The Evolution of Comment Spam

Comment SpamI have a greater interest in comment spam than most people. Even among bloggers, comment spam is rarely seen as anything but an annoyance. For those who don’t know, comment spam is where someone comments on a blog post with only the intention of getting their link (or links — sometimes hundreds of them) put on your website.

The idea originally was that these comments would give the linked website a boost in Google’s ratings. But blogging software quickly learned this trick, and so pretty much all comment links are listed with the rel="nofollow" attribute, which means that Google doesn’t count the link in its rankings.

I guess spammers do it today just because some small percentage of people will click on them. That’s probably why I find comment spam so fascinating: it doesn’t make any sense. Sure: it’s cheap to post it, but I have a hard time believing that the spam pays for itself.

Email Spam May Be a Con

It’s very possible that it’s a con perpetrated against the websites that are being advertised. The spammers convince the website owners that they are boosting their sites’ traffic. And by the time the site owners figure out they’ve been scammed, the money is gone. It’s not like the spammers didn’t do what they said they would.

On most sites, spam doesn’t get through. For example, you never see it on Frankly Curious. But on Don’t Even Reply, there are thousands of spam comments on each post. The guy who runs the site just doesn’t care. Whatever. The spammers aren’t getting anything out of it.

Uninspired Spam

When you first start seeing comment spam, the thing you notice is how uninspired it is. It’s the same thing over and over. There are maybe a dozen small messages and you see them again and again.

One that I used to see all the time went something like this. “I really like your blog. But have you ever considered spicing it up a little with some images or maybe video.” I’ve seen this comment spam on a post by Andrea that was just a single image that she had created. So they aren’t even paying attention.

It’s not surprising. Why do they care? The comment spam is entered either by a computer or a person in a desperately poor place where they might get paid a fraction of a cent for each comment that gets published.

The Evolution of Comment Spam

But today I saw something new: evolution of comment spam. Remember the spam I mentioned before recommending that I add some images to my site. Well, I got what is clearly a rewrite of that. Here it goes:

I believe everything posted made a ton of sense. However, think on this, what if you were to create a killer headline? I ain’t suggesting your content isn’t good, however what if you added something that makes people want more? I mean [webpage name] — Improve [webpage content] is kinda plain. You should look at Yahoo’s front page and note how they create news titles to grab people to click. You might add a video or a related pic or two to grab people interested about everything’ve written. Just my opinion, it would make your posts a little bit more interesting.

Note that it’s about headlines. But the kernal of adding an image is there. And I’m sure that’s where they started.

A Better Con?

The big question is… why? This bit of comment spam is no more likely to make it through a filter than the original. But again, maybe it is the con I was talking about before. Maybe they could go to the website owner and say, “Hey, I’ve got a great piece of software that’s gonna go live five times as often!” I don’t know.

I do know this: every time there is an innovation with spam, it takes me that much longer to delete it. So even though they gain nothing spamming a site that I’m in charge of, it does cost time and money.

And that’s the terrible thing about comment spam. It costs people time and money, but it doesn’t even help the villain. It’s really quite remarkable.

I Could Be Wrong About Comment Spam

It could be that comment spam is much more effective than I think. You know the stories of the Nigerian Prince and his locked up millions that would be released if only you could pay a couple of thousands of dollars to pay a bank fee or whatever? That’s still a highly successful scam. So there’s no telling.

6 replies on “The Evolution of Comment Spam”

