The Rise of the Fake Influencer: How to Spot Them & What to Look Out For

How to tell real vs. fake influencers on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and blogs. How to detect fake followers, automated likes, and bot engagement using SocialBlade, SimilarWeb, and a basic audit. How to find authentic influencers.
Michael Quoc
Founder and CEO of Dealspotr / ZipfWorks. Creating tomorrow's digital ecosystem for deals. Working towards connecting brands, influencers, and shoppers in exciting new ways.
Updated October 17, 2018

With the meteoric growth of influencer marketing ($570 million spent on Instagram alone last year), influencers are commanding ever increasing fees for posting photos, videos, and blog posts about brands who sponsor them. 

The mini-gold rush of influencer marketing has had the unfortunate (but predictable) consequence of a rise in fake influencers. A quick Google search will instantly reveal a multitude of ways to buy fake followers, fakes likes, fake video views - these days you can even pay someone to post your Instagram photos for you, complete with captions and curated hashtags. By buying inflated statistics, false influencers can command the fees of authentic ones, but drive far less real marketing value.

So, before you start contacting influencers, you, as a marketer, you must arm yourself with knowledge and the right tools. You first need to to sift through the legions of content creators to identify those that can actually drive real customers your way.

While marketers typically come at things from a numbers perspective, it is important to realize that influencer marketing is less a numbers game and more of an authenticity game. An inauthentic influencer with half a million followers can drive you far less value than a real one with ten thousand dedicated fans. Influencer marketing ROI is certainly impacted by engagement.

But how do you measure authenticity? How can you tell when an influencer has fake vs. real followers? What is the meaning of someone's follower count?That's what this guide is all about. Based on our experience building our influencer network, we've developed a set of best practices and guidelines for quickly evaluating influencers.

But first, let's talk through some of the most current tactics being used by fake influencers to boost their stats and perceived value. The simplest way to stop fake influencers is knowing how to spot them.

How fake influencers boost their numbers

Buying followers

Simply buying followers is the most obvious and common tactic used by fake influencers. There are plenty of services designed to do this.

Typically, these services use automated bots - fake accounts created on a massive scale on various social networks - which are used to follow specific accounts to boost the number of followers.

Buying engagement

It used to be easy to spot social media influencers who bought followers because their average number of likes and comments on each post would not match up to their large following. Then it became easy to buy likes and comments too. So now how do you tell if someone's followers are real? 

Fortunately, there are still relatively easy ways to detect purchased likes and comments through a manual audit, more on this below.

Buying YouTube views

On YouTube, views are the key metric. And it's easy to buy those too. A simple Google search will reveal dozens of options for doing this.

YouTube videos with inflated views will appear in search results more often, and can make a particular YouTuber appear to be more influential than he really is.

Abusing engagement groups

The use of "Instagram pods" is a recent trend which has caught on among Instagram influencers. In joining a pod, Instagrammers band together in private groups to support each other's posts with likes and comments. Pods are a grey area since one can argue that participating in a high quality pod with other authentic posters is not too different than friends supporting each other with social media likes. However, this tactic is also being abused by many who join dozens if not hundreds of low-quality pods as a way to artificially boost their numbers. Since these likes and comments tend to be created by real people instead of bots, they can be harder to spot.

Deleting underperforming posts

Social media influencers know that brands spot check their profiles to see how much engagement they are getting on their posts. Therefore, some will go through their past posts and simply delete the ones that received less than stellar views or likes. By doing so, they can make their timelines appear more consistent than they actually are.

Abusing hashtags

Marketers and content creators alike know that hashtags are a great way to drive higher influencer engagement rates for social media posts. One common spam tactic is to "spam" hashtags, meaning attaching dozens of popular (and sometimes only tangentially related) hashtags to posts in order to gain more likes. While attaching hashtags to content is not in and of itself spammy, using too many hashtags, and using those that are not directly related to your post starts to look like spam at a certain point.

One tip, some influencers know that marketers are on the look out for this tactic, and are adapting by burying their hashtags in comments, so look in the comments section too.

How to spot fake followers, likes, and blog traffic

Now the good news. There are best practices you can follow to reliably separate the fake influencers among the real ones. First, a tip:

Don’t pay for fake follower detection services

There are a number of online services that claim to detect fake followers on Instagram or Twitter for you. You simply enter in a user’s handle and voila they will compile a report for you (often for a fee) outlining the percentage of their followers that are fake.

The problem is that many of these services lack transparency by not revealing how their algorithms work, so there's no way to understand exactly how they define or detect fake followers. And our anecdotal tests suggest that data from some of these services can be inaccurate or misleading.

Be active yourself on the social platforms you work with

This may seem obvious to some (but not all) - if you personally manage influencer campaigns, you should personally be familiar with the platforms you work with, and this means using them yourself. By following people, engaging, and posting yourself, you can immerse yourself in the experience of each platform and develop a sense of how they work. This will help you detect the authenticity of various personalities on those platforms.

Google the influencer

Most influencers will participate on a range of social sites, and good ones will usually have their own website or blog. Either way, any good influencer will have a well curated presence on Google, so the first thing you should do is Google their influencer name and see what comes up.

A good looking result includes a rich section of links from their own site, followed by multiple social profiles. You might also see interviews and news items about them, which are also positive signs that this is a real influencer with a real presence across multiple sites.

