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YouTube’s Dirty Little Secret

Ever spotted a terrible video on YouTube with an inconceivably high view count? Of course you have. Would it make you feel better knowing that most of those “views” were completely automated and only lasted 30 seconds with the sound turned off?

Vagex (referral link), a hugely popular YouTube exchange platform, is largely to blame. Credits are so cheap that members sell 2000 views for $5 on eBay and Fiverr and still turn a profit. As countless “buy YouTube views” sites testify, the views are by real people, mostly in the US. Not the sort of people who actually watch the videos, much less pay for music, but they tend to leave that bit out.

If $5 is too rich for your blood, you can earn credits by downloading one of their free viewers and letting it “watch” videos for you in the background.

Firefox Viewer

If you don’t have any videos of your own to promote, you can sell your credits back to Vagex directly. The current exchange rate is 26,730 credits for $1. That doesn’t cover the electricity cost of generating those credits, but clearly people are willing to do it, or the exchange rate would be more favorable.

Since the videos aren’t actually watched, the views themselves won’t generate new fans, but…

Could Vagex still be useful as part of a larger promotional campaign?

Their FAQ lists these benefits:

  • Greater perception of popularity
  • Your video will show up as suggested/related more often
  • Higher search rankings on Google and YouTube
  • In search results, people tend to choose videos with more views

Sounds reasonable to me, but does it actually work?

To find out, I paid $30 to allocate 100,000 credits to a new video, immediately after uploading it to YouTube.

Vagex Setup

For the purposes of this experiment, I left the view length at 30 seconds, selected 100 likes, and left the other options unchecked (subscribers, favorites, comments).

Vagex Start

I also announced the video on Twitter and via a $30 Promoted Post on Facebook. Despite the latter reaching 15,540 people, it only generated 71 plays on Facebook.

Status - Facebook

I could’ve taken the promotion further with an email blast and multiple announcements on multiple networks, but I didn’t want to draw attention to the phony view count.

After nearly a month, I’ve still got credits left, but enough data to draw useful conclusions.

Vagex Results

YouTube Results

84,438 credits generated 21,545 views, minus whatever legitimate views occurred. The video averaged 900 views per day:

YouTube Views

In other words, it cost me 4 credits ($0.0012) per view. That’s 862 views for $1! That sounds like a lot, but Vagex explains in their FAQ that it typically costs 3-4 credits per view, so my results are typical.

What they don’t explain is why multiple credits are required to generate a single view. Maybe YouTube identifies and compensates for Vagex-generated traffic.

How many comments did those 21,545 views generate? Not a single one! Nor did the needle move on any other metric that I can track.

Viewer Retention

Viewer retention was dismal. Nobody made it past the first minute? One would hope that the fans watching on Facebook did, but their data is lost in a sea of fake views.

Which brings up another important point: Vagex hoses YouTube’s analytics, which could otherwise help you target further marketing efforts.

Conclusion: Vagex didn’t enhance my promotion at all, beyond the unmeasurable benefits of a higher view count.

To truly go viral, a video requires:

  • higher retention times
  • high quality backlinks
  • likes, favorites, subscriptions
  • comments from strong accounts

The video itself doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to go viral anyway, but it serves as a nice backdrop for the remix, while reinforcing the lyric.

You may argue that my particular formula (30 second views, 100 likes, no subscribers/favorites/comments) is to blame, and you may be right! I’m sure there are more effective combinations. Maybe if I had selected 300 second plays at 10 credits a pop, I would’ve dominated YouTube and won a Grammy. I’ll tinker some more, but in the meantime, if you decide to give it a shot, please use my referral link to help the cause.

As an epilogue, I just allocated 5 comments to the video in my Vagex control panel, so the page wouldn’t look so desolate. Instead of 5, I got 42 comments within the hour! Most were generic and spammy, and in no way applied to my video. Like all things Vagex, commenting appears to be completely automated.

Where do you stand? Is Vagex a deadly sin or a necessary evil? Are you going to try it? Would you admit it if you did? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Rego Korosi

47 thoughts on “YouTube’s Dirty Little Secret”

  1. I've used similar stuff in the past and I agree that these tools muddy up the info that can actually help you. Plus, Google always seems to catch up with this stuff which in the long run hurts you.

    I am focusing on finding people who are really interested in my stuff and coming along for the ride. In the long run I feel I am building a more solid foundation which will result in a more authentic fan base.

  2. I don't want to be a part of that cheating stuff. I prefer to see the real numbers of views, also even if the number is low…….maybe if I were doing music for a living my answer would be different!

  3. This is a great review Brian. As a marketing guy I see this stuff myself. Most of the non-targeted "too good to be true" promotion is just that… to good to be true. They make things so cheap that it's worth giving it a try… $30 isn't a big risk after all. The only benefit is in your view ranking… seems YouTube still will rank higher viewed videos to lesser viewed ones – comments come in as well. Basically the metric for them is that a more popular video is that way for a reason… so show it more in organic search. I'll be sharing your results with some clients.