  1. Lori says:

    Like you, I can only speculate as to what the business model behind spam might be. My best guess is that nobody cares whether it works as advertising, or whether it “generates” sales, leads, clicks, eyeballs, or whatever. I believe it simply serves as a value-subtracted feature. This is obvious in the case of “freemium model” things where you pay to make the ads go away. In those case the ads don’t have to generate any sales whatsoever (of advertised goods) to earn their keep. In those cases also, annoyingness replaces persuasiveness as the measure of ad usefulness. As for comment spam, perhaps we can think of it as a penalty for operating in the open blogosphere instead of in one of the slick, “professional” bloglike mediocrities such as medium, qz, aeaon, ad nauseam. Because you refuse to get assimilated, you spend time (more or less time, depending on the remaining level of effectiveness of Akismet or whatever you’re doing) playing whackamole with the spam. Note also that WordPress, as we speak, is on a major self promotion offensive. Just this morning I saw a TV commercial for WordPress. They seem to want to capture some market share from the likes of Wix and web.com and become part of the “business website in a can” industry. They are on a full court press to get people to think in terms of WordPress-as-business-site-content-engine, so it wouldn’t shock me to find that they are subtracting value from WordPress-as-blogging-platform.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That’s an interesting idea but more ontological than practical — especially since comment spam was around long before medium and such. But more important, I know that people actually pay to have this spam sent out, so they must think it gets them something. I can imagine a Rush Limbaugh fan coming on here and making a bunch of noise. Indeed, I do know blogs that have had that problem and have had to ban certain commenters who were ruining the discussions that were going on. I at least understand those people. I’m not above partaking in my own flame wars. But I just don’t get the spammers. And when I talk to people who are really knowledgeable on the subject they just pass it off. If it’s clear they aren’t interested in the subject the way I am, which may explain why they are millionaires and I’m not.

      As for WordPress: you are right. What’s more, the biggest mover in the web hosting industry is WordPress hosting. I’m a fan of WordPress, but I think it has “jumped the shark.” I think it’s best days are behind it. It’s gotten too bloated. As a blogging platform, it’s still the best there is. But for anything else, it’s the wrong platform.

  2. Lawrence says:

    The comments on Slacktivist used to get a regular obvious spam post that went “My room mate Lori makes (ridiculous amount of money) doing (obvious lie) in her spare time. Click her to get ripped off.” Actually there was more to it than that, but I never read it through, as it was obviously an ad for a scam of some kind. The community eventually started joking about how “Lori” must be some kind of trapdoor spider that lured people to their deaths. It hasn’t popped up in a while. Does anybody respond to things like that? But I tend to think that about almost all advertising.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That makes more sense. In fact, I would say it isn’t actually spam. It’s just a con. We see these all the time on telephone poles, “Earn $10,000 per month working from home.” I assume they are the same scams as the ones from my childhood where you could make thousands of dollars for stuffing envelopes. It was a good ol’ fashioned Ponzi scheme. You put out ads telling people to write to you and you “stuff envelopes” with the information about how the scam worked to the people who sent you a buck.

      But the reason I say it isn’t really spam is because the poster is offering something real. It might be a scam, but there really is someone there who wants to take your money. With regular comment spam, the only purpose seems to be to get the link placed on your website. Of course, if you want to use a broader definition of spam being wasted posts, then it is definitely spam — worst than the kind of stuff I’m talking about.

      Those signs always make me feel sad because they are going after the most vulnerable people. These are, by and large, just people who want a job. If we lived in an ethical society, there would be a mechanism where anyone who wanted a job could have one. And that reminds me I better get back to writing my follow-up to this article.

  3. Kaleberg says:

    1) Even if spammers made no money whatever, people would still post spam, especially comment spam, for the same reasons that people used to spray paint their names on NYC subway cars. It’s an affirmation of their existence. Granted, this implies they lead sad little lives, but who am I to judge.

    2) The “I cannot imagine a person dumb enough to click on that spam link” thing is just a failure of imagination or experience. There are people that dumb, and they are the most likely to follow through and send money. The sheer dumbness of the come-on is just a filter. Think of it as a version of those click the I-am-not-a-robot boxes that remind us just how stupid robots are.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      As I noted: they will get some clicks; it’s just a really low percentage of viewers, and I have a hard time believing that it is cost effective.

      But I’m making a distinction because annoying comments and comment spam. Comment spam is not someone ranting. There are databases of comments and people pull the comments out of the database and put them on the site. So it isn’t self expression. They aren’t even saying the same things with different words; they are word-for-word.

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