The CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Humans and Computers Apart was designed in 1997, with the patent issued to Alta Vista’s head scientist Andrei Broder in 2001. Since then, the constant battle against spammers across the Internet has led to increasingly complex ways of proving you’re a human.
Often advances in CAPTCHA technology have actually given spammers an easier time. For example, when PiCAPTCHAs arrived, making users click a small sequence of pictures, they were seen to be a step forward, but actually what they allowed was an opportunity for spammers to much more easily brute force their way in. There have also been times in the history of CAPTCHAs during which they were more readily deciphered by computers than humans.
Even ‘unbreakable’ CAPTCHAs are still breakable with a little lateral thinking, or just downright poor working practices. There are, it is said in hushed tones around seedy spammers’ bars, sweatshops where one can buy guaranteed access with no awkward algorithms to create (costs usually equate to around $0.01 per solution). Similarly, the free porn industry can be cunningly used to get your users to do the legwork for you. In short it’s a running battle in which no side has the advantage for longer than a few months.
Alternative Uses for CAPTCHAs: A New Thing?
Given that users need to interact – and genuinely interact – with a CAPTCHA for anything up to 20 seconds just to be given access to content or services, you can see how they’re an interesting draw for advertisers. This is brought into focus when you think that the time spent on CAPTCHAs, on average, is between 5-10% of the time spent on the site they’re trying to access.
The main use thus far in CAPTCHA technology, bar the obvious anti-spamming functionality, of course, has been in database building. Where Google Books, for example, has a number of words that its automated system cannot define, it uses reCAPTCHA (bought by Google in 2009) to print the word alongside the CAPTCHA. When enough users identify the word as being the same, it goes into its database.
However, it’s not all rosy in the world of CAPTCHA technology, and the benevolent CAPTCHA is being used by virus creators to circumvent virus detection software. Similarly, social media CAPTCHA abuse is rife. This is often where you’ll see things like “OUTRAGEOUS! Wikileaks shows footage of Bin Laden in US prison”, click through to a CAPTCHA that requires you to type “Big News!”, and before you know it you have that same post on your wall with your comment of “Big News” underneath it.
Early CAPTCHA Advertising
Still the most common form of CAPTCHA advertising is a simple image with a slogan you have to repeat. This could be anything from a McDonalds logo with the price of their latest McRib, or a Toyota ad with the name of their new vehicle to input. This is forced brand input, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence (but very little scientific analysis) that this kind of CAPTCHA can build negative brand connotation. Do you really want your brand being associated with an irritating security measure?
NuCAPTCHA Engage, a fairly stable video version of the CAPTCHA claimed to increase brand recall by 1200% against traditional advertising methods. Now that’s quite a claim and one that if true, would have had every company in the world clamouring for it. However, it never really found traction, and while there are notable users such as O2, Groupon and THQ, this form of CAPTCHA advertising is not widespread.
CAPTCHA Advertising Options
There is an argument that the more intrusion we allow in our internet lives (things like popups, online advertising, social gaming advertising and mobile marketing), the more the humble CAPTCHA will draw attention. The kinds of CAPTCHAs at the cutting edge now, and those on the horizon are taking this into account by offering interaction that is fundamentally different to the traditional CAPTCHA user experience.
Slide-to-fit CAPTCHA ads, where the aim is to control a sizing or positioning slider so that the ad looks correct, moves away from the dull segmentation and analysis function we’re called upon to perform as a user and into a more playful mode. Resizing a picture of a face, for example is a fun little diversion, whereas deciphering purposely deformed text isn’t. Interestingly, moves like these in CAPTCHA technology are not aimed at increasing security per se, rather they’re creating greater and greater opportunity for marketing.
Currently, Type-In CAPTCHA technology offers genuine engagement with users – something highly sought after by marketers. This is the simple replacement of deformed text with advertising, and according to reports from Solve Media, they can increase brand recall by over 400% against standard banner ads, as well as offering almost 800% increased intent to buy. There is still the obstacle of it being a forced engagement, but options are only limited to your imagination within the confines of language and branding.
CAPTCHA technology is currently a great way to get over “banner blindness”, where users naturally and subconsciously turn off to banner-style ads. The very nature of CAPTCHAs requires human cogitation, and therefore a way to easily associate your brand with even the most abstract message. For example, many of the more involved CAPTCHA ads around today offer us a way to get users to type in positive messages about their brand. “Type in the word that best fits this picture”-type CAPTCHAs offer brand awareness campaigns results that other advertising outlets simply can’t.
The Future of CAPTCHA Advertising
In terms of security, the battle between spammers and security professionals will simmer gently under the surface until we see a fundamental change in Internet security in general. There is nothing to be done about CAPTCHA farming and other forms of security circumnavigation, except with far, far greater intrusion into our privacy. Expansions on social media-style user authentication are the obvious choice, where we’re asked to type in the name of a friend or address tailored to the individual’s life or location. Indeed, Facebook uses this method to authenticate accounts.
However, from an advertising point of view there is little that is out of the question. We’re not too far away from users typing (or saying) phrases like, “I want to buy a Toyota this year.” You can probably realize the potential in this frequency-validity effect, where users are more likely to believe a statement they encounter (or better yet say) often.
The psychology of this technology is somewhat unique in the marketing industry, and the advantages of tailoring adverts to appeal to a different part of the brain will become more apparent over time. Whatever happens with the future of CAPTCHA advertising, however, you can be sure it’s an important area for any marketer to keep their eye on.