Blogosphere suffers spam explosion

Technology may have made e-mail spam manageable, but it's not quite there yet for blog spam.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
6 min read
Boing Boing would allow its readers to leave comments and engage in a discussion on the wildly popular blog, if it weren't for spam.

The editors of the technology and pop culture blog took down the comment option about two years ago. Back then, they wanted to put an end to abusive comments, personal attacks on the Boing Boing crew and some spam. Today, their reason for not bringing it back is simpler: an explosion in junk comment posts on blogs.

"It is like pollution," said Mark Frauenfelder, the founder and co-editor of Boing Boing, who also writes a personal blog at MadProfessor.net. "It reminds me of visible smog, because it obscures what you want to be looking at. You have to waste brain cycles to filter it out, or, if you own a blog, you have to go through extraordinary measures to keep it out."

While technology and legislation may have made spam in e-mail manageable, there is still some way to go when it comes to keeping it out of blogs, people in the industry said. There is some software dedicated to blocking unwanted posts, and there are efforts under way to reduce the economic incentive behind them. But at the same time, spammers are coming up with ways to trick filters or to fool bloggers into allowing the spam.

Keeping out unwanted messages costs bloggers time and bother, at the very least. If it's a commercial blog, it may also cost money for a filtering service. And beyond that, there's a cost to the blog services, which have to develop spam-blocking technology.

Most spam postings on blogs look a lot like unwanted commercial e-mail. Many of them advertise gambling Web sites, online adult entertainment or drugs such as Viagra. The spam operations that target blogs are typically the same ones that send junk e-mail, experts said.

The Mad Professor blog attracts about 3,000 visitors daily, Frauenfelder said. He gets about 20 spam messages a day, which he deletes manually. All comments arrive in his e-mail in-box first. The spam level noticeably started going up earlier this year, he said.

"It is a major hassle," Frauenfelder said. "It is just getting worse and worse. My fantasies of violent revenge against spammers become more lurid every week."

Frying comment spam
Several providers of blogging software and services have introduced filtering to combat the spam problem. Akismet charges enterprise bloggers $200 and upwards a month for its filtering service, for example. "Pro-bloggers," or individuals who make money from their blogs, are asked to pay $5 a month. Some plug-in tools, like Spam Karma, are available for a donation. Many blog hosters have developed their own blocking tools, too.

Frauenfelder uses Six Apart's Movable Type software for his blogs. He does use the filtering features it offers, but spam still gets through, he said.

But Robert Scoble, whose "Scobleizer--Microsoft Geek Blogger" is hosted on the WordPress.com service, said he is happy with the filtering there.

The Scobleizer blog gets around 10,000 visits a day, and about 400 comments are left on the blog daily. Of those, 100 are spam, Scoble said. Most of these are flagged correctly. However, there are also false positives, valid reader comments identified as unwanted postings, he said.

No spam issue
One company that is trying to develop advanced filtering technologies is Culver City, Calif.-based Weblogs Inc., which runs more than 90 commercial blogs, including the popular Engadget site.

"We've built technology to solve the problem, we invest in updating it, and our 160-plus bloggers manage the few spams that get through," Weblogs CEO Jason Calacanis said. "The only spam that can really get through our defenses are the ones that are hand-rolled by a person, and we catch most of those."

Other techniques for limiting blog spam tackles the problem from the other end, making it more of a process to post. Hosters can require visitors to register or use e-mail validation. For example, Weblogs sends the reader an e-mail containing a link that needs be clicked before their comment is posted.

Automated spam software may be thwarted by challenging the commenter to type in wavy or nonstandard text in a box, called a "captcha." Bloggers often can also choose to moderate all submissions, which means approving them for posting one by one. That, however, can be a lot of work for the administrator on popular blogs.

With the right technology in place, blog spam is not a major issue, Calacanis said. "If you want to solve it, you have to make your site harder to spam than the other blogs out there. It is sort of like having The Club (an antitheft device) in your car. It's not perfect, but if you have The Club and next car doesn't, the thief moves on to the next car," he said.

But as with unwanted e-mail, spammers are trying out ways to circumvent these barriers. "I don't think comment spam is under control," Scoble said. Increasingly, junk postings are camouflaged to look like valuable comments, but contain spam links, he noted.

"It used to be pretty blatant: three graphs of porn links," Scoble said. "Some of the latest spam that I have been getting is stuff like: 'I love your blog' and 'Keep it up!'" Instead of linking to a blog, there is a link to a gambling or porn, he said. "People are approving spam, because they are getting fooled by the spammers."

Tricking Google
While junk e-mail is purely an advertisement, creating spam messages on blogs has an additional motive: tricking Internet search engines. Google and other sites arrange search results in part by a Web page's link popularity with other sites. More links to a site can boost a site's ranking--and more important, its traffic.

"The prime actor that made this behavior valuable was Google, which created economics around links," said Anil Dash, vice president of professional products at Six Apart. "Links on the Web have almost direct monetary value because of Google's PageRank system."

Moreover, search engines deem a link on a blog more valuable than one on just any Web site, because of the interlinking bloggers do. Spammers abuse the comment forums to get instant credibility with search engines.

"There are at least dozens of people who have made the economic equation and are developing software to do spamming," Dash said. "The first spammers were manually typing in: 'Here's a link to this site.' Now there is fairly sophisticated and sometimes even commercial software for spamming on both e-mail and blog comments."

Early last year, Google announced a special tag for hyperlinks that tells the search engine to not score the link. Some blog services and software have adopted this "nofollow" to take some of the benefit out of manipulating search rankings by abusing blogs.

The spam is undermining an integral part of blogs. Without feedback, a blog is merely a glorified press release, Mike Cornfield, an adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University, told CNET News.com earlier this year.

"I think it hurts blogs when they have to turn off their comments," Calacanis said. "Large blogs have had to turn off comments a couple of times--we've even turned them off for a day or two during massive spam attacks."

Boing Boing, though, is probably the "saddest or biggest example," Calacanis said, noting that it was taking more time and expense to manage the comments then manage the blogging on the site.

Comments aren't about to return to Boing Boing, Frauenfelder said, though he does appreciate the value of reader input. "But whenever we think about it, we see comment spam as so much of a problem," he said. Boing Boing attracts 400,000 visitors daily. "That would be thousands of comment spams a day," he said.

Spam fighting efforts have focused on keeping blogs clean, for readers and bloggers to enjoy. But spammers are doing an end-run around those shields and taking the fight to the broader Web by joining the blogosphere.

"We have seen them move from sending comments and trackbacks to creating fake blogs," Six Apart's Dash said.