An alleged YouTube bug has retroactively taken thousands of dollars in revenue away from YouTube creators. YouTube, however, has neither acknowledged the problem nor provide details to YouTubers who rely on the platform for income.
“There are people who can’t feed their families and pay their bills … one girl I have been talking to … had a breakdown,” Randy Lynch, who runs the Mid-South Slots YouTube channel, told me via Messenger. “[YouTube] admitted it was a bug, then backtracked, blamed us, and shut down all communication with us eight days ago.”
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YouTubers make money by making videos, posting them on YouTube, and collecting advertising revenue when Google shows ads on those videos. Successful YouTubers can make hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions monthly, but most make a few hundred dollars a month. There are more than you think: a recent report estimated that there are two million creators who make six-figure incomes on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch.
The YouTube creators that are in trouble right now appear to be mostly the middle class: those who are making a few thousand dollars a month on YouTube every month.
“YouTube is withholding half of my last paycheck and has cut my ongoing income by more than 50%,” says Rhyan, the founder of the Rhapsody channel on YouTube. “Due to — I believe — a bug.”
The problem stems from what YouTube calls “IVT,” or invalid traffic.
Invalid traffic is fake views driven by software bots to drive up view counts, ad revenue, and even subscriber counts. It’s easy to get: 99 cents can buy you a thousand YouTube views. Just google “buy YouTube views” to see how.
YouTube is telling the creators that 100% of the traffic to their popular channels was, for significant periods of time, invalid traffic. In the YouTubers’ analytics accounts, that looks like this:
Stats from Jim Davis, a professional Magic: the Gathering player showing what Google says is invalid … [+]
Another channel, Vivi Gaming, shows regular small amounts of traffic and ongoing revenue of $20-40 per day, only to fall off a cliff in mid-September: around the same time as the channel shown above, and only recover in late October.
The Vivi Gaming YouTube channel has had the same problem: missing traffic and monetization in … [+]
“Notice the flatline,” Vivi says in a video talking about the bug. “I made videos pretty much twice a day every day in the month of October thinking I was going to be paid for you guys watching.”
Multiple YouTubers have raised the issue with YouTube support, and were initially told it was a bug.
Then the story changed.
“They admitted it was a bug, then backtracked, blamed us, and shut down all communication with us eight days ago,” Lynch told me.
Rhyan, who runs the Rhapsody channel, backs that up with screenshots in his YouTube video exposing the problem. In one email, a YouTube support representative tells a YouTuber that “it looks like there is a bug in our system that affects the revenue analytics.” In another, a support person says the issue is “related to the bug that we had raised” on an email thread.
YouTube support refers to the revenue problems as a “bug”
“After a week of telling us that the bug was currently being investigated by engineers they finally returned to copy-paste this response to all of us,” Rhyan says.
“You may have seen your revenue drop in your YouTube Analytics account as a result of invalid traffic on your videos and/or channel. We filter invalid traffic as a way to keep the YouTube ecosystem, including Creators and Advertisers, healthy. Keeping invalid traffic out of our ad systems helps advertisers feel safer running their ads on YouTube and makes sure that Creators maximize their long-term revenue.”
Here’s a mostly copy-and-paste form letter letter that RunGoodLife reports getting:
Form letter from YouTube on the #youtubewagetheft issue.
It’s simply not credible that channels with significant traffic and revenue lose all of that instantly, and suddenly have only invalid bot traffic. That passes the bounds of belief — especially when multiple YouTube creators have the same issue at the same time. (See the #YouTubeWageTheft hashtag on Twitter for multiple other YouTubers posting about the problem.) That’s especially true when they’re confident enough to go public with the issue, which would unlikely if they’re secretly buying bot traffic for their channels.
Here’s a detailed example from Vivi Gaming, shared on Facebook, which shows no significant change in traffic volume but a complete and utter change in estimated revenue:
The Vivi Gaming YouTube channel shows no major change in traffic, but a complete and sudden drop in … [+]
It’s entirely possible that at least some invalid traffic is on every or most YouTube channels, and it is also credible that some YouTubers try to game the system and drive invalid traffic to their videos. But going from 100% legitimate to 100% illegitimate seems extremely unlikely.
However, in response to some of the challenges on Twitter, YouTube has doubled down.
“We confirmed your finalized earnings are accurate, and for most channels, this large discrepancy between estimated and finalized revenue is from filtering out invalid ad traffic from your channel at the end of the month,” YouTube says. “The corresponding ad spend was refunded back to the advertiser. We also confirmed the invalid ad traffic was identified and filtered out correctly as part of ongoing improvements to better detect invalid activity.”
YouTubers, however, say that a bad analytics update has cost them the better part of two months’ wages. And that it is both costing them real economic harm as well as causing some of them to move off-platform for monetization to places like Patreon.
I’ve asked Google for a comment, and a representative responded by simply sharing the above-linked post. When I asked how it’s possible that a channel immediately and suddenly becomes 100% fake traffic, the representative did not reply.
To compound the problem, as tech executive Adam Newman noted on Twitter, “Google AdSense policies don’t allow for appeal of invalid traffic and specifically declare that they won’t provide the data showing the invalid traffic.”
That leaves creators on Google’s platform with few options. Google, their de facto “Integrated,” holds all the data.
And therefore, all the cards.
(Full disclosure: I have a YouTube channel as well that makes under $100/month; I have not personally seen the invalid traffic issue.)
I forecast and analyze trends affecting the mobile ecosystem. I’ve been a journalist, analyst, and corporate executive, and have chronicled the rise of the mobile
I forecast and analyze trends affecting the mobile ecosystem. I’ve been a journalist, analyst, and corporate executive, and have chronicled the rise of the mobile economy. I built the VB Insight research team at VentureBeat and managed teams creating software for partners like Intel and Disney. In addition, I’ve led technical teams, built social sites and mobile apps, and consulted on mobile, social, and IoT. In 2014, I was named to Folio’s top 100 of the media industry’s “most innovative entrepreneurs and market shaker-uppers.” I live in Vancouver, Canada with my family, where I coach baseball and hockey, though not at the same time.