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Comment Spam: Why I Hate It And How To Stop It

Ali Moghadam

by Ali Moghadam on 5th July 2013

Spam in Big Wooden LettersThe internet is amazing. One of humankind’s greatest collective achievements, enough said. Shame it’s full to the brim with utterly useless rubbish. The best thing about the internet is also the worst thing. Anyone can use it to do anything they want.

There is an almost unparalleled sense of freedom online that makes people feel less inhibited, saying what they really want to. Differences in opinion and passionate debate ensue – forums come to life and communities grow out of nowhere. Social media buzzes, comment threads fill with often brilliant arguments, excellent banter and genuinely useful ideas.

They also fill with the sewage of the internet – SPAM. And I hate it. I hate it so very, very much. It’s hard to put into words quite how much I hate seeing spam posts and comments in the place of good, useful or fun stuff. I suppose it’s like being poked in the eye with a pointy stick. And punched. And laughed at. And it makes my blood boil. I call it spamger, and I’m full of it. “Just gloss over it, ignore it” they say. But I can’t. It’s there, weaselling its way into my eyeballs and it’s not welcome. It makes me really, really spamgry.

Spam Comment 3Making me think our blog is broken? Evil, pure evil.

We all see it. Just hit up YouTube and have a look at the comments. Usernames like “EfrgX-001_1” leave comments like “Wow what a great video I MADE $1,450 TODAY WITH THIS ONE AMAZING…” – Blah, etcetera. And we all just step around it like a dog dropping in the street. Popular posts on Facebook fill up with comments, peppered with links here and there – nothing to do with the popular topic at hand, they’re just… there. Lose weight, get a loan today, meet your ideal partner. If I was looking to lose weight, I don’t think I’d be reading articles about fried chicken…

Touché spammers, touché…

Comment SpamErr thanks.

But while comments that don’t make a shred of sense are bad enough, at least they are easy to spot as worthless. It’s the convincing lies that worry me and anger me the most. The vague, one size fits all comment that can be stuck on the end of anything. Have we just come to accept that the web is a seething sea of spam with some good stuff popping up to breathe once in a while? I know, the spam problem used to be so much worse, but it hasn’t stopped. Any site with a text box and a submit button is in danger of being hit with this junk. What does this kind of spam achieve? Links? Visibility? Business?

It achieves nothing, not any more. People are getting wise to it. Bad SEO has been guilty of many crimes against the internet/humanity. Thankfully, things have moved on. Sheriff Google has put its heavily spurred, big booted foot down, right in the middle of spam and all but the blackest of black hat SEOs are realising the error of their ways. As I kind of touched on earlier, there seems to be two kinds of spam: there’s blatant spam and there’s spam dressed as steak – it looks genuine, it’s social and it’s part of a flowing conversation – Google doesn’t know what’s what (for now anyway). But people know – they’re just so used to seeing it that it doesn’t even make a dent in their psyche anymore.

Spam Comment 2Just generic enough to be real?

It’s as if every internet hunter-gatherer has recently evolved an ocular sieve that tells the brain “THIS IS SPAM – KEEP SCROLLING”. But like the appendix, we hope to one day evolve beyond the need for it. Bloggers, site owners, internet community – let’s sort it out! It’s in our hands, we have the power! (Sort of!) While the creation of spam is eternal and unstoppable, the proliferation of spam can be contained. Big sites and services like Facebook and YouTube have a lot of work to do. It’s up to them how they deal with it, if at all. But if you run a site and your blog has been a victim of comment spam, you can fight back. Make a start with this hand-picked bouquet of spam-fighting techniques!

Tools To Counter Spam

CAPTCHA

Adding a CAPTCHA to comment forms is one of the best way to stop automated spam. It works very well, too well in fact. It can actually put people off making genuine comments. That’s the double edged sword of CAPTCHA – it’s massively useful and equally infuriating. It’s not perfect though; according to Get Elastic, plenty of people out there are happy to get paid to solve CAPTCHAs to help spam get through. There’s a bunch of alternatives suggested in that post too (the simple task approach is my favourite!). If automated spam is your Kryptonite, then a ‘prove you’re human’ defence is your best bet.

