How Many of Your Twitter Followers are Real?
A recent study of the Twitter followers of the world’s biggest and best known brands has found that almost half of them are very likely not to be human at all1. It was also discovered that most people aren’t aware when they have been tweeting with bots and not real people on the site. This has cast a further cloud over the validity of using followers on Twitter as a measure of marketing success. The bots that are now on Twitter aren’t simply following users or re-tweeting their posts. They have now achieved a level of sophistication that allows them to carry on simple, although often flawed, conversations with real users2.
How Do You Spot a Twitter Bot?
Twitter bots are computer programs that watch every public tweet in search of popular keywords. When it sees a tweet containing the targeted keywords it either tweets a reply or it immediately follows the tweeter. Not all Twitter bots are malicious, but almost all are simply designed to generate large numbers of fake followers for someone, or are plain old-fashioned web spam.
There are several ways to spot a bot on Twitter and the most obvious is that they tell you. More often a bot can be identified by its incomprehensible username with a jumble of numbers, since real people generally use names that they will remember easily. Another common giveaway is the rapidity with which the tweet has been responded to. If you post a tweet and a comment flashes straight back it is almost certainly a bot sending a preset answer in response to a keyword that you have used. Bots aren’t smart, and so they will often use the same photo on several profiles as well as tweeting exactly the same message in reply to several posts. Because many bots are designed to collect followers they will follow you immediately after you make a tweet and then un-follow you a day or two later if you haven’t followed them back. By the same token, a tweet from someone who is following hundreds of accounts but only has a handful of their own followers is also probably a spamming Twitter bot.
Some Twitter bots are just fun, like Seinfeld Tweets (@hellooooonewman), which spots any mention of the word “Seinfeld” and shares a quote from the show with the user, or @triviabot, which shares a random trivia fact with its followers every hour. There are also a number of practical and useful Twitter bots like Virgin Atlantic’s Flight Status Bot that allows travelers to check their flight status via Twitter3. Most Twitter bots, though, are designed to spread web spam on Twitter aimed at driving traffic to dubious websites.
It is a simple, although tedious matter to block Twitter bots once you have spotted them by finding them in your friends list or visiting their profile page, and choosing the block option under the actions button. Because some bots actually put out interesting information it may even be worth following one or two, and some, like Remember the Milk (@rtm), are useful tools that add to your Twitter experience. The important thing to remember is that when you are trying to make productive use of your time on Twitter, it is probably best not to engage in a long conversation with a bot and certainly don’t click on any links that they post. Learning to spot them when they turn up in your list of followers (and it seems certain that they already have) will just become another general skill for using the web and soon enough we will all become accustomed to skipping past them like the spam in our e-mail inboxes.