It's even better if the influencer's brand name comes up as a Google suggestion as you type your search. This indicates that lots of people people are Googling their name too, also a positive signal.

Check for steady follower growth with SocialBlade

If you're working with social media influencers, then SocialBlade is your friend. SocialBlade is the leading statistics provider for YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch, covering millions of profiles with up-to-date data on followers and engagement.

The most useful feature for you is that SocialBlade tracks historical stats for users across social platforms. You want to see smooth and steady growth in views and followers. Here's an example for a popular YouTuber Ryan ToysReview.

Their chart shows steady, organic views and follower growth.

Here's Huda Beauty's follower data on Instagram, she has a steady growth of followers each day:

And her chart looks good too:

On Instagram, you want to avoid up and down spikes in people followed (this indicates the user is mass following / unfollowing users as a way to artificially gain followers):

On Instagram, you also want to avoid unnatural spikes or drops in follower growth, which can indicate purchased followers or bots that were banned.

Check for organic blog traffic with SimilarWeb

If bloggers are a part of your influencer marketing campaign, you'll want to add SimilarWeb to your toolkit. While many people use Alexa to get estimated traffic data for websites, SimilarWeb is by far the most accurate tool.

In fact, SimilarWeb is an important tool because its data is very hard to manipulate - typically the traffic data you see for any given website on SimilarWeb is pretty accurate. Here are the stats for Dealspotr influencer Work at Home Woman:

You can ignore most of the stats and focus on the "Estimated Visits" statistic. This indicates how many people visited this website last night. Seeing a high number here is generally a very positive signal.

SimilarWeb will also show you a website's sources of traffic, e.g. where their visits originated from. Here are those stats for another Dealspotr influencer, Mooglyblog:

Generally, you want to see a nice blend of traffic across sources. It's not necessarily a bad thing if the vast majority of traffic comes from a particular source - some blogs generate most of their traffic from their social channels, others might receive traffic mostly from search engines. Lots of direct traffic is generally a positive sign, as this indicates that more people have this site bookmarked or memorized. If you see a majority of traffic coming from links, mail, or display, these are more likely to be paid channels, so that could be a yellow flag worthy of investigation.

One of nice statistics that SimilarWeb shows you is which countries a site's traffic is coming from:

It's normal for traffic to come from a wide range of countries, however, if you see something surprising here, like traffic coming primarily from an international country that you're not targeting, you should see that as a yellow flag. Some sites may purchase traffic to inflate their stats, and in many cases services that sell traffic may provide traffic from specific countries.

I recommend installing SimilarWeb's browser extension, as it provides an easy way to grab the above data as you're browsing any site.

Look for a likes-to-follower ratio of 1% to 3%

While this is more of a general rule of thumb than an absolute guideline, on Instagram, studies have shown that the organic average number of likes per post is between 1% to 3% of a user's follower count (although some categories, like electronics can be closer to 5%). So if the influencer has 100,000 followers, you'd expect to see between 1,000 to 3,000 likes per post.

It is possible for an influencer to have higher average engagement, say closer to 5% or 6%. However, this is one more data point for you, if you see a ratio much higher or lower than this, consider it a yellow flag.

Look for hashtag spam

Open up a selection of the influencer's recent Instagram posts and see how they compose their captions. See whether the captions appear to be authentic and thoughtful. 

Then check the hashtags on each post. Do you see something like this?

This is called hashtag spam. And while it's not quite as bad as purchasing followers, it is simply another way of inserting a post into a large number of hashtag pages, which is another way to gain more likes and followers.

Since doing this now considered to be a form of spam, to avoid detection, many users have stopped posting these in their captions and post them in their comments section instead. So you'll need to open up their comments section as you check out each post.

Audit the influencer’s comments

You can audit the comments placed on an influencer's posts to determine whether they look real and organic, as opposed to programmatic and likely posted by bots. Generally, real comments will look conversational, and have a wide variance in tone and content.

If you see lots of generic comments, with phrases that could apply to any post, such as "Awesome!" or "Good" or "Amazing, great post!" then that's a sign of bots. 

Also, real comments tend to include mentions of other users, and by viewing these users' profiles you can assess whether these people are real or fake. 

Audit the influencer’s followers

Check out the influencer's followers (you can usually get to this view from their profile page). Quickly visit a sampling of their recent followers. If you see users with very few posts, or users with close to zero followers, then this is another good indication that the influencer has purchased followers.

Use Dealspotr's Influence Score

As a part of our free service provided to all advertisers, Dealspotr provides true engagement data on thousands of top lifestyle influencers via our Influence Score algorithm. Influence Score is a simple scoring ranging from 0 to 500+, with 30 to 100 representing a mid-range influencer with between 50k to 500k followers.

Influence Score is protected from fake followers because the algorithm ignores the number of followers altogether. Instead, we require each influencer to connect their blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other accounts to our platform and then we analyze each influencer to assess their true engagement metrics. We also analyze each influencer's "Conversion Score" or sales and leads driven from previous campaigns they've run on Dealspotr.

We provide Influence Score metrics for free in our Influencer Directory.

In summary

Influencer marketing can be a powerful way to build your brand and drive sales. With the rise of fake influencers, however, brands must proceed with caution, and arm themselves with the right knowledge and tools. With some solid free resources such as SocialBlade and SimilarWeb, along with some best practices to evaluate influencers across platforms, you'll be in good shape to connect with the right influencers who can promote your brand to the right people.