Moderate

Of course, not all spam is automated or detectable in the same way. So reviewing each comment before it goes up for the world to see is a sure-fire way to get total control over spam. It also means that trolls will find it hard to join the party, making the world a more harmonious place. But this can be achingly time consuming, especially on a large site with a bustling community and a million and one active threads. WordPress and other blogging platforms have moderation features built in and there are plenty of plugin options – larger or custom CMS builds may require some work to get moderation tools together. That aside, moderating your comments is the safest way of ensuring total quality and it comes highly recommended.

Links

Discourage spammers by turning off hyperlinks in comments altogether. You can still get spam comments (a la YouTube) but the link can’t be clicked. It’s a small win, but it makes things messy for real people linking to relevant stuff. Using rel=“nofollow” tags is a deterrent, but to a spammer, a link is a link – it might not be nutritious, but the traffic is delicious. Assuming anybody clicks on it, that is.

Disable Comments

The bazooka to the mosquito; the sledgehammer to the pickle jar; the last resort – it definitely deals with spam, but it also deals with engagement pretty harshly too. There’s no right and wrong here – it works for some sites. But shutting off the second half of the web just doesn’t help grow a community or buzz around your posts.

Ad-Hoc Spam Fighting

Crowd source your counter-spam efforts. With a ‘report’ button, your loyal audience can help you filter out the badness. It’s good to see more places using this option, but it is prone to abuse, misses a lot of spam if used alone and still requires moderation. Creating a blacklist of repeat offenders and known spammers as you go along will ensure those who trick you once will not trick you twice. Unless they are super wily, in which case, a combination of methods is the way forward – in fact, a combination is the best bet in any situation. Reduce the amount of time you spend dealing with automated spam with reverse Turing tests and blacklists, then fine tune with your preferred, most appropriate secondary defence – like moderation for anything left over.

Plugins

WordPress users (and other CMS users) have the option of adding spam-fighting plugins such as the popular and effective Akismet. Automatic spam detection can be a real time saver and can accurately filter out the bad comments from your good, trusted ones. You can also use Bad Behaviour which automatically filters out known spam commenters saving you a lot of work if you moderate comments.

Spam – When Will It End?!

Strictly speaking, never. It will never end. Spam is everywhere and it will remain as long as humans are around. From real life spam (those pizza and dry cleaning leaflets through your door? Spam!) to text messages from payday loan companies arriving randomly on your phone, there’s always someone out there ready to get right on your nerves for the sake of exposure (or a quick buck). But web spam might be running out of time. The internet police, headed by Google’s Matt Cutts, are cracking down. One day, it will be a pointless exercise – social and personalised targeting will emerge the winner. Relevance, more effective advertising and a better use of links will prevail. One day. But for now, the spam is still there – we need to stop ignoring it just long enough to stamp it out.

Image Source
The Word Spam In Wooden Letter via BigStock

Ali Moghadam

Ali Moghadam

Ali is experienced in working with SEO and Social Media, helping businesses find their voice in competitive markets. He loves digital media and finding innovative uses for it, with a keen interest in how creativity on the internet can help shape success.

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31 Comments

  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 5th July 2013

    Hi Ali, one radical solution I have seen which I really liked was implemented by Gawker across their websites. When they relaunched their sites this year they went through their best commenter’s and granted them access to leave any comment.

    Then when new comments were added they moderated them and those that left good comments were granted access to leave anything. People could still speak their minds but it meant Gawker could block spam comments / IP’s easier.

    Before they implemented it, every article had spam, typically the “I make $XXX every day” kind. Since then I haven’t seen any. Their blogs are massively popular so I feel if they can do it anyone can.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 5th July 2013

      Hi Mike, that seems like a pretty solid solution – fair to the user but still effective.

      I still want to see a world where spamming doesn’t happen because everyone realises just how pointless it is. I know that’s a little like saying “war is bad, we should stop it”, but if online communities act together and stop ignoring it, we could stamp it out.

      Reply to this comment

  • Steve 5th July 2013

    Great post, Ali.

    I used to get a ridiculous amount to my WordPress blog – about 100 spam comments each day. I’d have happily ignored them, but as I used to get genuine comments marked as spam (with Akismet not getting it right 100% of the time), I was finding that I had to manually trawl through them and check them just in case, which was a real waste of time.

    I put a CAPTCHA on my blog comments, much to the chagrin of some of the people I asked about it over Twitter. But it’s a small price to pay: I get about 5 comments trickle through a week now – much easier to manage. A slight sacrifice of my users’ experience has helped me to save a ton of time.

