View Full Version : Splogs

25-09-2006, 12:46 PM
Spam + Blogs = Trouble

Splogs are the latest thing in online scams and they could smother the Internet.
By Charles C. Mann

I am aware that spending a lot of time Googling yourself is kind of narcissistic, OK? But there are situations, I would argue, when it is efficiently even forgivably narcissistic. When I published a book last year, I wanted to know what, if anything, people were saying about it. Ego-surfing was the obvious way to do that. Which is how I stumbled across Some Title.

Some Title identified itself as a blog but obviously wasn't one. Here, reprinted in its entirety, is the paragraph from the site that mentioned me:

Show Disputed Vinland Map Was Made Half Century Before Columbus Trip Audio/Video Columbus: Secrets From The Grave quot;The Last Voyage of Columbus quot;: An Epic Tale Charles Mann's quot;1491 quot; (Audio

In orthodox bloggy style, the paragraph linked to another Web page. When I clicked on the link, I was confronted with more gibberish: "Below," it stated, "you will find some grave robbing in ventura california 1985 news that's relevant for today."

Blogs like Some Title are known as "splogs" spam blogs. Like email spam, splogs use the most wonderful features of networked communication its flexibility, easy access, and low cost in the service of sleazy get-rich-quick schemes. But whereas email spammers try to induce recipients to buy products, sploggers and other Web spammers make most of their money by getting viewers to click on ads that run adjacent to their nonsensical text. Web page owners the spammer, in this case get paid by the advertiser every time someone clicks on an ad.

Some Title's creator had almost certainly assembled the site by using software that hops from Web page to Web page, automatically copying text that includes potential search terms. (My name and my book's title had been included incidentally, because they appeared in a review or blog that happened to contain keywords sought by the spammer.) Sploggers don't care if the resulting Web pages are garbled; the point is to churn them out chockablock with terms that people might use in search queries, leading them to visit the pages and click (ka-ching!) on the ads.

Just as the proliferation of email spam constantly threatens to inundate email providers, the explosion of blog spam is a besetting problem for the blog industry. Like most people who poke around the blogosphere, I had occasionally encountered splogs before. But over the months that I monitored the reaction to my book, they seemed to be rising in number. More and more of the blogs and Web sites that mentioned my book or any other topic, for that matter were spam. Some 56 percent of active English-language blogs are spam, according to a study released in May by Tim Finin, a researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and two of his students. "The blogosphere is growing fast," Finin says. "But the splogosphere is now growing faster."

To Jason Goldman, product manager for Google's Blogger hosting service, "the ever-increasing number of splogs is a significant problem that we have to combat." No search engine wants users looking for information about, say, auto repair to click on a promising link and end up on a page filled with jabberwocky or a collection of advertisements. Nor does any blog host want to waste its resources and trash its reputation by providing a home to spammers. A recent survey by Mitesh Vasa, a Virginia-based software engineer and splog researcher, found that in December 2005, Blogger was hosting more than 100,000 sploggers. (Many of these are likely pseudonyms for the same people.)

Google, Goldman promises, is paying serious attention to the problem. It should be: The pay-per-click advertising that accounts for most of Google's income (and, increasingly, for the incomes of Yahoo and MSN Search, the two other big search engines) has become an irresistible magnet for hucksters, con artists, and chiselers. "The three main search engines are gateways to a huge percentage of the US and world economy," says Anil Dash, a vice president of the blog-hosting company Six Apart. "If your Web site appears high up on their results, thousands or millions of people will go to it." If even a small fraction of those people click on the ads on that site, "you're going to make a lot of money" and sploggers are going after it.

Because the ad money is effectively available only to Web sites that appear in the first page or two of search results, spammers devote enormous efforts to gaming Google, Yahoo, and their ilk. Search engines rank Web sites in large part by counting the number of other sites that link to them, assigning higher placement in results to sites popular enough to be referred to by many others. To mimic this popularity, spammers create bogus networks of interconnected sites called link farms. Blogs most of which are in essence little more than collections of links with commentary are particularly useful elements in them. The result, Dash says, "is what you'd expect: The blogosphere is increasingly polluted by spam."

The mess may have consequences beyond the blogosphere, though. Blogs are the leading edge of what is often called Web 2.0, the vision of the Internet as a bottom-up, communal platform for data of all sorts that is generated and continually updated by its users: the image-sharing sites Flickr and YouTube, the social bookmarking destination del.icio.us, the collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the user-generated Slashdot rival digg, and publicly viewable online calendars like Kiko and CalendarHub. Unfortunately, the very openness and ease of use that make these Web 2.0 sites popular will inevitably make them perfect targets for spammers, says Matt Mullenweg, developer of the popular WordPress blogging system. "Extreme vulnerability to spam," he says, is a defining characteristic of Web 2.0, and splogs are its first manifestation.

People in the industry disagree about how to beat back spam, or whether it can even be done. But there's no dispute that if the blogosphere and the rest of Web 2.0 can't find a way to stop the sleazeballs who are enveloping the Net in a haze of babble and cheesy marketing, then the best features of Web 2.0 will be turned off, and it will go the way of Usenet, which was driven to desuetude by spam...

More: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.09/splogs_pr.html