  4. I tried it myself once. Honestly: got disgusted by the spammy nature of all the views/comments/subscribers it offers, stopped the campaign after a couple of days and deactivated my account. That's simply it. Not my type.

    Plus, after a couple of days I received a notification from YouTube that some 'abnormal' activity occured to my video so they froze my views count for a few days. That is evil. I want a healthy account, the romantic way ;).

    Thanks for the well-informative article Brian!

  5. Riveting investigative journalism, Brian! As for me, I'm not going to try it. When I'm on YouTube, I'm almost always looking for something in particular. So if some random video came up that wasn't what I was looking for, I would ignore it and keep scrolling down… unless it's a Color Theory video, of course!

  6. The one thing I'd point out is that the hosing of the analytics is a huge negative value: one major reason you pay $30 for 70 views on facebook is so you can see what kind of people are interested in your music so that you can better target your marketing.
    In this scenario where you're paying for legitimate Facebook ads I would therefore say the value of Vagex was approximately negative-thirty dollars.

    Furthermore, I think a lot of smart people and influencers – including kids – are well aware of the "fake followers" problem and will immediately recognize a fake-followers site. In the end, I don't think that having a huge number of views excites real people, especially with a lack of obvious human social activity to go with the views. I want to watch something because it's cool. So I think that the real probability of alienating sharp people who see what's going on (i.e. the kind of savvy people who would otherwise reddit a good video) far offsets some nebulous good feeling one gets from having a high viewer count.

    Also, is it just me or does Vagex sound like it would be a more appropriate name for some feminine product? Someone was not doing their market research there.

  7. Thanks for passing that along. All these social media popularity tricks really water down the whole point of it. I sure hope YouTube figures out how to kill the bots for good.

  8. One would hope that Google would catch up with it, but so far they appear to condone it, or at least turn a blind eye. If it's obvious to anyone who views the page that the views are fake, you'd think they could program an algorithm to prevent the behavior.

  9. I'm actually glad to hear that YouTube sent you a notice! Maybe if they crack down on this type of activity, view counts will go down overall, and people will have a more realistic sense of what it means to be popular. On the other hand, maybe if view counts go down, people will be less inclined to advertise on YouTube. Hmm…

  10. In case you're wondering how I discovered Vagex, funny story…

    Once your blog achieves a certain reach, you get requests from various companies to cover their product or service. I was invited by a social networking promotion company with a professional-looking site to test their services, and entered into a lengthy back-and-forth. Their sales rep was very forthcoming and promptly answered all my questions. That lead me to Google and several marketing forums, which prompted me to ask, "Do you use Vagex?" I never received a reply.

  11. After thinking about it, they may not mind, or at least have high on the priority list, because the low interaction and quick exits count against you in there ranking assessments. It is baked into to their algorithm.

    I'm not done with this book yet (at about 50% on thee Kindle) but this sheds a little light on it http://www.youtubestrategiesbook.com/ (not an affiliate link. I've been following Paul for awhile and his stuff is pretty could, I like the way he thinks).

  12. It's an unsustainable approach which, if it even works (and doesn't hurt you by making you look desperate or cheesy to people who already like you), is exploiting a finite loophole where people think more numbers mean more valuable content. Naturally if it keeps working, the method will eliminate itself by showing the average viewer that numbers don't mean something is worth their time. That possibly has already happened; it certainly has to the more astute crowd.

    Here's a topical video you will enjoy, if you haven't seen it… "BUYRAL" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIwH7ptHCWc

  13. very interesting Brian but I think you are using the wrong tools and strategy. A much better tool for Youtube marketing is Tubetoolbox though it does have its own issues especially since a few accounts have been banned because of its errors in terms of spamming Youtubers. As a tool on its own it is brilliant in that you get real viewers and real people. You can get a lot of comments and subscribers as a result. Best practice would be to set up a whole load of dummy accounts which you can afford to be banned by Youtube.

    Which now leads to my main point about tools and strategy. Facebook is hopeless for Youtube views, you are better off using Youtube or Google to advertise your video. You spent $30 and got 71 views which comes to 50c per view. This is far too expensive. We should be a lot stricter in terms of objectives and call to action to tolerate such metrics and the emphasis should be on the call to action or the goal. If you want to make sales then it should be your focus and the approach should be similar to the way infomercials are sold. We should not be branding but should have tight call to actions linked to our advertising. If that is email sign ups then that should be how you measure it.

  14. Good stuff Kehinde! From what I know about Tube Toolbox, it uses a traditional social networking approach of "following" people in the hope they'll "follow" back. Obviously it's a little deeper than that, and the approach is built around YouTube's limited social options.

    Personally, I'm not willing to create dummy accounts, but if I wanted to launch a full-on frontal YouTube invasion, and was able to set morality aside, I'd use both!

    But really, I don't have much in the way of video content, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. In any case you're right about the cost of that Facebook Promoted Post, at least in relation to the in-Facebook views it generated. I still think it was worth $30 to put in over 14K peoples' feeds though!

  15. They're in my debt for increasing the visibility of the service! Actually, I think I saw somewhere that I could earn bonus credits for writing a blog post that includes my referral link, but I haven't bothered yet.

