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Bots the good the bad the chatty Learn to defend against bad bots, and which bots can save your business time and money

Internet Bots: The Good, the Bad, and the Chatty

Internet bots can save you time and earn you money, but make sure you're not a victim of cybercrime - it can cost you dearly.

Did you know internet bots make up more than a quarter of all web traffic? But why?? In this article we discuss the usefulness of bots, and broad cautions against harmful bots. They can save you time and earn you money, but make sure you’re not a victim of cyber crime – it can cost you dearly.

Jump ahead:

What are Bots?

Short for “robots,” bots are computer programs, or bits of software designed to do either simple or complex functions, such as gather data or follow a procedure of items. They can perform specific actions, like automating repetitive tasks to simulate, and in many cases replace human behavior. Certain tasks are performed by bots much faster than people.

Why are Bots important?

The usefulness of a bot varies widely depending on its purpose and its design. Bots can be designed for business processes that improve sales, or assist in customer service; they can search and store data in meaningful ways like building customer behavior profiles based on user activity. Unfortunately, bots are not always used benevolently and can also be used as part of a cyber crime.

Types of Bots

Chat Bots
A chat bot simulates human-like conversations known as “natural language” with users via text message or web chat. You may recall using an online chat tool on a business or bank’s website that collected your necessary information, tried to solve your problem and maybe connected you with a human service representative. That’s a chat bot; it’s key function is to help users by providing answers to their questions. Bots don’t require open office hours, offering a 24/7 solution to certain problems.
 
As technology advances, so does the way we interact with it. In recent years, chat bots often integrate with artificial intelligence to significantly broaden the bots’ functionality.
Good Bots
Bots are beneficial not only to the individual user, but also to businesses. Search engines like Google have launched spiderbots that “crawl” websites and indexes their contents; this is to better serve users the right content on a search engine results page (SERP). Top message platform Slack offers its Slackbot to share helpful tips with users, making the overall experience in Slack more enjoyable.
 
Bots are also used to search for specific information on the Internet, then record it in a database. This process known as scraping is valuable to businesses for building databases of similar information, like public real estate listings with their location, and broker contact info.
 
Ever had a post go viral and had no idea why? (Or more commonly, a post you were sure would go viral but sat there like a lame duck?) Social platforms like Meta use bots to scan the contents of millions of posts to determine which content should be displayed to which users.
 
Bots are also helpful in the financial sector, making buy and sell decisions simpler or more clear. A new bot from tech startup Unscrambl can search data from natural language input. That means you can ask key questions about your business and get the right answers from your database, no code required. That’s a pretty cool bot!
 
Can you think of any other applications of bots?
Bad Bots
A bot born for malicious purpose should probably feel bad about its own existence but bots don’t have feelings; they are just lines of code stored on a database. The people who design bad bots, however, should feel bad.
 
Bad bots are used for many malevolent functions like spam or phishing for data (to steal a person’s identity or loyalty points). Phishing, such as a fake, fraudulent email appearing to be from a bank or other reputable organization, has become quite commonplace at the time this article was written but people do still fall for the tricks. In the case of phishing, a bot will send out many emails and “listen” for the right type of response; the response will then be forwarded to a (human) con artist who is ready to continue the deception.
 
Another common function of bad bots is to overwhelm a website or server. When you visit a site, you use some small bit of bandwidth on the web server. If you did that millions of times each second, over a period of time, you could overwhelm and halt the server, resulting in the website going offline. If it’s just a little hobby site, that may not be a big deal but you can imagine the financial damage if the site earns (and costs) big money each minute, like Facebook or Google.

Defending against Bad Bots

Internet security is vastly complex, and also outside the scope of this article. To say it simply, there are both technical and business challenges to overcome in defending against bad bots. Let’s assume you’re not prepared to hire an entire cyber security team, and let’s assume your data isn’t as sensitive as classified government records. In this case, many practical solutions exist.
 
Make sure your web forms have a CAPTCHA to eliminate a large portion of bot traffic in your signups. In addition to using valuable web server resources, bot traffic can also tarnish an email server’s reputation, raising the risk of your emails ending up in spam. To defend against this, a honeypot can be set up to “trick” the bot into doing something a person never would or could do (think of an invisible form field; a human would always leave it blank, but a bot might enter something). Then a simple solution can be set up to automatically remove honeypot captures.
 
More general advice would be to carefully observe web and email traffic when you spot a bot. Typically when a bot finds a breech in security, it will continue to exploit it, and observing where the traffic is coming from can help you better block the unwanted traffic.
Love it or hate it, software is now a huge part of daily life, and this means bots too. Bots can be used for good or bad, and can earn, save or cost money or time depending on the function and how they’re used. Companies like Airbnb found great fortune using bots, while many have fallen prey to fraud and phishing bots. To receive valuable insight about growing your business, type your email in the form below to get The Gist™. 🤖

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