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5 min read

How to Spot a Poll Bot and Stop Poll Bot Fraud

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For any organization that wants to collect accurate data that reflects the real priorities and attitudes of their target audience, polls can be an indispensable tool. A well-conducted poll can give insight into public sentiment on nearly any given topic, such as whether the majority favor a particular political candidate, how much the average person thinks is too much for a particular product or service, general awareness of specific information, and more.

Armed with the data from these polls, market researchers, political pundits, news organizations, and countless others make predictions about how the market will react to certain situations. For example, what if a major manufacturer introduces a brand-new product line? Would consumers respond positively to it or would they protest it?

Inaccurate poll data could lead to disastrous results, even for a popular and well-liked company. Take, for instance, the failure of the “New Coke” launch. Coke was, and still is, the most popular soda brand on the market, valued at $37.3 billion dollars compared to Pepsico’s $30.8 billion. Despite extensive taste-testing and going with the most popular result, the company had underestimated public sentiment towards the classic formula. When Coca-Cola announced “New Coke,” the backlash was hefty.

This is one of the potential scenarios that extensive polling is supposed to help prevent. And, if anything, it’s easier to get a larger sample size of poll responses now than it was in 1985 during the “New Coke” debacle.

Yet, despite the rise of online polling solutions and the ability to send surveys electronically, polling accuracy remains an enormous problem. One issue that contributes to inaccurate polls is the existence of poll bots—automated programs that fill out polls and surveys on the behalf of a person.

Why Do Poll Bots Exist?

So, why do poll bots even exist? What’s the purpose of having an automated program for filling out random responses to complex survey questions instead of letting a human do it?

One potentially benign reason for using a poll bot (or any type of form bot) is as a time-and-labor saver for busy people. Instead of having to type out long-winded responses to common survey questions, a predictive typing solution can help a human user save some time and frustration. However, it’s far more common for dedicated poll bots to exist for far less innocuous reasons.

The primary motivations behind bot fraud on polls and surveys can typically be summed up as:

  • For Personal Gain. The bot user is leveraging the poll bot to complete a large number of surveys quickly because they somehow stand to personally profit from the act. This could be because they’re being paid based on the number of polls filled out, they’re redirecting poll incentives towards themselves or some other scenarios where they stand to gain something of monetary value in exchange for a certain number of polls being filled out.
  • To Conduct Market Research Sabotage. Another potential reason for poll bot fraud is to sabotage your market research efforts. By spamming your polls with worthless bot replies that don’t reflect real consumer sentiment, a competitor could lure you into making a costly mistake. Or, they could trick you into believing a PR problem exists when it doesn’t—leading to long and wasteful “remediation” efforts.
  • To Earn Internet Points/Notoriety. Some fraudsters aren’t looking for money or competitive advantage—they simply want five minutes of fame and they don’t care who has to pay for it. These ne’er do wells may target your business at random or they may target it because it’s well-known (and thus more likely to grab attention). It’s hard to predict the actions of these thrill-seekers, so they’re often hard to prepare for.
  • Political Activism. During any election year, pollsters need to be especially wary of political poll fraud. Hacktivist groups backing special interests may try to harm one political cause or boost another by using poll bots to twist political surveys to make it seem like one position has strong support when it really doesn’t.

For these motivations, fraudsters modify form bot programs into poll bots all the time. But, how can you tell if there’s poll bot activity in your surveys and polls?

Warning Signs of Poll Bot Activity

Some of the major warning signs of poll bot activity against a particular poll or survey include:

1. A Sudden Influx of Activity on a Poll

Most consumers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to fill out a poll or survey unless there’s something in it for them—like a gift card or discount of some kind. However, some fraudsters like to abuse these incentives to personal gain.

Once an incentive is offered, the fraudster will rush to put together a poll bot program together as quickly as possible. The goal is to complete as many polls as possible before other fraudsters can get a piece of the pie. The poll bot simply has to stick with email addresses that the fraudster has control of so they can claim that gift card or coupon.

This generates a large, sudden spike in activity on a poll or survey that is hard to miss. If, after days, weeks, or even months of no replies to a poll or survey, you incentivize it and find it gets an overwhelming response, you might think that the incentive was effective. However, it could just as easily be that a fraudster is targeting your polls with their bots for personal gain.

2. A High Percentage of Identical Survey Replies

While there will always be limitations on the variety of responses to a poll or survey—especially one that sticks to a multiple-choice format for simplicity’s sake—if 90% of your poll respondents give the exact same answers to every poll question, then your poll accuracy may be in jeopardy due to bot activity. Fraudsters who care more about getting things done fast instead of making their fraud more believable may use cheap or poorly-optimized bots that simply answer every question the same way every time.

While the answers would be incredibly consistent, they wouldn’t be accurate.

3. Completely Inconsistent Replies to Polls

On the other extreme from every reply to every question being the same is getting completely inconsistent replies to a poll. For example, say you run a customer satisfaction survey where numerous respondents give low ratings for metrics like quality of service, but then rate the overall experience as “exceptional” or “great.”

If this happens on one or two isolated polls/surveys, it could just be a data entry error or because of a specific issue the customer had with service, but may have been salvaged by management. However, if the majority of survey responses fail to follow any sort of rhyme or reason, it could be a poll bot using a random number generator to answer survey questions.

How to Stop Poll Bots

So, what can you do to stop poll bots in their tracks? To protect your polls from fraudulent entries, there are a few things that you should do:

  • Carefully Vet Poll/Survey Partners. If you work with a third-party poll/survey company, be sure to carefully vet them to ensure that they are both legitimate and have sufficient protection in place against bot-based attacks.
  • Add Honeypot Form Fields. Honeypots are hidden form fields that only exist in a form’s code and aren’t visible to human users. Because bots directly read page code, they may try to answer the honeypot form field. So, you know that any polls where these fields have been filled out are bogus.
  • Avoid Incentivizing Fraud. Many fraudsters are motivated by money. They’ll go where they can make a quick buck and move on as fast as possible to avoid getting caught. Avoid making it easy to make money off of your polls by limiting any “gifts” offered for completing the poll.
  • Use a Proven Ad Fraud Solution to Check Your Poll Data. Ad fraud solutions can help you detect bot activity in your online forms and alert you when a bot completes a website form. With the right ad fraud solution, you can track where the bot came from and get all the data you need to confront the fraudster.

Ready to protect your polls from fraudsters, pranksters, political hacktivists, and more? Reach out to Anura today to get started!

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