Good Bots vs Bad Bots: How to Tell the Difference

Bots are a fundamental part of the internet today — and they‘re not going away anytime soon. As of 2024, bots make up nearly half of all web traffic. But not all of these automated visitors have good intentions.

While many bots provide vital services that power our online experiences, others have more sinister purposes. These "bad bots" can steal data, break into user accounts, smear spam across the web, and even hold websites for ransom.

As bots grow more sophisticated, telling friend from foe is an increasingly complex challenge. But with the right knowledge and tools, you can harness good bots and stop bad bots before they wreak havoc. Here‘s what you need to know.

The Helpful Bots

Let‘s start with the good guys. Beneficial bots are the unsung heroes of the internet, helping us find information, connect with customers, and keep sites running smoothly. Common examples include:

Search Engine Crawlers

When you search Google for the best pizza place near you, you‘re relying on data gathered by search engine crawler bots. These bots systematically scan and index website content so search engines can serve it up in relevant results.

Major search engines each have their own crawlers, like:

  • Googlebot (Google)
  • Bingbot (Microsoft Bing)
  • Slurp Bot (Yahoo!)
  • Baiduspider (Baidu)

Crawlers typically identify themselves in their HTTP user agent string and comply with instructions in your robots.txt file.

Chatbots

Chatbots are AI-powered bots that can converse with humans, answering questions, providing guidance, or even completing basic transactions. They‘ve become a key part of modern customer service.

For example, Amtrak‘s bot "Julie" helps passengers:

  • Book train tickets
  • Check schedules and train status
  • Get route information
  • Navigate stations and parking

Julie can handle 5 million questions per year, allowing human agents to focus on more complex issues. No wonder the chatbot market is predicted to hit $10.5 billion by 2026.

Copyright Bots

With millions of songs, videos, and articles published online daily, detecting plagiarism and copyright violations by hand is impossible. Enter copyright bots.

These bots scan the web for content that‘s been used without permission. On YouTube, Content ID automatically compares new uploads against a database of registered copyrighted material. If there‘s a match, the video gets flagged for review.

In 2023 alone, YouTube‘s copyright bots:

  • Scanned over 729 million videos
  • Identified 697 million instances of copyright violation
  • Handled 98% of copyright claims automatically

Price Monitoring Bots

To stay competitive, many retailers use price monitoring bots to automatically track competitors‘ prices and promotions. The bots scrape pricing data across the web so retailers can instantly react to market changes.

Some stats on the impact:

  • 96% of retailers say competitor price tracking is critical
  • Dynamic pricing can boost profits by 25%
  • But 41% still rely on manual processes

For shoppers, price comparison bots like Google Shopping can scan hundreds of sites for the best deals in seconds. Talk about a win-win!

The Harmful Bots

Unfortunately, not all bots come in peace. Malicious bots can devastate websites, steal sensitive data, and manipulate online discourse. Here are the main types of bad bots to watch out for.

Spam Bots

Spam bots flood websites with fake traffic, user registrations, and auto-generated content like blog comments stuffed with sketchy links. Their goal? To drive traffic to malicious sites, spread malware, boost search rankings, or simply cause chaos.

Spam bot activity is skyrocketing:

  • 53% of CMS websites were hit by spam bots in 2023
  • Comment spam is up 200% year-over-year
  • 25% of all user registrations are fake

Spam degrades user experience, drains server resources, and can get legitimate sites penalized by search engines. It‘s a massive headache for site owners.

Click Fraud Bots

For companies paying for ads on a cost-per-click basis, click fraud bots can bleed budgets dry. These bots mimic human visitors but repeatedly click ads with no intent of engaging further.

The result? Advertisers pay for worthless traffic while real prospects get crowded out. Mobile apps are a major target, with click fraud rates as high as 21%.

Click fraud is a huge problem in the $500 billion online ad industry. Some scary stats:

  • Bot-driven ad fraud will cost businesses $81 billion in 2024
  • 1 in 3 ad clicks may be fraudulent
  • Only 15% of ad spend reaches actual humans

Account Takeover Bots

Account takeover (ATO) bots automatically test huge lists of stolen login credentials to break into user accounts. Once in, attackers can steal sensitive data, make fraudulent purchases, or spam contacts.

ATO is rising fast thanks to massive data breaches and password reuse. Over 24 billion stolen credentials are circulating on the dark web as of 2023.

