Make no mistake; every social network in existence has a problem with fake accounts. Some have it more than others, and some have more effective means of stopping them than others, but they will always exist. Heck, some Korean MMOs require using a Korean identification number – similar to our social security number – to try to prevent bot accounts and fake accounts, but it doesn’t work. People simply use other peoples’ numbers to register and re-register accounts. The point is, no control measure thus thought of by human minds can prevent bots from existing.
On Instagram, bots can be particularly harmful. Like all social networks, a prevalence of bots in your follower count means you have lower reach, lower engagement rates, and a worse ratio for interactions. However, since Instagram is THE social network known for high engagement rates, it hurts even more.
Thankfully, there are ways you can tell whether an account is likely to be a bot or not. You won’t get a 100% accurate hit rate – some people act remarkably like bots, and some bots are very sophisticated – but you’ll be able to prune out your followers fairly quickly. Here are my ten tips, tricks, techniques, and filters you can use to audit your own following.
1. Peep the Numbers
One relatively easy way to check to see if an account is a bot or not is to just look at their profile and look at their numbers. Bot accounts tend to be used primarily to like and comment on posts, and to follow people. They rarely if ever post anything – or just post advertisements like these – and have very few followers:
So; if the account has hundreds or thousands of likes and follows hundreds of people, but has very little content and very few followers, they’re probably a bot.
Now, you can’t say with 100% certainty that such an account is a bot. I’ve known people who only registered Instagram to keep up with a few friends and regularly like the posts made by their friends, but don’t post anything themselves. They even have a few followers, from bots that follow people based on their keywords or actions. You could offend a friend by removing their account, but hey; you probably either recognize their name or will get a message about it.
Either way, though, why bother keeping that account around? They aren’t necessarily doing much to assist you, since they aren’t in any way influential themselves, and they look like a bot from the outside. It doesn’t hurt you to remove them, so just go ahead and do so.
2. Down the Chain
Bots don’t just spring up on their own; they’re created for a purpose, and that purpose is generally for the sale of bulk followers or likes. That means the person who created them probably created many of them. I’m talking hundreds or even thousands of them all networked together, managed by a botnet or just sequentially using software with multi-threading technology and rotating proxy information.
Since tip #1 is easy to recognize as bot behavior, some of these bot owners will network their bots together. Their bots might have hundreds of followers! Of course, when you have hundreds of accounts at your disposal, it’s easy to give any bot hundreds of followers.
So take a look! How many followers does the presumed bot account have, and of those, how many of them look like bots themselves? It’s fairly likely that most or all of their followers will be bots of various types, possibly with a few hapless people thrown in who follow anyone who follows them regardless of bot status.
3. Hide and Seek
This one is pretty simple; is the profile hidden? On Instagram, you can make a profile private, requiring approval to see anything more than a name and some very basic information. Some bot accounts will use this feature to make snooping on them a bit harder. They follow you, but if you want to see information about them, you need to follow them back and they need to approve it. Since they’re a bot, they’ll never approve it, so you’re left wondering. Are they legitimate and hidden for a valid reason, or are they hiding the evidence of their mechanical underbellies?
Much like the “friend who barely uses the site” accounts, legitimate users with hidden profiles generally aren’t all that valuable to you. It’s one thing if they regularly engage and interact with you like a real person. Those kinds of accounts can be kept around. However, if they do nothing but follow you and blindly like a few posts, they’re probably bots and can be safely disregarded. Even if they aren’t real, at that point it likely doesn’t matter much either way.
4. Emptiness Inside
Most of the ultimate low-effort bots are empty accounts. They have no profile picture, no information, no posts, nothing. They exists for one purpose, and one purpose only; to be controlled by software that tells them to like or follow another account. That’s it.
Empty accounts look bad, they look fake, and they bring no value to the table. People don’t follow them, so even if they share your posts, they’re sharing them to an empty room. Nothing they do benefits you. Even if it is, again, a friend who barely uses the site, they aren’t worth worrying about. If they really are your friend, and they really want to help you out, give them a quick primer on how to really use Instagram.
5. Obvious Spam
When a bot isn’t controlled by someone selling followers, they’re probably selling something else. Some of them are run by shady affiliate brands that just want to get more exposure. Some of them are run by scammers who are trying to phish your information and use it to hack your accounts or just sell your personal information on the black market.
Here’s an example of a spam account that fits this profile. Here’s a screenshot incase it gets removed:
It has a profile picture that’s a generic product picture. It has one single upload, which wants you to give them a bunch of information to presumably win the product. Their information refers you to yet another spam account for the same purpose. It’s the kind of spam account that might follow you if you follow the official Xbox account, or use an Xbox-related hashtag.
Obviously, don’t do any of that. That’s a fake account, and I take no responsibility if you fall for it.
6. Find the Source
Some of the more sophisticated bot accounts will actually have spun content as their profile information, a semi-legitimate looking website link, and even a handful of pictures uploaded. They might even be somewhat active, though not always. There is, however, one trick to catching these accounts in the act.
Go to their Instagram profile via the web interface. Right-click on their profile image – or one of the pictures they have posted – and click to view the full image. Instagram might try to stop you from choosing this option; if so, enable a noscript or other script blocker, or view the page source and find the direct link to the image.
Once you’re on the actual image file from the spam account above – right click it again and click to search the image on Google. You’re running a Google search-by-image to see where else the image has shown up before.
Spam accounts with actual information attached will very often be using a picture that shows up all over the place. If it shows up just on another couple social networks with similar information, it’s likely a real account.
If it shows up on dozens of different social profiles or stock photo websites, it’s probably just a picture used by a bot. Generally it will be a hot chick posing seductively, for maximum attraction from lonely guys.
7. The Proof is in The Pudding
And in this case, the pudding is the comments. Some bots exist solely to leave spammy comments on your posts. If you’re happily chugging along, posting images and engaging with fans, and you see a post like this:
- Are you fighting to lose weight fast? Want to know one strange tip that helped me drop 10 lbs in a week? Just check this bit.ly link!
- I made $5,000 per month using this simple service. If you want to make tons of money too, click here now!
- I AM A HUMAN AND NOT A ROBOT, PLEASE FEED YOUR INFORMATION INTO THIS FORM TO RECEIVE A DEFINITELY REAL $25 STARBUCKS GIFT CARD, BEEP BOOP
What do you do? Chances are you either ignore it or delete it, because it’s coming from a bot. Real people aren’t that excited to share their affiliate links any chance they get; they wait for legitimate discussions and it comes up a lot more naturally. Even if the account posting something like that isn’t a bot, it’s still spam, and you should still remove it.
8. Where We Came From
Another option is to simply look in the followers list of the account following you and look for suspicious accounts owned by follower sellers. You might be surprised at how brazen some of these companies get. They’ll make their own Instagram accounts with names like BuyFollowersNow and CheapFollowersFast and whatever else they can find that hasn’t been registered by another service already, or banned already. They use that account as one of the followers, and as an advertisement for their service.
So here’s the thing; sometimes the accounts that have such followers are themselves legitimate. They just have hugely inflated audiences because they bought followers. It’s up to you to decide how relevant they are and whether or not they’re a vector for spam infection, and thus whether you should block them or not.
9. Rampant Inflation
I’ve mentioned a few ways that bots make themselves look more legitimate, but one flag we all generally miss is the actual content itself. Most of us tend to think that if an account has posted a bunch of content, it’s probably not a bot. Bots, of course, abuse that attitude as much as possible. I have seen bots that post hundreds of images with full captions and everything, just to make themselves look more legitimate at a glance.
You can check two things to help figure out if the account is a bot. First, when was their most recent post? They might have posted a lot, but haven’t posted in months; the full feed looks fine until you dig in to check dates, after all. Second, when did they make their first post? Often, the bots will practically hit the upload rate limit to post 100-200 posts in the spam of a week, before abandoning the content idea. And, of course, most of that content is scraped, spun, or stolen outright.
10. Fight Fire with Fire
Or, rather, fight bots with a bot of your own. Okay, well, not really a bot, so much as a piece of software that audits followers for common bot signals. All of the above tips are common knowledge, and services exist to scan your account automatically and let you know if they detect bots.
Check out FollowerCheck. You need to authorize your account to let the app do its thing, but it will scan your followers and give you a quick reading of what percentage of them look fake. Unfortunately, it’s not super accurate; it only scans a sample of 150 followers, so it can easily miss if you have a low percentage, or catch too many and give you a higher percentage than you actually have.
If that one doesn’t work – and it kind of looks like they’re having issues as I write this – try FameAudit. If that one doesn’t work, try out something more powerful, like Social Audit Pro. The point is, there are a lot of options available to you.