When I first thought about blogging, a disincentive was the amount of talk and news I found about "comment spam", people adding spam messages to your blog in the form of comments. These days, hosted blogging systems such as WordPress have that problem under control and the Akismet filtering used by the latter seems very efficient and accurate. So much so that I often wonder why comment spammers bother trying any more.
When I first started blogging, I ignored the spam folder, confident that as the entrapped spams aged, they would be deleted. I expect a lot of people still follow this procedure. These days, however, I take an active interest in the "catch", much as a fisherman takes an interest in the contents of his net.
Apart from mere curiosity, I am impelled by the realization that perfectly genuine comments are sometimes mis-diagnosed as spam. By looking in the folder, I can see these innocent victims and liberate them. This happens because Akismet by default regards as suspicious any comment containing more than two hyperlinks. (You can change the default, of course.) The reason for that is that there used to be a common form of comment spam that consisted entirely of enormous lists of hyperlinks to sites purveying porn, Viagra and so on. This type of spam is now much less usual, its perpetrators no doubt realizing that it gets filtered out.
As with email spam, spammers try to devise new types of spam that will not be detected by spam filters. If I received huge volumes of spam I might find this annoying but as my spam count remains low (one of the advantages of obscurity, I suppose!), I find it rather fun. Some spam messages do make it past the filter and it is interesting to try to work out how they did it.
Akismet has a way of dealing with this. You are invited to indicate which messages are spam. If enough people condemn a message, it will be filtered out in future. This explains, no doubt, those messages I find sitting in my spam folder which, looked at with an impartial eye, are difficult to diagnose: are they spam or are they slightly vague genuine messages? I reckon that if Akismet doesn’t like them then there’s a 99% probability that they’re spam.
The most common type of comment spam I receive these days are messages disguised to look like genuine comments. The only spammy characteristic is the URL of the author: this will link back to a commercial site.
They are usually easy to detect, however. This is because spammers haven’t got time or the resources to tailor their comments to the specific posts, so they dream up some sort of general message which <i>might</i> in some cases be accepted. For example, I come across comments such as "I have been wondering about that. You have made it much clearer for me and now I understand it better."
Recently, I have received dozens of messages about a certain brand of jeans. The message might read "Yes, nice jeans. Thanks for sharing. I will buy a pair for myself." This makes no sense when attached to an article about a recent trip to Sheffield, for example!
Another way in which spammers give the game away is by attaching the comments in unlikely places such as quite old articles or pages.
A third clue is that a particular article will suddenly start receiving a lot comments. This puzzled me at first until I formed the theory that spammers, having found a working link, add it to a list and pass the list around. This was confirmed the other day when I was checking on references to my blog and thus stumbled on a couple of Russian sites carrying lists of URLs, including some of mine. I don’t read Russian but I was pretty sure these were spammers’ sites publishing useful URLs. By closing comments on articles over a certain age (WordPress has a setting for this), I have cut down the amount of spam I receive.
Just occasionally, I receive a comment that has survived the jaws of Akismet and somehow seems suspicious, though not obviously so. If such messages are spam, then they are cleverly formulated or just happen to match the article; if they are genuine, they are rather vague but, after all, people have a right to be vague!
How should I treat such a comment? If I delete it and it is genuine, then I might upset and lose a reader. If I leave it, I may be linking to a spammer. Of course, I take a look at the sender’s site but even this doesn’t always decide the issue. I think that such comments are written by what you might call publicity-seekers, rather than spammers, folk trying to draw attention to their own blogs or sites rather than to sell you porn or dodgy medicines. Depending on my mood, I either leave them or delete them.
In a strange way, I have become rather fond of the spam that my blog receives. Do you find that odd? But consider: it does at least show that someone is aware that my blog exists and they think highly enough of it to spam it! I also find that the amount of spam tends to follow the level of activity on my blog. If I don’t post for a while, I receive no spam, then when I do post, the spam starts again. This pattern has occurred too often to be dismissed as chance: spammers have some way of detecting activity and responding to it by spamming the blog concerned. So, if I post an article and receive no spam, I feel slightly miffed! Come on, chaps, wake up and take notice!
I do of course accept that spammers are nasty people, cheats and deceivers, trying to do you out of your money and giving rubbish in return. Or they are scammers trying to worm their way into your bank account which they will then empty. On the other hand, I suspect that many "spammers" are really minions beavering away for a few cents per thousand, sending stuff out for the real spammers. Why do they do it? Are they so hard up and beaten down by life that this is the only way they can make a dishonest living? If so, I feel sorry for them.
Their sad offerings both annoy me and amuse me. It is like watching a child trying to play a trick on a shrewd adult and doing it so transparently that the adult is never taken in even for an instant. Strangely enough, I think that if the spam stopped, I would miss it.