, we received an invoice for outstanding EFT payment, to be made to Total Brands.
Following a further telephone conversation, a Merloni employee confirmed that Total Brands and Merloni were in fact the self same company.
Why is this cause for concern?
Mike Sharman, CEO of Retroviral Digital weighs in.
Firstly, this service is illegal because it violates the terms of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. YouTube in particular cracked down on what is referred to as “black hat” viewers and stripped music labels such as Universal, Sony and a few others of up to one billion views during December 2012. At the time, Universal was left with only five videos – none of which related to music. Google pays monetised channels based on a set of criteria, and if those channels receive a certain amount of views. By gaming the system, you are essentially stealing from Google.
By purchasing followers and fans via systems such as OnlineCart, you are providing the false illusion that you have a greater influence as a personal or corporate brand. Besides this compromising your integrity and acting unethically, it’s pretty sad.
Digital Agencies are tasked with producing strategies and tactics to grow brand following from real people who comprise the target market, based on remarkable content produced, supporting business objectives, etcetera. By utilising follower purchase systems you are growing an artificial base that has no value to a brand and essentially hoodwinking your client by reporting on artificial success
Brands should think to themselves – what is the value of one million fake views of my YouTube commercial? The answer is zero. So stop doing it.
All things considered, are there legitimate, paid-for means to increase numbers of followers, fans, or views? Absolutely. Twitter recently introduced its first business plan since 2007 by introducing promoted tweets. Brands or users pay Twitter a sum of money, and a selected tweet is seeded out over the timelines of specifically selected users, none of whom need to be following the originator of the promoted tweet. Facebook’s newly rolled out promoted posts function in a similar way on the timelines of users, and YouTube has plugged the Google Ad Words model directly into its system by offering video publishers the chance to have their video promoted to the YouTube home page, guaranteeing it thousands of real views.
Social media is predicated on the unique selling point that relationships within the given platforms are authentic. Should a company that charges clients for social media strategy that is sold on the basis of being useful with the promise of return on investment be selling artificial followers, fans, and views?
“Numbers can say a lot about you.” – OnlineCart.co.za
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