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What the Heck Are Bots, Anyway?

Short for “robot,” bots are automated software programs built to carry out specific tasks. They do jobs that most people would find too repetitive or time-consuming. Bots can vary in technical complexity depending on their function.

Hearing the word “bot” sends many an advertiser into a panic. All too often, we see news stories of bots participating in ad fraud scandals, security breaches, and other forms of cybercrime. But the word “bot” isn’t a catch-all term for malicious software. As with most things in life, there are both good bots and bad bots.

Good Bots

Good bots keep the digital world turning. Without these bots passing along data, things like search engines, social media, and online retail platforms wouldn’t work nearly as well as they do. Here are some of the most common types you might see in the wild.

Search Engine Bots. Also known as “spider bots,” these bots crawl web pages on behalf of search engines. They process and analyze the content of a web page to figure out its meaning and relevance. Depending on what they find, search engines can use that info to gauge a page’s reliability and organic SERP ranking.

Social Network Bots. Ever wonder how certain posts appear in your social news feeds? Social networks like Facebook and Twitter rely on proprietary bots to run data through algorithms and serve posts based on user behavior.

Chatbots. Chatbots are programs designed to communicate with people using artificial intelligence. Chatbots specialize in answering specific questions or doing certain tasks. Companies can deploy simple chatbots on platforms like Slack and Facebook Messenger. More advanced chatbot examples include Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

Backlink Checker Bots. This type of bot is an SEO specialist’s best friend. Backlink checkers crawl websites and search for inbound links to see where traffic originates. Using the bots’ findings, SEO specialists can make necessary website and campaign changes to keep visitors coming.

Monitoring Bots. Like digital doctors, monitoring bots make sure your website is running without any issues. These bots can detect where users are having trouble on your site, such as areas of lag or unresponsiveness.

Feed Fetcher Bots. These bots work around the clock to bring you real-time data. Feed fetcher bots specialize in collecting and sending information to subscriber lists for sites like news outlets, blogs, and weather services. Many feed fetcher bots pull data from RSS feeds.

Copyright Bots. Online copyright infringement is rampant, especially with so much data being shared every day. To combat plagiarisation and theft, copyright bots scour the web for stolen content, such as music and video clips. Sites like YouTube use copyright bots to flag and disable uploaded content that could be in violation of copyright laws.

Trader Bots. Similar to spider bots, trader bots crawl around the web for pricing information. Online retailers like eBay and Amazon use trader bots to keep an eye on their rivals and offer competitive deals on products.

Bad Bots

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad bots freely roaming the web. Knowing each type of bot’s destructive capabilities may give you an advantage in protecting your online presence.

Scraper Bots. Lots of ad fraud crooks create questionable websites to sell ad space. In order for their sites to appear more legitimate and increase visitor traffic, fraudsters use scraper bots to “scrape,” or steal, high quality, keyword-rich content from other websites. Chances are, if you fall victim to a scraper bot, you won’t know unless you specifically search for copies of your content.

Click Bots. Advertisers are all too familiar with click bots. These bots intentionally visit sites and click on ads with the goal of warping ad campaign data and burning through an advertiser’s budget. For advertisers who pay on a CPC basis, click bots can be devastating.

Spam Bots. These bots plague comment sections, lead forms, and email inboxes, spreading unsolicited messages, advertising links, and other forms of spam. Spam bots are also programmed to phish for personal information that users submit through forms, such as phone numbers, email addresses, and passwords.

Spy Bots. Hackers use spy bots mainly for surveillance and data collection purposes. Spy bots steal personal information about a company, website, or person by logging keystrokes or intercepting packets. Some hackers sell that data to outside parties for a profit.

Transfer Bots. Sometimes called download bots, transfer bots are responsible for forced redirects. Transfer bots attach themselves to reputable websites and wait for users to click through. Instead of sending users to the site they requested, transfer bots redirect them to another site, usually one set up by a fraudster or hacker.

Impersonator Bots. Disguising themselves as human visitors, impersonator bots try to get past site security. Obstacles like CAPTCHA codes are used to keep impersonator bots from reaching sites, but these bots are only getting more sophisticated as technology improves.

File-Sharing Bots. These bots act as malware delivery men. They post malware-infected files on peer-to-peer file sharing services, such as Dropbox. Thinking the file is legitimate, the user downloads it, but in reality, they just installed malware onto their computer.

Zombie Bots and Botnets. Like the name suggests, zombie bots turn computers into mindless drones, letting hackers control them remotely without users knowing their machine’s been compromised. A collection of zombie bots make up a botnet. Here, affected computers work simultaneously to perform a certain task. Botnets are usually responsible for DDoS attacks.

Bots Are Bigger Than Ever

Advancements in technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, are driving bots to higher levels of sophistication. It’s becoming easier for bots to act more like humans -- drawing inferences, making decisions, and learning from data without manual input.

These are great improvements for good bots, as they’ll be able to do their jobs more efficiently than ever before. But this also means it will be harder to detect bad bots. For this reason, you should take preventative measures now before bad bots outsmart the system.

This post originally appeared on Anura.


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