Google Blogoscoped

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Google Spammers

“Spam is like the aliens among us. They look like us, dress like us – but they also eat the houseplants.”
-- John Holbo

This post may end up on spam blogs. Let me explain why.

In my recent interview with Joe Harris, a keyword blogger, several “high paying” keywords got mentioned (like mortgage, gambling, poker, or mesothelioma). There was an unexpected side-effect to this post, as it was also featured in Google News; many spam bloggers, I suspect, subscribe to Google Alerts for their spam keywords. They then fill their (mostly Blogspot-hosted) plogs with posts sent to them via Google. The final irony is that they’re often using Google AdSense to make this a commercial venture. In other words: someone’s abusing Google to get traffic, on a blog hosted by Google, filled with content automated by Google, and they’re making money from it via Google.

Here are some of the spam blogs* I noticed (I found them via Google’s new Blogsearch backlinks functionality):

*I suspect these are all spam blogs, I don’t know for sure.

And here’s what a typical spam blog looks like (not all splogs follow this pattern, but a large percentage do):

  1. The blog uses one of the several default templates and is hosted at Blogspot.com.
  2. There are automated or semi-automated news bits from different sources.
  3. There may be outbound link-farm structures to boost another web site.
  4. There is a big, visible advertisement chunk next to the “content.”

So, the combination of Google web search, Google Blogger, Google Alerts and Google AdSense allows spammers to make a quick buck by polluting the web. Would it be killing the messenger to say Google has at least some responsibility for that pollution? Or are they merely a platform, and it’s up to society to handle just what can be done with this platform?

When Joe Harris told me the following, I realized how easy it is to publish these days – and publish with a money-making scheme in the back-end:

“In the beginning I knew very little about websites, HTML, or how to make a web page. A friend of mine introduced me to [Google¬ís] Blogger and immediately I was intrigued. (...)

I also saw the AdSense invite on Blogger’s page.”

Without even actively searching for the opportunity, Google made it quite easy to let Joe be pushed in the direction of spam-like blogging (Joe doesn’t think of his blogs as spam, and I leave it for you to decide – his sites are definitely not the kind discussed above, as they are not automated).

Maybe Google Inc is or was* merely naive when it comes to splogs. They allow one-click publishing (Blogger.com), one-click content aggregation (Google News alerts), and easy, context-sensitive advertising on top (AdSense). Some blogs even use Google Alerts hooked up to Blogger’s blog-by-email functionality to let Google be the author (you’ll recognize one of those blogs when you see them because they contain “unsubscribe” links within posts – that’s right, you can help destroy such blog by unsubscribing its alerts). This automated spam machine tends to border on the absurd; like when, as one reader told in the forum, a spammer writes automated comments in a spam blog.

*Google recently introduced captchas in Blogger (that makes it hard or impossible to automatically sign up for Blogspot accounts), and they also as of recently allow visitors to flag blogs as spam.

And what now?

As soon as I hit the publish button for this post, the spam machinery will run through its routines again. Google News, which crawls part of my blog every few minutes, will see this new post. Another algorithm hosted somewhere in Mountain View, California, will then send out alerts about all of the post’s keywords that people subscribe to. There may be hundreds or thousands of subscribers, all over this world. Many of them, apparently, are spammers. And this post (its first few lines) will make its way into their blogs. Sometimes, I suspect, manually, and other times, completely automated. It will act as an ad trap waiting to be indexed again by the Googlebot to be then offered to unsuspecting searchers at Google.com. It’s a mad, mad, mad world, and the Big G’s firmly sitting in its center.

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