Facebook has clearly become an important tool to many marketers. The question has been how efficient and cost-effective a tool it is.

Now a controversy has added a new dimension to that question: A good portion of those likes and responses businesses get on Facebook may be coming from bots, not real people.

That's what a company called Limited Run, which is a "platform specifically designed for labels, musicians, and artists, selling digital and physical products," learned recently. Analyzing the responses from its Facebook ads, Limited Run made what seem to be disturbing discoveries:

  • It could verify only 20% of the ad clicks it received.
  • Limited Run tried changing analytics firms a number of times, but there was no significant change in the figures.
  • About 80% of the clicks received had JavaScript disabled, compared to the company's previous general experience of finally only 1% to 2% with it disabled.

So the company built a page logger and found that 80% of the clicks its ads received were from bots. That meant ad costs were driven up with no possible return on the cost investment in the additional pay-per-click charges.

There is nothing new about the clash between bots and pay-per-click advertising on the Web. But, as The New York Times notes, this is a particularly inopportune time for the problem to appear on Facebook. The company's stock price has been repeatedly hit because of concerns about ad revenue growth.

And there have been other questions about Facebook's ads, such as the short shelf-life of a Facebook post. The BBC also questioned the value of a Facebook like when a consultant invested $10 and gained 1,600 likes for a non-existent bagel business. (U.K. digital marketing agency Greenlight circulated a critique of the experiment, saying that proper targeting of the advertisement would have helped filter out the spam that can exist on any digital advertising medium.)

Facebook sponsored a comScore report that purported to show the value of marketing on the social network. But the numbers didn't exactly support Facebook's assertions for paid advertising. Facebook has also further tried to promote the usefulness of its site for small- and medium-sized businesses by having a PR agency contact reporters like me.

Limited Run explicitly said that it wasn't accusing Facebook of using bots to drive up ad revenue. I agree that such a situation is very unlikely. However, there have been enough indications over time that companies should be exceptionally careful of how they use the social network. That means the following:

  • Use analytics to understand the nature of the interest you appear to get.
  • When you get likes, examine who and where they're from. No sense in getting excited over something that is unlikely to ever help you.
  • Ask customers where they heard of you and if they follow you on Facebook. Ultimately, you want to know that marketing leads to business, and you're the only one who can provide the answer.

Maybe Facebook doesn't work for other companies but does for yours. Or maybe the situation is the complete opposite. But you owe it to your business to find out for sure.