'Splogs' Roil Web, and Some Blame Google - WSJ.com
Spam, long the scourge of email users, rapidly has become the bane of bloggers too.
Spammers have created millions of Web logs to promote everything from gambling Web sites to pornography. The spam blogs -- known as "splogs" -- often contain gibberish, and are full of links to other Web sites spammers are trying to promote. Because search engines like those of Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. base their rankings of Web sites, in part, on how many other Web sites link to them, the splogs can help artificially inflate a site's popularity. Some of the phony blogs also carry advertisements, which generate a few cents for the splog's owner each time they are clicked on.
The phony blogs are a particular problem for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo because each offers not only a Web search engine focused on providing the most relevant results for users but also a service to let bloggers create blogs.
Just this past weekend, Google's popular blog-creation tool, Blogger, was targeted in an apparently coordinated effort to create more than 13,000 splogs, the search giant said. The splogs were laced with popular keywords so that they would appear prominently in blog searches, and several bloggers complained online that that the splogs were gumming up searches for legitimate sites.
A typical splog might contain entries discussing how to play poker, with embedded keywords such as "online casino" and "Texas Hold 'em," making it turn up in searches for gambling Web sites. The splog may link to Web sites that receive commissions for sending customers to Internet casinos.
The splogs also are a big source of frustration for several search-engine start-ups that focus on blog searches, such as IceRocket.com LLC, Technorati Inc. and Feedster Inc. Technorati estimates that 2% to 8% of the 70,000 blogs created daily are phony blogs or splogs. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and majority owner of IceRocket, recently went online with a complaint that Google's blogging service lacks sufficient controls to prevent automated software from creating splogs in bulk. Title of his message: "Get Your Blogspot S- Together Google." (Blogspot is the name of the Web site where Google provides free hosting to blogs created with its Blogger tool.)
Cleaning Up Comments
Fake blogs aren't the only tools spammers are using. Blog owners have long been frustrated to discover spam posted in the "comments" section of their blogs, an area designed for interaction with readers.
Peter Shinbach, a public-relations executive who created a Web blog about online communication called "Bach Door," recently closed the year-old blog after returning from vacation to find it filled with so-called comment spam. "I'm not in it to be a mechanic, and if it means I'm going to have to go in and clean up everyday, it's not something I want to do," he said. He said some bloggers have suggested he reopen his blog and simply bar comments from readers – one of several tools blogging companies now offer to cut down on spam. But he said he doesn't like that idea, since the point of the blog was to spur discussion.
Even corporate-sponsored blogs have had to take action against comment spam. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper featuring blogs written by staffers, recently began requiring anyone posting comments to its blogs to register for the site first. Spam had exploded "astronomically in recent months," said Brian Chin, senior online producer, who writes a blog about technology and politics called Buzzworthy.
Aside from giving users the option to close the comments section of their sites, blogging services have also unveiled tools aimed at thwarting automated spamming software. One such tool requires those posting comments to first type in letters that appear in a distorted image – something a robot would have difficulty doing.
"It's the biggest problem on the Net right now after identity theft. We have to kill millions of the splogs per month" from IceRocket's index, Mr. Cuban said in an interview. He said that while spammers use a variety of blogging tools to create their phony sites, most that he encounters have been created with Blogger -- something Mr. Cuban attributed to the tool's ability to create blogs quickly, easily and free of charge. Following the weekend outbreak, IceRocket temporarily blocked new Blogger sites from appearing in its index.
Jason Goldman, product manager for Blogger, acknowledged on Blogger's official corporate blog Monday that the company had been targeted by what he called a "spamalanche." In an interview, he said he sympathizes with Mr. Cuban. But he said that spam is going to be an issue for the blogging community for a long time to come and that blacklisting Blogger would not be an effective response.
"Spam is a particular challenge for us because we want to continue to make the [Blogger] tool very simple to use but not encourage or make it easy for spammers to use," he says. Google's blog service, which hosts millions of blogs, began to notice a lot of phony bloggers using the service six months ago, he added.
Many spammers are buying special software on the Web that allows them to automatically create scores of phony blogs in mere seconds. One program cited by splog critics is BlogBurner, which starts at $47 a month. The tool "creates a unique blog for your Web site in less than one minute -- even if you know nothing about computers," according to the BlogBurner.com site.
BlogBurner's founder, Rick Butts, denies that his software is used by spammers. He says it is used by business owners to automatically create blogs based on content pulled from their Web sites. He acknowledges that the blogs being created by BlogBurner are often used to help draw attention to a company's main Web site. "I'm not going to pretend to say we're altruistically creating blogs for humans to read," he says, adding that other companies have mimicked his software and sold it to spammers.
Several bloggers say they are dismayed by the phony blogs. Jon Gales, who runs a popular blog about cellphones called MobileTracker.net, says he has seen phony blogs that copy the content from his site, apparently in hopes of helping themselves appear higher in search engines.
Mr. Gales says one such blog, with the address of talkingcellulars.blogspot.com, copied a posting he made about a new Motorola cellphone last month. A posting on the site, using the gibberish common to spam posts, said, "Cool blog. I have a home equity loan lowest rate blog myself. It's goes over home equity loan lowest rate. Please visit, thanks!" It linked to a site pitching home loans.
Mr. Gales sent complaints about that blog and another blog to Google, which hosts both, claiming copyright infringement. A Google spokeswoman says the company responded by email, but Mr. Gales says he hasn't received it. Google's Mr. Goldman says the company complies with federal copyright law and may remove material if it violates the law.
Google recently changed the sign-up process for Blogger to make it harder for spam software programs to automatically create accounts. The site now shows users an image of a word that must be manually entered, but is distorted to deceive automated software. Still, Mr. Goldman acknowledges the security feature isn't foolproof.
Also, Google is striving to identify spam blogs and has canceled thousands of accounts, Mr. Goldman says. The company, which also recently launched its own blog search engine, has begun allowing anyone looking at a blog hosted by Blogger to flag content the viewer deems objectionable. Mr. Goldman says Google plans to soon require bloggers it suspects of creating spam blogs to manually type in a distorted word whenever they want to update an existing blog with a new posting.
Google, Yahoo, Feedster and several other companies have participated in two spam-fighting summits this year. Though no firm solutions to the splog problem have been agreed upon, one idea is for the companies that host blogs to rate blogs with a spam index, and then automatically share that information with blog search engines whenever blogs are updated. The search engines would have the option of filtering out particular blogs.
Some computer users, meanwhile, are launching their own responses to the spammers. Frank Gruber, a blogger in Chicago who became frustrated while encountering splogs in search engines, recently launched a site called SplogReporter.com. It lets anyone submit the Web address of a suspected splog. SplogReporter has created an index to rate how "spammy" a blog is, and is building a database of splogs. Mr. Gruber, who says he was inspired by Mr. Cuban's crusade against splogs, has not decided what he will do with the information. But he says he may share it with blog search engines.
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