Comments Are Closed
Dave Shea’s piece yesterday on borderline comment spam has answered a question I’ve had about whether some comments I received recently are in fact spam. It looks like they are. Dead Reckoning is a low-traffic site, but like any small blog that’s older than a few months it gets hourly visits from spammers. The latest manoeuvre in the link spam game, as Shea discusses, involves deploying generally on-topic comments with links back to commercial sites. I received a few of these recently on posts that were several months old. The comments contained a complaint about the problem of spam (touché), and their author URLs pointed to a commercial site in Poland. Since I didn’t know whether they were genuine comments (i.e. that their primary intention was to contribute to the thread rather than to drive traffic to a commercial site) I let them be, but tonight I’m taking them down. Many similar tales are being added to Dave’s thread and, understandably, the general mood of contributors starts at irritation and boils along from there.
Since April, 2006 I’ve been using Bad Behavior and Spam Karma 2 to combat spam on this site, with excellent results. If you’re a WordPress user I recommend that you include them at installation as a matter of course. (Michael Hampton and Dr. Dave deserve scads of recognition and a few bucks in donations in my opinion.) Nevertheless, the fact remains that my blog is small and obscure. So I have the luxury of a certain objectivity. Shea’s post reminds me of some things I read a while back on Daring Fireball (Take Your Trackbacks and Dangle, Trackback Addenda) and on Design View (No Comments Here). John Gruber and Andy Rutledge eschew comments altogether, possibly for different reasons. But their contributions are apropos on the problem of link spamming.
Link spamming occurs the way it does because blogging tools (and therefore most blogs, columns, etc.) are designed to encourage people to leave comments. This exchange is facilitated with HTML forms embedded (usually) beneath published articles that allow people and bots to submit information to the site’s web server for publishing beneath the article. Since I encountered the pieces mentioned above a small part of my mind has been constantly chewing over the value of having comments enabled. Honestly, I love the comments that my small readership create on my site, but most of the people who leave comments could instead publish commentary on their own site and simply link to mine if form commenting was not an option. The biggest exception to this was a piece I wrote on Australian cinema, for which I actively solicited involvement from friends and family by e-mailing them the link to the article. This is one of the few (possibly only?) cases in the history of my site in which people who do not have their own web sites left comments (not all the participants, of course, but many of them). It seems to me that this is the biggest reason right now for me not to disable comments altogether.
But the idea of keeping comments available for the sake of those without their own web sites is not even that compelling, especially since it is much more likely that I will communicate with my friends via e-mail than by using the form system on my web site. Mezzoblue reader Thomas Baekdal mentions a recent interview with “Sam,” a London-based link spammer:
If you’re affected by this spam, say because you run a blog, or a website, or like the other 99.9 per cent of Net users just come across the stuff, Sam explain the important thing to remember is it’s nothing personal. They’re not targeting you personally. They’re just exploiting a weakness in a system which blossomed just at the time that Google cracked down on the previous method that spammers used, where huge “link farms” of their own web sites pointed circularly to each other to boost each others’ ranking…
So the link spammers — who prefer to call themselves “search engine optimisers”, but get upset when search engines do optimise themselves — turned to other free outlets which Google already regarded highly, because their content changes so often: blogs. And especially blogs’ comments, where trusting bloggers expected people to put nice agreeable remarks about what they’d written, rather than links to PPC sites.
Perhaps comments are a “weakness in the system” since they present such a promising opportunity for spammers, and since they are not technically necessary in order for people to communicate. Of course using e-mail to communicate is a fraught endeavour, and leaving a comment on someone’s blog is more assuredly public than e-mailing them and hoping for some commentary. But an ideal of the web is that everyone should be able to publish their own content. The academic publishing model in which authors reference those with whom they are in dialogue seems appropriate here. In line with this I agree with John Gruber that direct linking between sites, and tracking those referrers, is a more robust means of creating connections (more robust than the Trackback protocol, for example) and with Andy Rutledge that comments more often provide a soapbox than a forum for considered thought. As Rutledge argues, this criticism is especially pertinent for sites that do not have a community mission, and which exist primarily as a means of publishing personal information, commentary and analysis.
Even though the medium of weblogs allows us to add to published articles directly with comments, this may not ultimately be a desirable thing. Or even if it is desirable, it may not be viable because of the profitability of spamming such sites. Ultimately the solution may lie in a better communicative design (a different blogging tool for example) that focuses on making it easier for anyone to publish thoughts on the ideas of others through simple referrals rather than through a form-based commenting system. This would close the hole in the system that allows link spammers to profit. I’m sure that other holes would spring up, but that’s not a good reason not to adapt.