    I actually use Sweet Captcha, which at least makes the process a bit more fun and interesting for commenters, and less likely that they’ll get infuriated with a more traditional CAPTCHA that they cannot read/complete.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 5th July 2013

      Thanks Steve,

      You’ve chosen an awesome CAPTCHA there, nothing beats a fun way of solving a problem – I’d even say it would enhance your users’ commenting experiences, but I’m a sucker for fun little novelties.

      It’s amazing that the traditional smudgy words and gibberish are still so popular when you can make the process quicker AND more enjoyable.

      Reply to this comment

  • Muhammad Ali 5th July 2013

    Hello,

    Good Post Ali.

    Well if you want to open comments for everyone and people to participate then Disqus is ideal to integrate with your website i guess. Very Low chance of Spam.

    Thanks
    Regards

    Reply to this comment

  • Ali Moghadam

    Ali Moghadam 5th July 2013

    Thanks Muhammad,

    That’s another good way to deal with it and Disqus certainly has gained popularity – but not everyone wants to entrust all of their comments to a third party application and it doesn’t always look the way you’d want it to.

    But it’s great for users as it recognises them wherever they are and want to leave comment on the platform. Add the spam fighting angle and it’s a contender to add to the list.

    Reply to this comment

  • Cat Fyson

    Cat Fyson 5th July 2013

    Hi Ali!

    I have discovered recently on my own Blogger blog that Google+ now have their own commenting system. I’m not sure how good it will be for preventing spam, but it all ties in to yours (and the commenters) Google+ account which is pretty cool.

    CAPTCHA is the bane of my life. Yes it does stop the spammers, but it can (and almost always does) also stop any commenting at all. CAPTCHA are making it impossible for humans to read their codes which is infuriating.

    Down with spam!

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 8th July 2013

      Thanks Cat!

      Oh CAPTCHA…. It’s just unnecessary to boggle people like that! Steve’s Sweet Captcha solution is the sort of direction reverse Turing tests should be taking – make it fun! Make people go “hey this is cool” rather than sighing at the sight of yet more bent words.

      I’ve seen the Google+ commenting system on a few blogs and it’s pretty neat, Facebook commenting systems are quite cool too. It doesn’t give the option for anonymity, which can be tough for people who want to speak freely without repercussions.

      And then there are spam social accounts. Seen enough of those to last a lifetime!

      Reply to this comment

  • Anjlee 5th July 2013

    Hi Ali,

    I’ve got to say that despite its flaws, I love Askimet and recommend it all the time. Captcha is generally brilliant at what it does, but slightly annoying for users and can be really difficult to do on a smartphone, so I tend avoid it where possible. I haven’t seen Sweet Captcha before, so thanks for the tip…has anyone tried it on mobile?

    Anjlee.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 8th July 2013

      Thanks Anjlee,

      I hear nothing but good things about Akismet – and if it works, it works right? I suppose it all depends on scale.

      Great that you brought mobile up too – CAPTCHA on a small, high res touchscreen is torture! A simple drag and drop ‘game’ like Sweet Captcha would translate perfectly to a phone or tablet, but I haven’t experienced it myself.

      Are there any other mobile ready alternatives out there?

      Reply to this comment

  • Barrie 8th July 2013

    “Anyone can use it to do anything they want.”
    People can hide behind their computer screens with a false identity, a fake name – that’s the worst part. The racism that goes on on Twitter and YouTube comments is unreal in the year 2013 :(

    Akismet does a pretty good job from experience at blocking spam comments, especially the type you have used as examples, Ali. Yes, the occasional one gets through but I cannot recall any legitimate comments getting blocked on the odd time that I check through the spam.

    Of course, it still takes time to check, approve/decline comments. Time of which could be saved if the world was full of good people and spam didn’t exist.

    And to be a hypocrite, in 2011 I managed to get a dummy website onto page 1 for a not-so-competitive term solely on comments and forum posts. So would spam comments have worked in 2011? Yes. Do they work today? I haven’t tested.

    Barrie

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 8th July 2013

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Barrie.

      The level of racism and abuse online is deplorable. I tend to shield myself from it because it just angers and upsets me too much to read.

      It had in the past set me on scathing, emotional tirades in response – but I soon learned how futile fighting that battle is. It’s demoralising and painful.