  16. Good piece Brian… Google has a history of turning a blind eye to stuff like this one day and then slamming anyone who does it the next. So I'm sure this too will get hit in some animal-themed update. I tested a couple of these things too and found them worthless.

  17. It's all about integrity. You have to earn your fans. Advertising is fine, but real people have to watch the video who aren't paid to do it. I wouldn't give Vagex or other similar scams, ie., pay-for-views scams spit, it's a sham to deceive others that your video is more popular than it deserves to be. Either you have integrity or you don't, it's that simple.

  18. Fantastic video. There is a new approach I would recommend when it comes to video promotion. You would need a product to sell either directly or via an affiliate program and you advertise the video or use google videos to advertise, where you only pay when someone clicks through to your site. In any case it is performance related marketing.

  19. I agree in spirit, but I'm uncomfortable concluding that the vast majority of major label artists don't have integrity. It's turned into one of those "well, everybody else is doing it" sort of practices.

  20. I buy views for marketing vids. Usually 10k/100likes and it bumps me up in YouTube's search results for the keyphrase I'm targeting… even with the new 'minutes watched' functionality. The service you're talking about is a bot site. You cannot target by country. They simply reroute so it looks like it. In case anybody cares, I use utubeplays.com. Real users. Never had a video banned.

  21. Thanks for sharing your experience Matt! I don't know about targeting by country, but since I participated in playing back videos during my little experiment, I know it's not PURELY bots.

  22. Good read. Unfortunately, this is the music industry and there is no level playing field. Buying views is no different than platinum artists buying spins. For every one artist discovered on YouTube there are thousands that won't be so lucky. There is no replacement for hard work, talent, exposure and timing. Unfortunately, there are countless who put in the hard work, had the talent & exposure but their time never came. To each his own. If someone wants to pay for views while someone else plasters parking lots with flyers that sill be eventually trashed, so be it. If anything, I admire the desire to be something more than what one is.

  23. Brian Hazard Neil Gaiman's writes in a side chapter of his great novel "American Gods" that there is a Goddess that when men have sex with her her vagina opens up to a monumental size and eats the man!

  24. I'm surprised no one has mentioned viewsguru.com. About $20 for 5k views for lowest plan, and they promise no bots, promise no freezing or deletion, and they can unfreeze your videos. It seems Google isn't interested in stopping them, they're joining them. Isn't Virool a google extension – and you get only 200 or more views for $20! They promise real views, and you can tailor your campaign for subscriptions, comments.

    All in all, if you know how to use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and hop on to some social media sites for pointers – all that legwork is where your human interaction will come from – comments, likes, and subscriptions. The views are bought. Plain and simple. I don't mean by some, I mean by 9/10 videos on the whole site.

    One tip I find is to get involved in the niche blog community in the field of your video. You'll find key blogs and getting embedded on sites around the net is a breakthrough.

  25. Good stuff Randall! Thanks for the comment. Fwiw, I haven't used Vagex or any other service to promote my videos since writing the article. The risk/reward ratio just isn't to my liking. For example, look at Facebook. Twice now they've retroactively removed page likes in huge sweeps after finding out they were fake. There's no reason why Google couldn't perform such a sweep and remove videos at a time of their choosing. They've certainly got the data!

  26. I do have a question: How did you get over 1million viewers? I would like to tweet more and am will to pay for it – just cause am highly opinionated; am not interested in 1million viewers – just curious, but am very interested in being able to tweet more than 212 tweets without being knocked off twitter for 2 hours. I could never run a business on twitter currently.

  27. Actually, these types of services are only truly useful if it’s extreme hits. Yes, you risk getting in trouble from YouTube. But I have made viral videos that are not so viral and can guarantee if they were featured on YouTubes Home Page I would be an overnight success. So, my point? Getting featured. It’s all that really matters. If you are able to fake it to become featured on the main page of YouTube, that is what you need. The issue is that massive amount of views in a short period of time is hard to fake successfully. Many of the sites that claim to do it safely in mass quantities like this cost ridiculous sums of money. Still, it’s all about that one goal: Getting featured on the Youtube main page. Then you get real hits from tons of people. I was featured on the main page but only for a very short few minutes and I still obtained tons of comments from real people in that period. The real people, the real comments, the real fame, come from sneaking yourself onto Youtubes Main page. OR…. having someone ludicrously famous give you a shout out could work too. Anything else is slow and like picking teeth. This is Youtube. Everyone is on it and you disappear in the sea of Youtube. Heck, pet toads are on Youtube. I dance around wearing diapers on Youtube and it doesn’t even get me noticed. Think about that! https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBabyMitchy

    1. I thought about you dancing in your diapers, and now I can’t escape the visual! ;)

      I’ve never had a homepage feature, but I can imagine that it would be HUGE. But like you said, it would be tough to fake that kind of massive popularity in a short time, presuming that’s even what YouTube’s algorithms look for.

      For now I’ll just rely on luck. Currently my most popular video is a cover song I produced for a video game. 20K views in the past 30 days! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS_X-vTEtQE

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