By Yuki Noguchi, Washington Post Staff Writer
Now that Web logs -- blogs, for short -- are a popular online pastime
for millions of people, scammers are finding new ways to exploit them
as vehicles for junk advertisements.
The Internet has even coined a term -- splog, a combination of spam
and blog -- for a phenomenon that follows in the footsteps of rogue
advertising such as spam e-mail, junk mail, junk faxes and adware. The
new forms of spam can show up on blogs as fake comments posted by
readers that actually have nothing to do with the subject at
hand. Instead they are advertising pitches or attempts to get you to
click on an unrelated Web site.
They also can be set up as bogus blogs; go looking for a blogger
talking about, say, bathroom renovations, and you could wind up on a
Web site that has a few random renovation-related words but that
mainly tries to get you to click on links to advertisements.
For the most part, the ads are new pitches for old schemes -- gambling,
porn -- and are posing enough of a customer nuisance that Internet giants
such as Google and Yahoo are developing tools to clamp down on them.
Blogs are free and easy to set up, and until now, they have mostly
been earnest forums for political and personal discourse. But their
blogs, the greater the potential audience for spammers. Some bloggers
and search-engine users are calling on companies that help set up
blogs to better police their systems.
"Yahoo and Google are the common carriers of the information age, and
they have a reasonable responsibility ... to prevent the illegal and
inappropriate use of their services," said Scott Allen, an
Austin-based online editor for About.com who also maintains a blog.
Last month, Blogger, a free blog service, identified a "spamalanche"
that hit its system, and the company had to dismantle 13,000
spam-filled blogs created in the course of a single weekend.
"The readership of blogs has exploded in the last 18 months," and with
it the popularity of splogs, said Jason Goldman, product manager for
Blogger, which is owned by Google Inc. "The challenge is one of
balance: to make it difficult for people to post bad script but not
make it hard for our users."
Unauthorized advertisers are blighting the blogosphere by hijacking
legitimate discussions of topics with a flurry of phony comments.
"We would get surges of it -- as many as 200 to 300 within two hours;
we couldn't blacklist the [spammers' online] addresses fast enough,"
Allen said. "It hampers the open conversation that is the very nature
Advertisers are also setting up bogus blogs -- what Goldman and others
refer to as splogs -- and linking them to numerous other sites to
inflate their popularity on search engines. When searchers click on
what they think is a relevant site, they end up on imitation blogs
full of gibberish and links to ads. Advertisers will pay the spammers
every time someone clicks on one of those links.
Ben Popken, keeper of a blog called TheSpunker, recently searched the
Internet for Swiss army knives and found himself stymied by
splogs. Every time he typed in the topic on a blog search engine, he
kept pulling up a site that appeared to be a legitimate blog but was
filled with links to other Web sites.
"In one way, it's a tribute to the openness of the blog system. It's
kind of ingenious in this diabolical way," Popken said in an
interview. "But something like this happening undermines the trust
that blogs are based on."
Spammers often use automated software to set up splogs, so since
February Google has stepped up its efforts to stop the trashing before
it begins, Blogger's Goldman said. Blogger requires a user to enter a
code word before setting up a blog and has developed a way of flagging
suspected spammers and requiring a similar verification process before
they can post comments, he said. Google is further trying to improve
its mechanism for identifying junk blogs from legit ones, he said, and
only a few bloggers have complained of problems maintaining their
Yahoo has instituted controls on its free Yahoo 360 blogging software
that allow users to limit viewership and comments on their blogs, said
company spokeswoman Meagan Busath. "Obviously, Yahoo has had a lot of
experience combating spam," because it had to combat a similar problem
with exploitation of its free e-mail accounts, Busath said.
Still, some bloggers say the efforts are not keeping up with incoming
John R. Levine, co-author of "The Internet for Dummies," said spam
attacks have gotten steadily worse on his blog in the past six months.
"I get more fake comments from gambling sites than all other comments
put together," he said. He has had to start requiring e-mail address
verification before letting people post comments on his site,
http://weblog.taugh.com/ . "It makes you look like a doofus. I have
this nice blog about e-mail policy, and comments about poker and naked
ladies [do] not improve that conversation."
Identifying responsible parties can be difficult, because free blog
software programs -- like free e-mail accounts -- do not require
identity verification. The culprits tend to be fast-moving, and their
handiwork so far is not as debilitating as other forms of online
"It's rarely worth the resources and time it takes to find them," said
Anne P. Mitchell, president and chief executive of the Institute for
Spam and Internet Public Policy and a law professor at the Lincoln Law
School of San Jose. But Internet companies that helped create the blog
phenomenon can also help keep it clean, she said. "From an ethical,
moral, good Internet neighbor perspective ... if they have the
ability to do so, they should do so."
Copyright 2005 The Washington Post Company
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: On my Blogger account
http://ptownson.blogspot.com I have it set to require moderation on
all comments added by anyone. Doing it that way allows me to erase it
before the offensive stuff sees the light of day. Lisa Minter does the
very same thing on her (reprint of this) Digest each day; when I first
got her set up with Yahoo Groups she tried to run it openly, but it is
virtually impossible to run an open-ended discussion group either here
on Usenet or somewhere like Yahoo. Sad, but true. Start any sort of
open-ended virtual discussion group, and it will soon be ruined by the