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by Ali Moghadam on 5th July 2013
The 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.
Making 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…
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.
Just 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Word Spam In Wooden Letter via BigStock
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.