Someone out there is being paid to post comments on bit-player.org–and doubtless on tens of thousands of other blogs as well. The comments are mostly bland and inoffensive, sometimes effusive, always hastily composed. “Thanks for article..good work,” they say. “Amazing!!” “i like your article and i will be wating your net article….”
The payload attached to each of these comments is a link to a web site that someone wants to promote. Some of the sites are selling goods or services; others are billboards full of pay-per-view ads; a fair number are mysterious to me, being written in languages I don’t understand. I would not be astonished to learn that some of the sites are distributing malware.
Years ago, the first wave of comment spam was powered by scripts that flooded blogs and wikis and forums with hundreds of postings full of program-generated gibberish and long lists of links. That abuse was stopped by captchas and other simple filters, like the one I’ve been using here on bit-player. Another important defense is the “nofollow” tag, which instructs search engines to ignore links in comments, thereby eliminating the incentive of gaining PageRank points.
The comment spam arriving now is not generated by a Perl script. Somewhere in the world a person is being paid to read these very sentences, then to prove his or her humanity to the Turing-test filter, and finally to write a few words in response and sneak in a paid link. I’m both fascinated and appalled to learn that the Internet economy can support this activity. What’s the going rate for writing comment spam? Is it worth a penny to get your link briefly exposed to the vast daily readership of bit-player.org? How about a tenth of a penny?
I have a sinking feeling that the people doing this work are themselves victims of a scam, and that they’ll never see even the tenth of a penny. They have probably succumbed to a 21st-century version of the ads I used to see on matchbook covers: “Work at home! Make $500 a week stuffing envelopes in your spare time!”
Of all the ways that poor and desperate people are exploited, this is not the worst. Presumably the work is safe and sanitary, and it even rewards literacy. Some of my comment spammers would surely have interesting ideas to contribute if only they had the luxury of time.
All the same, this kind of commercial graffiti is not something I want to encourage. The available countermeasures include prohibiting all links in comments, holding all comments until a moderator approves them, or requiring commenters to register with a verifiable email address. None of these options appeals to me, but I may have to consider them if the problem persists. For now, though, I’m going to continue the human approach–manually deleting spammy comments as quickly as I can get to them. I am also closing comments on all but the 10 most-recent items on bit-player; the spammers seem to favor older posts.
I have to add that spotting comment spam is not always as easy as you might think. Consider this comment, which came in response to a story about editorial changes at Scientific American magazine:
Many times, when i read your American Scientist columns, I have asked myself that is any other country’s scientist didn’t give anything to the world?
The text of the comment is pertinent to the topic; it raises a question that’s entirely appropriate in this context; and there’s clear evidence that the author has actually been reading bit-player (and even my American Scientist columns) rather than merely spewing comments at random. This is someone I would like to be able to welcome into the community. But the link associated with the comment was an ad for a web-hosting service, and another comment from the same IP number advertised a different service. Was I wrong to hit the delete button?
You’re welcome to comment below, but without spammy links, please.