While nofollow wasn’t a magic bullet, website spam has been successfully pushed back to the margins over the years. As it stands, few surfers have to deal with it on a daily basis. It was once like a virus that infected any website that allows user commentary and profiles, but website software and major changes to how search engines understand the web have allowed many platforms to rise above it.
Make no mistake, though. The war against spam is far from over, and both sides tend toward escalation.
The Rise of the Internet – and Spam Automation
Some time in the mid 2000s, the internet was starting to really be mainstream. Adoption of high speed internet connections had reached critical mass and it wasn’t just something “nerds” did.
This also coincides with the early viability of doing business and making money, purely online. Sure, it’s been possible to run an online business since long before the first AOL account went up, but opportunities were few and extremely niche. By the mid 2000s or early 2010s, every kind of business you can imagine was up and thriving online.
And they wanted more customers.
Spam had always been around, but two things seemed to really set it off around 10-15 years ago:
- Backlink Driven Search Engine AlgorithmsIt takes a lot of spam to get someone to click on a spam link. It takes a whole lot more of those for someone to actually buy something. For a long time, spam was driven by the idea of sheer volume and the law of large numbers. As internet users began to use search engines to inform their purchases, spammers and legitimate marketers alike realized that organic rankings were important for the bottom line. In addition to spamming off the off chance a few people would click, and even fewer would buy, people were now starting to spam strategically to get backlinks from multiple domains, quickly.
- Mass Automation
Not long after, new software was designed and distributed by black hat SEOs who wanted to automate comment spam on blogs, forums, and bookmarking sites across the web. If you’ve run any of those types of websites, you’ll know exactly how frustrating and unending this battle can seem.Software was designed to build databases of places people could drop spam comments, and comments could be queued up with a rotation of backlinks and keywords. In moments, hundreds if not thousands of domains could be hit with the same irrelevant comment.
Where did the spam go?
While webmasters will tell you the comment spam never went away, it occurred to me that most web surfers won’t encounter it like they used to.
Many factors have contributed:
- Increased spam recognition software
- Account “aging”
- Fewer open discussions
- Fewer forums
- Fewer small-scale bookmarking sites
- Increased Search penalties against sites harboring spam
Some of this is increased tools and weapons for webmasters, some of it is a growing cost to failure, and some of it is downright retreat and surrender.
WordPress has a variety of anti-spam plugins available these days. Akismet is probably the most popular, and it works by allowing everyone who uses it to contribute knowledge about a comment’s spamminess. With enough reports, a user can be flagged as a spammer based on their posting IP, email address, or even the website they’re spamming to. Other alternatives use CAPTCHAs to get around spam automation.
A popular tactic used on sites like Reddit and Facebook limit the visibility of new accounts until they have established a pattern of normal user behavior. Reddit’s system somewhat-transparently uses karma to control where and how often users can post, while Facebook is a bit more vague and secretive in how they rank and evaluate user trust scores. Users who get flagged as spammers may end up posting in a sort of quarantine: they’ll see their posts and think their spam campaign has succeeded, but those posts won’t be visible to anyone else or the search engines they’re trying to impress.
And a moment for the casualties
Not every type of platform and web software would survive this ongoing war. Small scale forums and bookmarking sites are a rare site these days. While web forums used to be a cornerstone of online discussion, they have diminished over time. A few active ones can still be found, but they largely rely on an army of volunteer moderators who manually remove spammy comments. New forums rarely reach a critical mass of legitimate users before the administrator(s) are overrun by those seeking financial gain and SERP advantages.
Bookmarking sites were the most obvious magnet for spammers. While some like Reddit and Digg have risen up to become mainstream aggregators, there are tens of thousands more that never got off the ground because it attracted more self-promotion than selfless sharing of quality content. I ran one here at WebsiteBuilding.biz for a while – I even encouraged on-topic self-promotion so long as the users could stay relevant to the website’s many subjects and categories! Didn’t matter. All we got was spam for shoes and pills and get rich quick schemes.
As Google and the other major search engines continued to crack down on the sites that were allowing this spam to get published, it created a feedback loop – a cycle that concentrated the spammers there. As a site lost organic traffic due to linking out to bad neighborhoods, it would also get posted to black hat chats and more spammers would join. As the cycle continued, these sites would quickly have no audience but the spammers themselves. Like a plague of locusts, they would devour any value such a website had and leave nothing but a mess.
The future war against spam
As long as web traffic has monetary, cultural, and personal value, people will go to any means to acquire it. We will constantly be updating our algorithms and responding manually to vulnerabilities when they’re identified.
Spammers have stepped up in response to the new challenges they face. It’s common to hear about marketing firms that buy aged accounts that have a high level of trust and visibility on their various platforms. Some Reddit accounts have sold in excess of a thousand dollars! Some users may also opt to just buy the reddit votes directly. Spammers controlling networks of accounts can spoof IP addresses and get any story to the front page – at least temporarily.
Many webmasters have even surrendered, shutting down comments in favor of moving the discussion toward those third party platforms that have better spam protection services. I haven’t got to that point myself, but I have noticed that the legitimate comments are few and far between, while the spam has never slowed down. I was never one to look down on a little bit of self-promotion, but today’s spammers don’t even open up the page they’re spamming on or bother to contribute anything of value in return.
It’s always dangerous to guess at the future, but I feel like we’re coming up to another big shift in how the web deals with the selfish side of comments and website contributions. Users expect more interaction than ever before, and it will be harder than ever to engage them with static content – no matter how useful the information is or how entertaining the presentation is. They want to see other user’s reactions and they may even want to add their 2 cents. It’s up to us, as webmasters, to figure out how to provide that without also giving platform to the spammers who would take advantage of our hospitality.
I’m not quite ready to surrender, after all!