      Free speech is utterly sacred and I wouldn’t want to take it from anybody, but spouting hate just hurts people – it has no place anywhere. I can feel myself turning green and busting out of my clothes!

      Interesting whether comment spamming works as a ranking tactic now as you demonstrated it to have worked in 2011. Things have changed a lot in a short space of time, but has the change really been that drastic?

      It could be worth trying it again – if it worked for rankings over a long enough period, it could debunk a few commonly held beliefs, but I wouldn’t rely on it for anything other than experimentation.

      Reply to this comment

  • Moosa Hemani 8th July 2013

    Ah! I must say this is the gift of wordpress…. no matter if you are ranking nowhere in the Google or any other search engine, you might not receive any real traffic to your blog but there comments… They will defiantly going to land on your blog!

    Comment Interaction in my opinion is important but some people simply misuse it by making it a way to general links to their blog.

    I had a do follow comment section before and I had to make to no follow as the rate of spam comments was literally in 1000s that (after no-follow comment section) reduced to 4 to 6 per day!

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 8th July 2013

      Thanks for joining in Moosa!

      Yeah it’s always great to see your blog come to life with ideas and thoughts from others – even if you’re not on page one, it feels good to know your own community is interested in what you have to say.

      Good idea to apply no follow rules to your blog comments – sounds like it worked well. I’ve heard back from some people on Twitter who have disabled comments altogether to rid themselves of the spam demon – but like we’ve said, it kills the all important interaction factor.

      Reply to this comment

  • Tom Bowen 8th July 2013

    We typically use Akismet on client WP blogs, with decent results. The thing I don’t get is those comments of the “This is a great post and you’re very knowledgeable,” nature, with no link or anything, but still clearly generic and from a robot. What value is that doing for the spammer?

    Reply to this comment

  • Gareth 9th July 2013

    If you’re building your own forms, add a hidden field, and the spambots will fill it in. Any form with the hidden field completed is spam… :)

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 9th July 2013

      Hi Gareth,

      That’s a smart (and simple) method – mixed with some of the other methods mentioned you could have a pretty bulletproof anti-spam solution.

      Thanks for the tip – let’s hope spambots don’t get wise any time soon eh?!

      Reply to this comment

  • Giuseppe Pastore 9th July 2013

    Spam comments sometimes are so well spun it’s very hard to recognize them as manipulative but I think Akismet does still a good job.

    Anyway, on my blog some of them were so annoying that I manage to find a way to use them somehow
    (so maybe you’ll be interested in this post http://en.posizionamentozen.com/blog/how-spam-comments-might-help-your-link-building/ I wrote. Basically it’s twist on broken linking building)…

    Reply to this comment

    • Giuseppe Pastore 9th July 2013

      aaarghh I’m seeing so many mistakes in my comment that it’s almost worse than spam :( (sorry, my English still sucks)

      Reply to this comment

      • Ali Moghadam

        Ali Moghadam 9th July 2013

        No need to apologise, Giuseppe!

        Thanks for sharing your post, that’s a smart way of making lemonade out of lemons, I enjoyed it – have you tested it out recently?

    • Giuseppe Pastore 9th July 2013

      Unfortunately, not really. Most of my time is dedicated to technical SEO here at the agency so I’ve little time to test alternative link building strategies. I guess the success percentage won’t be high unless you spend some time in relation before suggesting to modify links (but also BLB works this way)…
      If someone would like to share results would be nice :)

      Reply to this comment

  • Tony Dimmock 9th July 2013

    Ali, I feel your pain :(

    Unfortunately, stupid comment spam is rife and is getting worse. It’s the prime activity of online cowboys promising a gazillion “in-bound” links & 10k guest blog posts (per month!).

    Most frustrating is that it’s often innocent client sites (who the spammer “worked” for) that end up bearing the effect of SE penalties etc..

    Thanks for including the anti-spam tools – frankly, every business website should adopt them. If more business owners were aware of shady / spam practices, they’d smell a rat a mile off before money (and often penalties) changed hands.

    A fab blog post from Moz re Akismet can be found here (including a great reply from ThompsonPaul on comment spam in general..): http://moz.com/community/q/how-do-you-deal-with-comment-spam-wordpress

    Plus a thoughtful post on “The Penguin Update and How Google Identifies Spam” (from May 2012 via Moz): http://moz.com/ugc/the-penguin-update-how-google-identifies-spam – that states by “learning how Google identifies spam in email, we can learn how they are identifying spam in websites.”

