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Captcha Companies Cash In On Advertisers
Illustration by Adam Hayes
Photo by Adam Hayes

It takes a sixth of a minute for you to decipher a squiggly captcha and prove to the Internet you’re not a spambot. Now advertisers are elbowing in on those breaks in your browsing.

Force brand engagement
Solve Media's captchas ask visitors to type brand slogans or product names rather than blurry gobbledygook. "Type-in ads open up marketing opportunities that publishers had never really considered before," says Solve Media CEO Ari Jacoby, whose company typically splits revenue with sites employing its tech.

Advertise all around
Animation is the tack taken by NuCap­tcha: It displays letter sequences that float among other images, including sponsors' logos, banners, and short video spots. (Clients include Activision, Comcast, and Disney.) A security system evaluates a user's threat level; the lower it is, the fewer and less distorted the letters.

Sell out
In 2009, Google acquired ReCaptcha (cofounded by Luis von Ahn, one of the inventors of the captcha) to help with a very different project. The system makes people type two words: one pulled from ReCaptcha and one that Google Books' automated scanners couldn't discern. When enough people identify it, Google has an answer and its digitized library has another entry.

Former Captcha: Which Is The dog?

Back in 2000, von Ahn and co. toyed with image-based captchas. Seven years later, Microsoft introduced Asirra, a captcha that simply asks, "Which one is the dog?"

Alas, bots got wise. "If an image has green, it's usually a dog, because dogs are typically photographed on grass, whereas cats never are," says von Ahn.

Future Captcha: More Dogs?

As captcha-cracking software improves, the tests must become less recognizable (and more annoying). Von Ahn's prediction: We'll eventually move back to images . . . and maybe even dogs.

This "slide-to-fit" captcha is the type used by Adscaptcha. Users adjust a branded image until it's correct. (Purina isn't a client of theirs; we created this ourselves.)

Photos by Dorling Kindersley (Getty Images); Flickr user kb35

A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.