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May 05 2009

Spam comments dilemma

My policy with comments to the blog is to leave them unmoderated. So anyone can post any comment any time without getting prior approval from me. My feeling is that people have a right to express their opinion. So even though there seem to be some people who scan the web to find anything even remotely related to their pet topic and then post very long screeds about their pet theory that has only marginal relevance to my post, I have let those comments stand, not wanting to be in the position of censor.

But one problem with such an open-door policy is that it allows for spam comments to fill up the comments section. One of the curses of the internet is the amount of spam that goes around. Every day my mailbox contains a large amount of it that I have to delete but with the blog has come a new form of spam, in the form of comments that are generated by so-called spambots, automated devices that crawl around the web being a nuisance. The purposes of these are to either advertise a product (often sex-related) or to post hyperlinks that will boost the search engine ranking of a particular site.

Most of these comments are obviously spam, some consisting of random phrases or gibberish or even the alphabets of other languages, others fulsomely praising my entries with repetitive phrases, such as “Cool site”, “I love this site!”, “This site is cool/crazy”, “I just discovered this terrific site and will bookmark it”, “Nice design”, and “I’m happy. Very good site.”

Some reassure me that things are going well for them, saying things like “I’m fine” while others try to keep me up with popular trends by saying “Punk not dead.”

Since the point of the blog is to generate meaningful conversation, I have to take steps to prevent the comments section from being filled with spam and discouraging genuine posts. The server that hosts my blog has some features built in that detects and prevents spambots from posting most of their comments. But some still sneak through and I have to go through all the comments a couple of times every day to eliminate those. If a comment looks robotic and has no relevance to the post, I delete it. I also use the opportunity to rescue and publish some genuine comments that the filter has wrongly eliminated

But spambots are getting cleverer. Sometimes I find comments that seem as though they are written by a real human because they are sort of relevant to the post, but yet seem vaguely familiar or slightly off. On closer investigation, I find that it is because the spambot has taken part of the text of a genuine comment by a real user, or even my own words in the post, and inserted them as its own comment, in order to get past the filter. I delete those comments too.

More recently, though I have encountered an even more difficult situation. This is where there is a brief comment that seems to be written by a genuine person, but which seems to be advertising a product. The comment feature has a space where people can insert their url and I have no problem with genuine commenters using that to link to their own website, even if that website is a commercial one.

But what is happening is that companies are apparently paying real people to visit blogs that have vaguely relevant posts and post comments that are mainly meant as advertisements. One of my posts has been especially hit by this phenomenon, generating 35 comments, most of which appeared to me to be of doubtful origin. Take a look.

This is apparently part of a trend called viral marketing where companies are using real people to create fake grass roots buzz about something, because it turns out that studies suggest that people trust word of mouth information, even from people they don’t know, more than they do official sources and vastly more so than commercial advertising. So you may find ‘friendly’ people you meet in a bar or a coffee shop (they are called ‘leaners’ in the trade) talking about how great some product is, and you do not realize that they have been paid to go around doing this.

Andy Sernowitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, talks to On the Media host Bob Garfield about how this phenomenon is now being used on the internet.

ANDY SERNOVITZ: There’s two big ways that people try to sneak past you: either they lie about who they are, so you think you’re reading an honest comment on a blog and it’s actually a marketer in disguise with 20 different logins, or they’re paying other people to recommend something on their blogs or email or Facebook and not telling you that those people have been paid.

You usually see it most from either sort of low-end, sleazy, like, health remedies and get-rich-quick schemes and that end, or you see it from entertainment companies, from folks who are out there to hype a song or a movie.

BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is called pay-per-post, right – bloggers getting X number of cents for every time they post a favorable appraisal of a new song or something?

ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, you see a couple of big operations. One company’s actually called PayPerPost, and it pays you to write blog posts about stuff. There’s a new one called Magpie that pays you to send stuff out over your Twitter account under your name.

And where it gets more interesting is the way things get repeated in social media. And this is what concerns me more, is that a company might pay through this pay-per-post service to get 200 people to blog something about them. And it says this was a paid placement in the blog post, so technically that’s okay. They did say it was paid for.

But then those blog posts get repeated on their Facebook page and then on Twitter, and then someone else copies it, and suddenly 10 times more posts have the exact same paid review. Well, we’ve lost the disclosure that made it honest. I mean, really, the big idea here is this word “disclosure.” And what it says is, it’s okay to pay for coverage. That’s called advertising. But you have to say, and now a word from our sponsors.

So what should I do when I suspect that a comment is being posted by a real person but for commercial reasons rather than for having a genuine conversation with other readers or with me? Should I delete them or give them the benefit of the doubt?

I am leaning towards this policy: If I suspect that a comment is either spam or being posted purely for the sake of advertising something, I will delete it unless the comment contains some redeeming features, such as advancing the discussion or providing relevant information.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is published by Elsevier, an outfit that publishes many leading journals. It is sent to many doctors. But the magazine The Scientist just revealed that this “journal” is not a real, peer-reviewed journal publishing original articles. Instead it is funded purely by the drug company Merck and contains reprinted or summarized articles favorable to Merck products.

George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. “I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors,” Jelinek said at the trial. “This is straightforward marketing.”

If there is one area of science where fraud and corruption will threaten to discredit the whole enterprise, it is medicine, because of the money and influence of the drug industry.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Andy

    I tried to comment on your corn article myself however was told I couldn’t. It’s a sad state of affairs when it’s more economical to be un-healthy in the U.S.

    Interesting dilema, having a popular blog is likely to attract the spam you’d rather avoid.

