Video Syndication – what are we paying for?

With the rise of online video sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and Viddler, the almighty video view count has become increasingly more important as a way of ranking success. Success of not only the producer, but also those paid to promote or “syndicate” online videos. While some of us might be uploading videos we think will quickly become the next YouTube sensation, we shouldn’t be disappointed when we only get 100 views and others with similar videos have thousands – they’re likely paying for them.

Online video syndication services have been around for several years and are helping many businesses, advertising agencies and producers transition from paid television ads to paid online video ads. While many of these services provide legitimate ways of attracting consumers to the videos, others have developed ways of short-cutting the process to quickly increase view counts and other forms of engagement.

Video view seeding has been around nearly as long as online video. With the newfound success of brands using online video for advertising, seeding video views has become much more popular. One of the primary reasons for doing this is search engine optimization or SEO. Videos with higher views and engagement rates rank much higher in search engine results. This in turn motivates marketers and producers to artificially increase these numbers in the beginning to earn more organic engagement over the long run

The snag with online video is sites like YouTube have millions of videos uploaded everyday, so unless you pay to increase your view count, your video can get lost and go unviewed. By rapidly increasing the view count using various techniques, marketers and producers are able to get their video off the ground and give it a better chance of going “viral”.

The cost of buying video views, comments and likes
While doing a simple Google search you will likely find many fancy websites offering a wide range of syndication packages. One website,, offers 100,000 views for $1,000 or 10,000 subscribers for $2,800 and provides dozens of examples of well known brands they’ve worked with. Another site,, advertises geolocation targeted views as well as volume pricing for agencies.

While these may seem like excellent deals, things break down when you view their FAQ section to find out how the service actually works:

“Its a combination of being your promotions manager, a little bit of magic, and a whole lotta of hustling… actually it’s pretty complex involving sharing it out to other YouTubers, server technology, and more. But in all honesty, its a trade secret but you’ll love the results!” (

It really doesn’t take much to uncover some shady practices disguised as “server technology” and “trade secrets” yet because there is little if any regulation, many marketers and producers are willing to look the other way if they are able to save a significant amount of money.

In some cases, the companies that provide very little information online are not actually hiding anything and in fact provide legitimate ways of promoting videos through influencer outreach campaigns and other well-known industry practices. These industry leaders provide multiple reporting metrics including how much of the video was viewed and where it was embedded. They also have the power to target very specific demographics.

What counts as a view? Is it changing?
In 2008 fans of Avril Lavigne attempted to bump her up to the top ranked YouTube video spot using an autoplaying and auto-refreshing embedded video player that added one pageview every 15 seconds. (Wired, 2008) Several weeks later YouTube stopped counting autoplays.

The table below provides a list of video hosting sites and what counts as a view:

Site Full View >1/2 View Refresh Embedded Embedded Autoplay Count Methodology one/sess. one/sess. no count one/sess. one/sess. most stringent
Dailymotion count count count count count less stringent
Metacafe count count no count count count stringent
MySpace count count count count count less stringent
Viddler count count count count count less stringent
Vimeo one/sess one/sess no count count count stringent
Yahoo! Video count count count count count less stringent
YouTube count count count count no count less stringent


Gaming the system
Currently there are at least three distinct methods being used to rapidly increase engagement stats. While all of these methods aren’t necessarily illegal, they do present ethical issues that should be addressed before they cause further harm to the industry.

Paid to view
Sites such as advertise services that allow YouTube videos to reach thousands of viewers. How do they work? Paid2YouTube pays 0.01 per view, 0.10 per comment, and 0.35 per subscription along with other referral based earning opportunities. Viewers surf through pages of embedded videos and are paid accordingly for each video they engage without ever leaving the Paid2YouTube site.

There are lots of sites offering automating computing scripts to game this method therefore viewers may not even be looking at their computer while these videos are playing. Not to mention that for advertisers, the idea that you’d pay people to watch your video runs counter to what you’re trying to do; you want them paying you!

Another potential way for viewers to be paid to view is through social games. According to an article in VideoNuze, a company called Jun Group has been a pioneer in this emerging space offering “virtual currency” in return for opt-in video views on major brands’ online video ads. (Richmond, 2011) Jun Group works with social game developers to offer targeted syndication that uses an embedded player. (Richmond, 2011) According to Jun Group’s CEO, gamers are responding positively with 90-95% completion rate and 3-5% engagement rates. Jun Group may actually be one of the more legitimate services as they promise “no auto-plays, pop-ups or other view-inflating tricks.” (Richmond, 2011) Depending on how these sites are run, there many be several related legal issues such as complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA).

Stream Fraud
According to Jim Louderback, an outspoken voice on this issue, Internet video has an ethics problem called “stream fraud” which he describes as a company reporting to an advertiser that a video was played when the video was not actually viewed. Louderback estimates in 2010 that stream fraud could have accounted for as much as 30% or more of paid views. (Louderback, 2010)

In some instances these videos can’t actually be stopped and play below the fold on the page with the sound turned off so the person viewing the page might not actually see or hear it at all.

Black pixel markets
Tod Sacerdoti, an author for Media Post’s Online Video Insider blog describes the syndicated black market as a “small number of video syndication firms, ad networks and tier-three publishers” that use invisible 1×1 pixel autoplayers hidden behind a banner ad with the sound turned off. (2010) This appears to be one of the most fraudulent of the three categories described.

Laws and Regulation
Many of the illegitimate practices associated with video syndication fall under case law and the U.S. Code. Similar to the current Google Adwords case, charging customers for video view impressions and using a group of incentivized viewers that regularly click on hundreds of videos to fill those impressions is fraudulent. While there may be some truth to the old adage – buyer beware, some of the companies such as Usocial use FAQs and terms of service agreements that are extremely hard to decipher.

There is nothing illegal about using a “vast network of partners”, but when you drill down and consider that these “partners” are likely incentivized for their actions and might view multiple ads simultaneously to earn more money, it becomes clear that conversion rates will remain low or nonexistent. What you’re really doing paying people to ignore your video, leave fake comments or to subscribe to your channel and then never watch it.

What should be done to stop this madness?
There will always be fly-by-night companies that bend and twist the rules to make a quick buck, whether it’s click fraud or cybersquatting, making it all the more important for legitimate companies to protect themselves. Creating strict industry standards and providing transparency around services and metrics is likely the best way for video syndication companies to avoid government oversight. In order to curtail fraudulent practices like stream fraud, marketers and producers need to educate themselves as to the risks of working with companies that hide under “trade secrets” and be willing to pay a fair price for a legitimate service.

We want to hear from you… Does your business pay for video syndication services? How do you decipher the legitimate services from the fraudulent ones? Is a video’s view count an important factor in determining whether or not you will share it?

This piece was originally written as a research paper for Theresa Simpson’s U.S. Digital Media Law and Policy course at the University of Washington.

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