Apr 2006

Comment spam

Almost anyone with a blog that allows reader comments will be familiar with the problem of ‘Comment Spam’. This is the practice of posting a comment for no other reason than to create one or more links from your website to another one. This is not in the hope that people will follow that link, but rather to help with search-engine placement.

See, search engines rank sites using complex algorithms that take into account numerous factors. One of those factors is the number of other sites that link to them. So a website about basket-weaving, for instance, which has a thousand links to it will – all else being equal – appear higher in Google or MSN searches than one with only a hundred links to it. Given that search engines generate large amounts of traffic, and people tend to click on search results higher up the list, it makes sense from a commercial standpoint to try and maximise the number of incoming links your site has.

Yet another example where commercial interests conflict with ethical ones. Because although it may be a small issue, it is nonetheless a dishonest practice. If the owner of a basket-weaving site spends time adding links to their site on blogs, it creates a false impression of how popular that site is. Again, a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but one which nonetheless makes the internet as a whole less reliable. A thousand people saying “This site is great” means far more than one person (the site owner) saying it a thousand times. Yet currently search engine technology cannot distinguish between the two, so you may find yourself getting all your basket-weaving tips from a dreadful site run by a dishonest spammer rather than the excellent one that is recommended by lots of people.

As I say; it’s a dishonest, unethical practice carried out by people with no real sense of decency or fair play. Nasty scum basically. The kind of people you’d cross the road to avoid. Unsurprisingly the main purveyors of comment spam are porn sites and online casinos… neither of which I object to on principle, but both of which – in practice – tend to have a significant whiff of exploitation and unpleasantness about them.

Sometimes, however, you get comment spam that is simply perplexing. Recently, for example, I’ve had the same comment posted to every single one of the posts on this blog. It reads: “Great article. I am just sad I dont know how to reply properly, though, since I want to show my appreciation like many other.”

A very nice thing to say. The first time it appeared I approved it for publication. It sounds like someone for whom English is not a first language and who wishes to express their appreciation of your writing, but doesn’t quite have the words (the singular of the word “other” gives away the potential non-native-speaker). Soon afterwards, however, the same comment began to spring up on every blog post (including the ones that are just an image and a link). I realised therefore that it was comment spam and deleted them all.

What is perplexing about it, however, is the fact that the spammer doesn’t include any links in the actual comment, and the web-address they provide (which links from their name – Bonifacious) doesn’t work. Ergussumatrras dot com. There’s nothing there; leastways not yet; so as comment spam it’s a complete waste of time. Not only unethical and dishonest, but utterly incompetent too.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

A while ago – on my last blog but one – I received a positive comment on one of my posts. It was clear that the commentator had not only read, but actually thought about, the post. I naturally checked out his link and found it led to a blog which he kept regularly updated. I became a reader of his site and he became a semi-regular commentator on mine… always relevant and thoughtful comments. He appeared no different to any other blogger. After a while, his blog became darker and darker. He wrote about his wife leaving him and refusing him access to his kids. He wrote about how this had a knock-on effect on his work and how he was in real danger of losing not only his family, but his job and home too. I became quite concerned for the guy and sent him a couple of emails. I saw undercurrents of suicidal tendencies begin to manifest in his writing, and emailed him again suggesting he contact The Samaritans, or – if he wasn’t willing to do that – then I’d be glad to meet up with him for a chat, if he needed someone to vent at.

I received no response to my emails, and wasn’t willing to discuss this publicly in the comments of his blog… I didn’t know how sensible it would be given his fragile state of mind; it’s very very difficult to predict how someone will interpret a chunk of plain text posted to a public website. In order to deal with serious emotional issues, it’s far better to do it in person.

Then there was a shift in his outlook… he began posting hints that his situation was in danger of driving him to violence. At first I became seriously worried that he might hurt his ex-wife and genuinely considered contacting the police. Then however he started talking about “hitting back at the powerful”. He commented on one of my blog posts – an attack on Tony Blair – stating that someone should “try to get close to Blair and do us all a favour”. Then, on his own blog, he began discussing a plan to sneak into a banquet being held at a London hotel which a number of foreign and UK politicians would attend, and poison the food.

It was only at this point that I smelled a rat. He’d been so smart up until that point… I knew he wasn’t dumb enough to post details of an assassination attempt on a public website. I still believed that this was a poor bloke who’d just gone through a hellish time; lost his family, lost his job, was in danger of missing payments on his mortgage and was genuinely at the end of his tether… the assassination thing was clearly a dark joke from the mind of someone in a dark place. A plea for help… a plea for attention from his ex. It was hard to know, but I felt very bad for the guy.

The day after the banquet had passed off without incident I logged onto his blog. The blog was no longer active. In its place was a large advertisement for the film “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”. The entire thing had been part of a viral marketing campaign to coincide with the UK release of the movie. His apparently genuine messages on my blog and on his own site had merely been lies designed to part people with their money. He had taken advantage of my concern (some would say, my gullibility) and abused my trust for personal profit. What a deeply nasty excuse for a human being. True pondscum.

Yes, the film is fantastic (Sean Penn is an amazing actor). And yes, the campaign was very clever. But you can be clever and still be pondscum. And manipulative advertising for a fantastic film is still manipulative advertising. If I ever met that blogger in a pub I’d spit in his face. Because frankly, that’s what it feels like he did to me.

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