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 9th July 2013

      Great info Tony – really interesting to see parallels in email spam being used to reverse engineer the way Google looks for web spam, thanks for sharing.

      It’s pretty shocking to think of comment spamming a link building tactic – I mean it just looks plain BAD. Short term boosts pedaled by cowboys who run a mile after things go wrong – that won’t help anyone trying to grow a long-term business or flourishing website.

      It’s not just frustrating seeing spam comments everywhere – it devalues the content, it devalues a site and on the grandest scale devalues the internet. Imagine if Google’s fledgling AI efforts were based on a web as filled with spam as it is now? It would probably be obsessed with cheap medication and loans.

      Reply to this comment

  • Danny Howard 11th July 2013

    Hey Ali,

    I agree SPAM really is one of those things that gets under your skin after a while.

    With everyone moving to social activity, I would disable comments and try out Facebook, Google plus etc… this way it’s harder for them to SPAM.

    I do like using Akismet it does very well to sift through spammy comments.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 12th July 2013

      Hey Danny,

      Using social sites for comments does make for less spam on your own site – but there are so many spammers on Facebook and Google+ already that there’s no guarantee you’d be any better off if you ran a popular blog.

      I’d hate to turn off comments altogether, but if spam was extreme, I guess integrating a social platform as a commenting system (I see people are doing this to boost social engagement too) makes sense.

      Reply to this comment

  • Lord Matt 14th July 2013

    I’ve found that combining a few good approaches works best. By the time mod_evasive, bad behaviour and the bayesian filter have had their way I count myself unlucky if ten of the few thousand spam have got through.

    Reply to this comment

  • Danny 29th July 2013

    Nice post, Ali.

    I like how you threw in a few quite wide and varied approaches for dealing with spam.

    I am in the same boat as a few people above, as in I am getting flooded with spam, though, there are the occasional “legit ” comments getting buried amongst them(Which means I spend a fair amount of time going through comments).

    I have noticed a recent “very large” spike in spam comments, which is a real pain.

    The ones I get attacked with are those “designer product” types with the “Alphabet + endless numbers ” email addresses.

    Thankfully, in most cases, they stick out like a sore thumb(and are often in multiples) so I can just fly threw tossing them into the spa, m folder(or trash).

    I did think about Disqus , only it seems a little bit “off putting” for genuine people wishing to make comments.

    Have also considered scrapping comments altogether, as this would certainly deal with the issue, and I have seen quite a few sites doing just that(Including some big sites)

    The odd thing is that, unlike my main website, my main YouTube channel has almost had no issues with spam comments, and it does get a fair amount of traffic each day..

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 29th July 2013

      Thanks Danny,

      It’s hard to know what to do sometimes – turning comments off altogether should really be a last resort. Big sites can afford to do that because their opinion is the only one that matters, not those of the mere mortals who read their posts.

      As you say with YouTube comments – I actually read one of your recent posts (http://www.tipsinablog.com/2013/07/youtube-comments-rejected-solution.html) that talked about the brick wall spam filtering you encountered while commenting in YouTube. Their spam defense seems a little bit unfair and heavy handed if you ask me, from a user’s point of view.

      And yet I see so many obvious spam comments on YouTube. Whatever they’re doing, it’s not working. All this talk of ‘users come first’ is (for me) slowly starting to become untrue in YouTube.

      Reply to this comment

  • dellauk 25th September 2013

    There are plenty of anti-spam plugins that bloggers can use to try and prevent the posting of comment spam. These vary in effectiveness, and amount of administration involved in ensuring that genuine posts are not categorised as spam or vice versa.

    If you can prevent the majority of spammers from targeting your site in the first place, then you will reduce time spent on moderation and the chances of letting spam through.

    Spam Hammer 3-Series is a well-known high-value anti-spam cloud plugin, now available for WordPress blogs

    Reply to this comment

    • Ali Moghadam

      Ali Moghadam 25th September 2013

      Thanks for your comment!

      You’re right, prevention is the best form of defense. There are a good few options for defending on an automated level, but spambot programmers learn as fast as anti-spam develops. And plugins are great, provided that they are regularly updated to deal with the latest spamming bots.

      Reply to this comment

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