Revealed: The Grubby World Of Comment Spam

This post, by Greg Stevens, originally appeared on The Kernel on 8/30/2012.

Publetariat Editor’s Note: as our regular readers know, in recent months Publetariat has been increasingly targeted by spammers and hackers, to the extent that we finally had to disable new user membership registrations. We are fighting a daily battle against spam comments as well, and many of you may be tilting at that same windmill. This post explains where those spammy, gibberish “comments” come from and why they’re being posted, and may also help clue you in to how you can differentiate between spam and legitimate comments. It’s well worth reading the entire article.

Greg Stevens dives into the feculent bowels of the internet to reveal the tactics and software used by comment spammers. Can this form of marketing be neatly divided into good and evil?

From time to time you may see a comment on a blog or a news article that looks something like this:

Definitely believe that which you stated. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the web the simplest thing to be aware of. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side effect, people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

At first glance, it could be an earnest attempt by a non-English speaking reader to give the author some kind of compliment. Detracting slightly from this impression is the fact that the name of the commenter shows up as “buy cheap loui vuitton bags” with a link to an online store.

If you run your own blog or news site, you may see dozens of these comments a day. They come in many varieties. There is the Vague Compliment (“Excellent post! Thanks for the useful information!”), the Vague Criticism (“of course like your web-site but you need to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts”), and of course the very charming categories of Endless Rambling Nonsense and Endlessly Repeated Links. Often exactly the same comments will appear, word-for-word, across dozens or hundreds of different web pages.

In technical circles, these comments are called “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Spam” or “Search Engine Spam,” although the reason for this might not be obvious to those who are not technologically savvy.

When Google, or any other search engine, decides which websites to place at the top of a list of search results, one of the factors it considers is the number of links pointing to the site. A page that has many links from other places on the web (these are called “inbound links”) will rank more highly in the search results than a page that has only a few links. Web pages with many inbound links are more popular, and therefore Google concludes that those pages are more likely to have the information that a user is looking for.

Spam comments are a way to “game the system” by randomly blasting comments into the web in order to get as many links to your site as possible. Some of these will be deleted by attentive (and irritated) editors and administrators, and some of them will be filtered out automatically by spam filter programs. But some will get through, and the more that do, the more inbound links your website will have, and the higher the search engines will place your site in search results.

The mass-production of generic comments is one of many techniques that are described in the industry as “black hat SEO”: techniques for increasing a website’s search engine status that are viewed as underhanded, shady, or in some other way inappropriate. The term contrasts with “white hat SEO”, which includes techniques for improving search engine placement that conform to the proper ideals of how the web should be used, and are generally honourable, honest, and non-annoying. At least, that is the standard pitch.

Read the rest of the post on The Kernel.