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23 million Twitter bots! Relax, it’s not as bad as it sounds



BeetleJuice BotMarketers have a love / hate relationship with numbers. We’re always looking for tools to calculate the number of viewers and the percentage of clicks. How many minutes did he spend and how many dollars will it earn. Numbers are how we tell if what we’re doing is working or not. It’s also how we decide if an investment is worth it.

For example, a banner ad on a blog cost $500.

Is it worth it if the blog has 50,000 page views per month? What if they only have 50 page viewers per month?

What if Twitter admitted that up to 8.5% (around 23 million) Twitter users weren’t human? They’re actually bots – Twitter accounts that update without a “discernable user action” like my friend #Betelgeuse_3. Call his name three times and he’ll respond.

It’s fun and it’s not hurting anybody. Some bots actually help like the San Francisco quake bot that posts real-time alerts when the ground begins to shake.

SFQuakeBotThis bot is upfront about its origins using the words bot and robot right in the name and bio so there’s no mistake.

But what happens when Twitter offhandedly mentions the number of bots in their Securities and Exchange Commission filing? Marketers get nervous. After all, ad prices and payouts are based on user numbers and no one wants to pay robots because robots, traditionally, don’t buy consumer goods. That could change in the future, but for now we’d all prefer to reach humans with our ads.

Here’s the paragraph that’s causing all the commotion:

Our metrics are also affected by third-party applications that automatically contact our servers for regular updates with no user action involved, and this activity can cause our system to count the users associated with such applications as active users on the day or days such contact occurs. Historically we tracked and reported in this section all users who accessed Twitter through third-party applications. We have reviewed and refined our processes, however, to calculate a new metric that is comprised of only such active users who have used applications with the capability to automatically contact our servers for regular updates where there was no discernable user action involved. In the three months ended June 30, 2014, approximately 11% of all active users solely used third-party applications to access Twitter. However, only up to approximately 8.5% of all active users used third party applications that may have automatically contacted our servers for regular updates without any discernable additional user-initiated action. The calculations of MAUs presented in this Quarterly Report on Form 10-Q may be affected as a result of automated activity.

The way I read this – and it ain’t all that easy to read – 8.5% of unnamed pings are coming from the third-party tools people use to post to their accounts. And we know a lot of the bots are just for fun which means very few bots are spammy or malicious.

As far as I’m concerned, Twitter bots are just a blip. The real issue is the number of Twitter users who follow an account then never return to Twitter again. If you want accurate accounting, Twitter should automatically remove accounts that haven’t been used in over two years. Follower numbers would drop but they’d be much more accurate.

  • Bill Huey

    This disclosure might be just a blip if Twitter hadn’t gone public, but now it knows (and their lawyers know) that this is a material matter that has to be disclosed. Look for much more scrutiny of these numbers in the future, and possible chargebacks or makegoods. And we won’t even talk about Facebook’s numbers!