  2. 2
    Dulcy

    Hi Mano
    Thanks for the informative post. I kept a blog a few years ago when I was abroad and had a baby, to keep my loved ones overseas posted on what was going on. And I loved seeing the count rise, of how many people had visited my blog per day. At first, it was a private blog, people could access it by invitation only, but I persuaded my husband to put it out on the open web. Initially, I began to get more hits, but the comments went from being people whom I knew to those weird advertising posts by people or spambots. It got so overwhelming, I shut down the blog after a while and had my husband remove it from the web. So, I appreciated all the info you have about spambots and leaners because it helped me to understand what was going on. Unfortunately, one side effect that you did not mention was how the parasites can be so invasive as to discourage the media that they were using to grow in, as was the case with my blog.
    On the note of corruption in medicine, this issue is of particular interest to me. I am a new nurse and I have been practicing for a couple months on a general medical/surgical unit of a rural hospital. I see medicine practiced for profit, and I see end of life care extended by medical procedures into grotesque extra years of painful life with decreased communication and functioning. However, those added years of life are billable. And I think it is the fact that extending the years and suffering and procedures and care onto keeping bodies alive after major organ systems have sustained major damage and require extensive interventions to remain alive, that this is normal medical care, this bothers me a lot, ethically I suppose. And, I am not convinced that grieving families will have an easier time grieving their loved one after a prolonged death process than if people were allowed to die faster deaths.

  3. 3
    Research Paper Writing

    great post, i agree with ur post

  4. 4
    Mano

    Andy,

    Sorry for your comment being blocked by the server software. If it is any consolation, there have been times when my own comments were blocked, because I used words or phrases (I don’t know what) that triggered the spam detector.

  5. 5
    Mano

    Dulcy,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that in many cases life seems to be extended far beyond what seems reasonable. Part of the reason is that it is profitable to do so. But I also wonder how much of it is due to the tremendous fear of death that I see in the US that makes people want to cling on to it at any cost.

    I myself have given taken steps that the plug should be pulled on me if it seems that I cannot regain a reasonable quality of life, especially mental.

  6. 6
    Jared

    I have a feeling that the commenter who wrote “great post, i agree with ur post” does not, in fact, agree with your post.

  7. 7
    Brock

    FYI, what I considered for the CFI site is yanking the spam hyperlinks out of posts that otherwise seem to be on-topic. Not sure if that’s easy/non-tedious with the blog.case system.

    Other systems (like on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog) seem to require moderation *only* for comments that include hyperlinks.

  8. 8
    Mano

    Brock,

    I don’t mind people plugging their stuff as long as they add something to the discussion. What I dislike are superficial comments that fill up the comments section just to plug stuff.

  9. 9
    online pet shop

    Hi there,

    Well, spamming is the problem with most of the bloggers and we are a victim of it too. We write about pets and we do our best to give value and more knowledgeable information to our readers. A number of spammers are making a mess at our blog and we think that process should be stopped.

    Pets in their own way make you feel friendly.

    “We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.” by Anna Sewell

  10. 10
    Pet Coupons

    I agree, for example, I only found this blog by searing for: site:.edu inurl:blog “post a comment” -”comments closed” -”you must be logged in” +pets, because after all, I’m trying to promote my pet site. The above comment is obviously not spam because it contributes to this thread, but by embedding a ‘keyword phrase’ in the Name section with a link to the website, this poster (like I am doing) is trying to game the search engines.

    Of course all a blog owner has to do is ‘nofollow’ their comments and presto, the majority of spam related comments are gone. Email me if you have any other questions about this :)

  11. 11
    bob

    Getting meaningful contributions fromn the online community is a constant problem. Filtering out the spammers without discouraging contribution is a troubling dilema. I have found in general that advertising the fact theat this is a ” no follow” blog will weed most out.

  12. 12
    John

    I also agree with the gentlemen from Pet Coupons and came apon this blog in a similiar way. I have had a word press blog that has been dumped with spam and find it so annoying.For a small family company like ours its very difficult to addvertise these days on google and stay on the first page. Sooner or later the big companies with unlimited budgets just push you off and down the list. Most use a black hat method to get there in the first place.I have always tried to hit a middle of the road way when placeing comments on blogs. Yes contribute to the blog but also try to get your url in the blog to also help myself that little bit.
    Hope this comment that I have made someone can relate to.
    John

  13. 13
    Jim Foster

    Hi Mano
    You have been a brave person keeping this site open to all as I well know how our sites can be spamed on an ongoing basis.I to came across your site when reasearching for aricles that I am writing regarding the benifits of wooden floors over carpets for pets at home.Yes I also want to promote my web site but am always happy to leave my little individual input into other when ever possible.; I just blame the large SEO companies for putting all us small self employed people into a position were we are unable to make our small input.
    Many thanks
    Jim

  14. 14
    James Rojas

    Guilty as charged… The big bad SEO companies and well intentioned DIY people (such as myself) have found sites with open posts with the intention of backlinking. On a positive note though, I have read through blogs that have a personal interest and a place where I feel I can productively contribute without leaving outright spam in my wake. I understand if you feel the urge to delete my post, but I enjoyed the topic :)

    James Rojas
    http://www.ChicagolandConcrete.com

  15. 15
    Doug Bowman

    I to am guilty of using comments for backlinks,but like most I do not abuse the use of commenting just for a back linking purpose. I thoroughly read through the post and comment when I have a clever or witty response. Lots of sites around the web are abused by spam bots and people just looking for links who post jibberish including my own lol.

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