Every day or so, I perform a little ritual on one of my projects that those of you who have blogs are well familiar with. I log into the admin console and moderate comments.
Which brings me face-to-face with THEM. Spammers, in overwhelming numbers. It has gotten to the point where I actually “grade” them on the quality of their blog comment spam. There is a definite hierarchy in terms of blog comment spam quality.
On the low end of the blog comment spam scale, you have the 20-line blather of keywords and links. Generally for a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals and Brazilian fashion products. They are dumping a tag cloud in your blog. NEXT.
Moving up the blog comment spam scale, you get the full frontal ad. The spelling and grammar is usually decent, since it is a form letter, but the post is completely off topic. This seems to be a preferred approach for several spammers. This is easy to moderate.
The better spammers resort to outright flattery and mild insults, sandwiched between two links. There is a fascination with my WordPress theme, the fact my site looks better in pink, and assurances they will add me to their RSS reader. Generally composed using marginal English. I moderate these quickly, although some of them will probably be approved by a newbie blogger.
Then we get to the grey area. Comments with a reasonable sounding URL, a legitimate looking site, and content which is relevant to the blog post. I am flexible on what the content actually is – factual contributions, intelligent questions, even a snarky quip. But with enough meat that the blog reader gets a little something extra.
Most of these comments have a promotional intent. They are marketing, delivered in a polite respectful fashion. Delivered with the same intent of a sharp question to a CEO at a business conference – seeking to attract attention to the asker. Yet relevant and useful. These are worth approving – heck, that is the whole idea behind social blogging – networks of communities with common interests. Put something on my site which adds value to my visitors and I am happy to send a few people back your way.
And that is the first big idea here. I do not have a problem with someone including his or her calling card (e.g. URL) on a helpful comment. It actually helps build the credibility of their post. For certain subjects, you probably should insist on it – when it comes to talking about healthcare, I would rather see a back link to a Mayo Clinic doctor than Bob’s Bathtub Potions.
What I have a problem with is someone hijacking my message and my audience to promote Brazilian sunglasses or crackpot home health remedies.
Irrelevant is just rude and annoying.
So what are the implications of this?
1) As a blog commentator seeking to build your brand, leave fewer but more targeted comments. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of my comments on other blogs which were approved (with link) just by being on-topic.
2) As a blogging community, we are making a mistake by moving toward no-follow comment link policies. By making this the default behavior, we are reducing the incentive to collaborate within the community to improve each other’s content via comments.
My blog posts are missing your excellent comments. Your blog posts are missing mine. Our collective readers are missing out and less likely to bookmark us. I am willing to invest 15 – 20 minutes to earn a back link from a decent page that builds my traffic. I am significantly less motivated to spend quality thinking time on something with no return.
Blog rolling is nice but not always relevant. I run a small word game solver site. I’ve got plenty to contribute to discussions about the underlying algorithms and web frameworks, however, my audience is more interested in our results (e.g. solving word puzzles) than our methods. Outright panic might occur if I posted some of the Python code behind the site. Similarly, the other 90% of my content is of minimal interest to a hard core computer science site. For the typical computer science blog, I am a fun date but a lousy husband…
3) Finally – some thoughts on where the search industry is going. Instead of cleaning up the signal, we have opted as an industry to turn off the TV (no follow comments). As blog comments have diminished in value other forms of “trust” are picking up the slack, some of which are frighteningly easy for an established player to manipulate.
Setting up a website requires a certain level of effort for the average person – you need a domain, hosting, IP address, etc. All of which leave tracks and cost money – at least in the developed world. A fixed website would also accumulate value over time – in the form of links, domain age, and “high credibility” pages indexed in the search engines. Websites are relatively hard to take over and usually leave a paper trail when they change control. This lends a certain amount of transparency and permanence…
Many of the alternatives (twitter, facebook, etc.) involve identities that can be created out of thin air, without any payment or validation, and sustained by interactions with through automated API’s. All you need is a valid email, which can be obtained anonymously. It is extremely easy to sock puppet Twitter. You can buy followers and pageviews wholesale.
Blog comments were something within reach of the little guy – with an actual person behind them, who was directing traffic back to an actual IP address that had paperwork and cost associated with setting it up. It was harder to fake. In the new world order, the mighty spam bots can easily drown us out with mass-produced garbage.
We have ceded control not of just content creation but actual identity creation and maintenance to the machines. The implications are alarming – the decline of the early forums in the late 1990’s was accelerated by the ease with which they could be taken over by sock puppets and spam scripts. And now we are using a similarly vulnerable structure to drive an increasing amount of our Search Engine decisions.
There’s a reason us old timers inherently distrust many of the “free website” generators like angelfire and it’s ilk. Because anyone could get a site there, with minimal validation (and no cash), resulting in a flood of sock puppet sites. It was the Wild Wild West!
That’s the really big issue here. The slow retreat of “big search” away from permanent markers of trust to more ephemeral indicators such as social media. Yes – Twitter and the other social sites will tell you what’s “buzzing”. But they are very vulnerable to bots.
I’m reminded of a science-fiction story I read a long time ago about a young man who was approached by a “woman” (his ideal partner) who was actually a highly targeted advertisement, a robot tailored to get him to buy a particular product.
Imagine a world where a twitter bot scans your twitter stream and blog, spins up a customized identity designed to appeal to your specific interests (and with the amount of information out there, it could get really, really personal), and sends you a series of messages to convert you their product. And creates (or repurposes) as many followers as it needs to generate the appearance of respectability….
Remember, once a process is automated – you can scale very quickly for free…
Is that where we are going? Away from the relative permanence of fixed sites and towards a more ephemeral world of automated social media identities?
Welcome to the rise of the machines. I twitter, therefore I am.