Hey Advertisers: You Might Want to Ask VEVO for a Refund…

Or, at least an audit. This all started last week when YouTube eliminated 156 million viewcounts for Lady Gaga, which turned out to be the tip of an iceberg.  That iceberg, which quietly floated by in December, involved a far broader correction on more than 2 billion VEVO and YouTube views.

That double-billion correction, confirmed by YouTube, involved channels belonging to Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group.  According to YouTube, a major culprit was ‘dead videos,’ or videos transferred to VEVO after living on YouTube proper previously.

Sounds reasonable enough, until the shady part begins.  Mixed up in all this is a fairly massive investment in VEVO from Google in mid-January, estimated at anywhere between $35 million and $66 million, depending on who you talk to.  Either way, if these guys were in bed together before, now they were having a sesh.

So what about all these inflated and drastically-corrected views?  Not all of this seems legit: enter ‘spk,’ a source who claimed to be a former YouTube employee in charge of inflating VEVO views by the millions. “I had to sit there and bot videos with millions and millions of views… for more than 20,000 videos,” spk told ReadWriteWeb investigating journalist Fruzsina Eördögh.  Shortly thereafter, YouTube confirmed that ‘spk’ did indeed receive a large sum of cash from Google, not for botting but rather for identifying a critical security risk.

Eördögh then started checking out some of the bigger videos that spk pointed out, and found some extremely abnormal spikes.  For example, Kanye West’s “Heartless” received a stout 33 million views in a 24-hour period, which easily doubles peak volumes experienced by “Gangnam Style,” the most successful YouTube video of all time.

In fact, there’s no comparison.  Here’s a slide from a YouTube presentation in Seoul attended by Digital Music News last November.  As you can see, even the most explosive periods of growth for “Gangnam Style” weren’t anywhere near 33 million daily views for Kanye.

Yet the same types of extreme spikes came up for videos from ‘NSync, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys, among many others.  Alongside this potential fudgery, VEVO has been on the defensive over sagging traffic levels, specifically those measured by comScore.  VEVO eventually called the stats into question, while pointing to explosive (and uncounted) mobile growth.

So, foul play?  That’s hard to say: a lot may be explained by transfers from one channel to another, though even that raises issues of over VEVO’s actual traffic history.  Which means that advertisers may be looking at a smaller property, and an issue worth investigating.  Whether more serious fudgery like click fraud or botting is happening is also hard to gauge, though there are significant reasons to cook the counters: after all, VEVO’s entire business model revolves around premium advertising and branding, extremely robust traffic views, and elevated CPMs.

Indeed, that’s a goal shared by YouTube as well, though perhaps there’s been a change-of-heart on how that goal should be achieved.  “Now that Google is taking a direct financial stake in the VEVO channels, it appears that the practice of artificially inflating video views is being slowed or halted,” Eördögh relayed.

“Newer music videos — like those from Katy Perry, for example — show no signs of botting.”