What do Facebook “likes” of companies mean?

You are drinking a Coke at lunch. Do you feel compelled to go to Facebook and “like” the Coca Cola facebook page? You use Matlab to process your microscopy data. Do you express your gratitude for not having to count RNA spots by hand by “liking” Matlab? And if your physician prescribes a pill made by AstraZeneca, do you “like” the pharmaceutical? Well, someone does.

In June of 2013, we released our essay platform for scientists to tell the stories behind their research. A month before that, we tried to build up a following on Facebook, so that we would be able to make the author-contributed content more visible. We had about 100 “likes” from our science friends and decided to pay for promotion to accumulate more. This exercise (and the resulting “likes”) is still the most puzzling event in the two-year existence of our startup. For $50, we ended purchasing 900 empty likes that we still can’t get rid of to this day.

We are not talking about going to an outside agency to accumulate fake likes – something that Facebook prohibits. We are talking about Facebook giving companies the ability to pump cash into the generation of useless but impressive-sounding “likes” with a click of a button via the “promote your page” campaigns. A click that Facebook promises will allow you to “connect with more of the people who matter to you.” We planned to spend $400-500 to grow our “likes” by one or two hundred. It took us a day to realize that we were paying Facebook not for interested followers but for a meaningless number. For $50 in the very first day, we instantly felt the love from almost a thousand Facebook accounts in India. None of them seemed to be scientists, and we are far from certain that they are real people. Here are the countries and cities that “like” PubChase.

Of course, there are countless scientists in India, but the statistics from GoogleAnalytics on the use of our apps for scientists, be they on iOS or Android, clearly indicate that India is not our main user base1.


PubChase iOS PubChase Android Lab Counter iOS Lab
Counter Android
Bench Tools iOS Bench Tools Android
U.S. U.S. U.S. U.S. U.S. U.S.
UK UK Brazil Japan Germany China
China China UK Belgium Turkey Australia
Brazil Italy Mexico Brazil UK Netherlands
Germany Germany Australia Ireland S. Korea Poland
Poland India Italy Spain Netherlands Turkey
Canada Spain Japan China Thailand Germany
Italy Guatemala France Canada Ukraine Greece
Mexico Canada Canada Argentina Italy Austria
Turkey Vietnam Thailand Mexico China Italy

As we tried to understand why New Delhi citizens were so enamored with PubChase we bumped into the post titled, “Are 40% Of Life Science Company Facebook Page ‘Likes’ From Fake Users?” In our case, it seems to be about 90%.

We stopped our campaign right away, but it was too late. Facebook has no interface to remove these fake likes. You have to manually delete each follower and can only do so for a few dozen most recent ones. There is no way to clear the likes beyond the most recent. So, we got stuck with our following, and that means that it is senseless for us to promote any content on Facebook at this point.

This is far from an isolated incident, as is clear from the above post. A quick look at companies similar to ours, software for scientists, suggests that many fall into this trap2.

Naturally, this is not exclusive to software companies. The most popular city for Novartis and Pfizer is Cairo and Sanofi has the most loyal fans in Karachi, Pakistan. If we had to give a prize for the funniest example of this, it would have to be the “AstraZeneca US Community Relations” page on Facebook. It clearly says “This page is intented for US residents only” but its most popular city is Algiers.

Responding to a BBC investigation of fake likes in 2012, Facebook claimed:

“We’ve not seen evidence of a significant problem,” said a spokesman.

“Neither has it been raised by the many advertisers who are enjoying positive results from using Facebook.

All of these companies have access to Facebook’s analytics which allow them to see the identities of people who have liked their pages, yet this has not been flagged as an issue.

A very small percentage of users do open accounts using pseudonyms but this is against our rules and we use automated systems as well as user reports to help us detect them.”

There are a few simple reasons why the companies don’t raise it at as an issue. No one wants to admit that they buy ‘likes’ on Facebook. And certainly no one wants to admit to buying possibly fake ‘likes’. Most importantly, once tricked and sitting on a pile of these senseless ‘likes’, you at least want to get something for your money. So you stick this number on your landing page in the hope of convincing everyone that you have a strong community and that your product is taking off. It should not be surprising that we only felt confident enough to write about this travesty once we organically acquired a real user base for our products.

We have no idea whether these meaningless “likes” are the bane of Facebook’s anti-bot/spamming efforts or whether Facebook quietly enjoys the revenues from the purchases of these. Regardless, it is certainly misleading for Facebook to promote this as a way to connect to the people that matter to the advertiser/company.


  1. country stats based on 80,000 total views of the apps []
  2. Most popular city as of January 20, 2014 []
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11 Responses to What do Facebook “likes” of companies mean?

  1. We (my wife actually) do promote our very small farm operation via Facebook. She has, by being a very good marketer, gotten us over 1000 likes. However, as I’m sure you know, Facebook will show any given post to a small fraction of them. For us it seems to be around 20%.

    Anyway, from time to time, roughly quarterly for us, we end up needing to sell something fairly quickly, usually because a deal fell through. While I’m not thrilled about how Facebook does it, she has, I believe three times now, salvaged a $1500 deal at about $1250 by paying Facebook $50 or less to actually show her post to several hundred more of those who have liked us, or joined the group she is posting in.

    It works out like buying a local AM radio ad, except it happens in minutes, not days, which is important for veggies or baby chicks.

    • Lenny Teytelman says:

      We are not arguing that Facebook cannot work as a promotion/communication device. Certainly it can.
      Our point is that a company that wants to use Facebook to engage an audience should never use Facebook’s “promote your page” button, or it will end up with fake likes. And these fake likes can be rather damaging to future attempts to promote content.

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  5. Sebastian says:

    If I worked with MatLab, I might “like” it on Facebook. Not because of any sort of emotional binding, but simply as a way to stay updated and informed about a product I’m using.
    So maybe it’s the other way around. Once your product has attracted a certain user-base, people will “like” you on FB.
    Also, from a consumer-perspective it also can be more efficient to contact the social media team of a company with questions instead of spending hours on the phone. I usually get direct responses or the issue is forwarded to a “real person”.

    • Lenny Teytelman says:

      Those who work with Matlab may, from time to time, “like” it on Facebook. But if that was the source of likes, would they really be coming from Tehran, Iran? Would the likes for AstraZeneca U.S. page originate in Algier?

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  7. Great post Lenny. I have always thought that facebook likes are poorly substantiated and unarticulated comments and this analysis shows that they are even less substantiated than I thought.

  8. Takeshi says:

    Facebook likes aren’t worth that much to begin with, but you’ll want to narrow your targeting if you want legitimate fans. The power of Facebook is that it allows you to target exactly the people you want (scientists, who live in New York, between the ages of 30-55, that like pizza).

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