YouTube visitors watch more than six billion hours of video every month, but not all of those eyeballs are real.
Google has announced a crackdown on "fraudulent views" on YouTube, from channels seeking to artificially inflate their view counts.
"When some bad actors try to game the system by artificially inflating view counts, they’re not just misleading fans about the popularity of a video, they’re undermining one of YouTube’s most important and unique qualities," wrote YouTube software engineer Philipp Pfeiffenberger in a blog post announcing the news.
YouTube has always audited videos in an effort to try to spot inflated counts, but the company is now stepping up its efforts according to Pfeiffenberger:
"While in the past we would scan views for spam immediately after they occurred, starting today we will periodically validate the video’s view count, removing fraudulent views as new evidence comes to light. We don’t expect this approach to affect more than a minuscule fraction of videos on YouTube, but we believe it’s crucial to improving the accuracy of view counts and maintaining the trust of our fans and creators."
The move follows a warning delivered by YouTube to its network of channel owners in November 2013, with another blog post warning against paying one of the number of companies offering to bump up view counts artificially.
"If you're considering paying someone to increase your view count, you may want to think again. You probably won't get what you paid for," explained that post. "Views generated by some third-party businesses and services will not be counted on YouTube, and can lead to disciplinary action against your account, including removing your video or suspending your account."
It's a quirk of the system that YouTube's parent company is driving traffic to those third-party businesses. Type 'buy YouTube views' into Google's search engine, and hundreds of companies touting their wares appear, including some paying Google to advertise their services using its AdWords system.
YouTube's motivation for cracking down on fake view counts is partly about making its service more appealing to advertisers, so they can be sure their ads are being seen by real people. It's also likely related to the company's desire for channel-owners to build their audiences by paying to use its TrueView ads system.
YouTube is far from the only social media service attracting companies promising to artificially inflate metrics. Twitter followers and Facebook Likes are all buyable by the thousand online, for example.
In April 2013, two Italian researchers claimed there may be as many as 20m fake Twitter accounts created by companies selling their follows to brands. Later that year, Channel 4's Dispatches programme investigated the growing market for "click farms" generating fake Facebook Likes and Twitter followers.
YouTube is warning its community that buying views will be counter-productive. "Remember that ultimately, you are responsible for your video traffic. If you contract a company that gives you spam instead of views, you pay the penalty, not the company," explained its November blog post.
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