The costs are staggering:

  • ATO causes over $17 billion in losses per year
  • Each incident costs businesses $290 on average
  • Full recovery can take 83 hours per compromised account

Credential stuffing bots allow attackers to validate thousands of password combos per second. No wonder ATO attempts spiked 300% during the pandemic!

Web Scraping Bots

Not all data collection bots play by the rules. Unauthorized web scraping bots harvest pricing info, product details, and other valuable data from websites without permission.

So what‘s the problem? For one, scrapers can drain server resources, causing slowdowns or crashes. They can also steal copyrighted content or expose personal data.

Travel, e-commerce, and real estate sites are top scraping targets:

  • 31% of travel site traffic comes from web scrapers
  • 26% of Bad Bots scrape pricing data from retailers
  • Real estate firms get hit by over 7,600 scrapes per month

Competititors may use scraping to undercut prices or steal proprietary content. Scraped data also gets resold on black markets to spammers and scammers.

DDoS Bots

In a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, botnets bombard websites with more traffic than they can handle. The goal is to crash the site or extort a ransom payment to call off the siege.

DDoS bots are particularly nasty because they harness armies of infected devices, from PCs to baby monitors. Up to 20 million devices may be swept up in botnets globally.

The scale and impact of DDoS is staggering:

  • DDoS attacks soared 271% in 2023
  • The average attack involves 11,000 bots
  • DDoS now costs firms $250,000 per incident on average
  • 70% of financial firms got hit in the last year

High-profile targets have included Twitter, Netflix, BBC, and even entire countries! With botnets-for-hire services flourishing, any site is at risk.

Fighting the Bot Battle

Now that you know the key players, how can you welcome good bots and block the bad? Try these best practices:

Monitor Traffic Patterns
Use analytics tools to track traffic sources, device/browser fingerprints, and user behavior. Look for anomalies like:

  • Unusual spikes in traffic, signups, or form submissions
  • High volumes of traffic from unexpected regions or cloud services
  • Inhuman usage patterns like frequent reloads or superhuman form filling

Use Bot Management Solutions
Many web security tools now have dedicated bot management modules to detect bad bot traffic based on advanced behavioral analysis, machine learning, and threat intel.

Features to look for:

  • Granular bot categorization (e.g. search engine, scraper, spammer)
  • Customizable allow/block lists
  • CAPTCHA and human verification challenges
  • API security controls
  • Real-time dashboards and alerts

Require Strict User Validation
Bots rely on weak authentication to break in. Lock them out with:

  • Strong password policies
  • Multi-factor authentication
  • Fraud detection tools
  • User behavioral analysis
  • Federated identity solutions

For public-facing forms, consider measures like honeypot fields, time-based CAPTCHAs, and rate limiting to weed out bots.

Harden Your Supply Chain
Bad bots often infiltrate websites via compromised third-party scripts and plugins. Vet external code carefully and keep all systems patched against known vulnerabilities.

Use Content Security Policy headers to restrict which external domains can load active content on your site.

Get Proactive With Threat Hunting
Don‘t wait for bots to strike. Proactively comb your networks and systems for Indicators of Bot Compromise like:

  • Unexplained traffic spikes in web logs
  • Automated user agents in HTTP request headers
  • Failed login attempts from unexpected IPs
  • Repeated 400/500 HTTP status codes

By finding and ejecting bots early, you can prevent costly breaches and fraud.

The Bot Arms Race Continues

As we barrel towards 2025, the battle between good and bad bots shows no signs of easing. AI-powered bots are getting better at mimicking humans to evade detection. And with the rise of IoT botnets, the pool of potential bot minions is exploding.

But the news isn‘t all bad. The anti-bot arsenal keeps growing too. More sites are deploying bot management tools, and security pros are getting savvier at spotting bot anomalies.

Innovations like Privacy Pass and "proof-of-work" challenges aim to separate bots from humans without hurting experience. And initiatives like the advertiser-backed ads.txt project help choke off the money that fuels click fraud.

The key is proactive vigilance. By keeping a close eye on your traffic, locking down vulnerabilities, and layering defenses, you can keep bad bots from ruining your party.

Because in 2025 and beyond, bots aren‘t going anywhere — so we have to get smarter than them. Let‘s make sure the good bots can get in while the bad bots stay out.

Tags: