Splogs: Plagiarism En Masse

The term splog, or spam blog, is defined as a blog that’s designed solely to either promote another site, gain ad impressions or used to increase page rank. Generally speaking, these sites contain a great deal of content that is either pure nonsense or stolen from other sites.

Though the term has only been widely used since August of this year, according to the Wikipedia, they have quickly risen to the forefront of copyright-conscious bloggers’ minds and are seen as the greatest threat to intellectual property in the blogosphere.

Despite this recent attention though, fighting splogs has proven to be a difficult challenge.

An Economy of Scale

Most splogs rely heavily upon Google Adsense for their revenue. However, the average revenue from Adsense is less than $20 a month and is much lower for smaller sites. Combine this with a $100 minimum balance in order to receive a payment and running ads on your site, especially a new one, can seem to be a long wait for a few pennies.

Sploggers, for the lack of a better word, defeat this problem with quantity, not quality. They set up hundreds or thousands of sites and, even though each site only gets a few visitors/clicks, they can quickly rack up a great deal of revenue.

In that regard, sploggers share a great deal in common with spammers. Sending one email to one person might be legit, but isn’t likely to produce any money. Sending that same email to hundreds of thousands, however, can be very profitable. Both traditional spamming and splogging require mass quantities to become profitable.

However, unlike spamming where you can send the same email thousands of times, maintaining thousands sites requires a great deal of fresh content, more than any human could ever write in a single day. To create all of this content, one must somehow automate the process, the easiest and most common of ways is to simply steal it using scraper software.

This makes it possible for individuals to easily create very profitable empires built upon plagiarism and content theft.

The Challenge

The problem with these empires is that they have a natural defense to the traditional means of handling copyright infringement. In the relatively unlikely event that a Webmaster spots the infringement of his material and then files either a cease and desist or a DMCA notice to get the individual splog taken down, the splogger has hundreds or thousands of other splogs out there stealing from other Webmasters. The loss of just one splog means less than a tenth of one percent drop in revenue.

What this means is that the splogger doesn’t even feel the effects of a single Webmaster taking action. Since so few Webmasters even check for infringement of their works, splogging remains a very profitable. This means that the practice of splogging not only continues unabated but grows rapidly and those few Webmasters who do file reports find themselves being victimized again and again as other sploggers continue to pick up their feed.

The practice never changes.

A Proposed Solution

To stop splogging, we have to realize that it is a community problem. Though, as writers, we tend to take it personally when our work is stolen, we have to realize that there’s nothing personal about this and that simply seeking the removal of our work is not the solution.

Rather than jumping at the quickest solution to save our own material, we need to take a moment and look at the larger picture. Taking down an individual splog might protect our work in the short run, cutting out the revenue stream discourages the entire practice altogether.

Since most sploggers use Google Adsense to fund their ventures, reporting such violations is a trivial matter. Simply click on the “Ads by Google” link and then the “Send Google your thoughts on the ads you just saw” link on that page. From there, you can select “report a violation” in the subject dropdown box and report the site to Google.

From there, you can simply file your complaint and then wait a few days before sending in a DMCA notice or cease and desist letter in order. You want to make sure that the people in the Adsense department have enough time to process the claim and take action. If they follow up on the claim a day or two later and find nothing but a blank site, they’re unlikely to do anything significant.

Though one claim may or may not result in action, odds are that the account in question hosts ads on multiple splogs. Thus, if other Webmasters complain, the account is likely to be cut, all revenues forfeited and many, if not all, of the splogger’s sites become worthless.

Much like suing spammers to put them out of business, this is a technique that removes the financial incentive to engage in the practice and prevents unscrupulous people from becoming rich off of the backs of others.

Pressure on Google

According to most Webmasters, the majority of splogs are hosted on Google’s Blogger service. Furthermore, most splogs use Google’s Adsense service to make their money and those who don’t use Google’s PageRank feature to drive more traffic to their real sites. In every case, Google is the weak link in the chain, enabling sploggers to engage in the act and to profit from it.

Though no one can reasonably expect Google to be the copyright police of the Web and much of this is simply due to Google’s standing at the top of the search engine kingdom, there are steps that Google can take to help slow down the increased popularity of splogging.

  1. Delaying initial Adsense payments: Almost anyone with a legitimate site can create an Adsense account and start making money. They are then free to take that code and paste it onto other sites and, though putting it on sites that violate their TOS is not allowed, to my knowledge, only the first site is actively scrutinized. Thus, it might be wise to place all new Adsense accounts on a probation period where they can earn money, but not receive a check. Since it often times takes Webmasters a few months to discover and report plagiairism (especially since the Google database can take several weeks to index new sites) this would give Webmasters a chance to report any illegal activity before funds were sent out.
  2. Harden Blogger Against False Accounts: With some sites estimating between 2000 and 3000 splogs created on Blogger every day and several anti-splog sites reporting thousands upon thousands of active splogs on the service, it’s clear that Blogger is the target of this and something has to be done. Though the account sign up process at Blogger isn’t necessarily more vulnerable than any other service, they need to look at why and how sploggers abuse the system and take steps to prevent it.
  3. Better Account Auditing: Sploggers rely on the fact that, once they have an Adsense account, no one will investigate their subsequent sites unless a complaint is filed. Since Google is such a master at writing algorithms to spot certain patterns of information, they could probably spot most splogging Adsense accounts with ease and freeze them pending investigation. I’m certain that this type of revenue creates a very distinct pattern that Google could, with some effort, pick out.
  4. Go To Court: Microsoft has made serious inroads against traditional spammers by going to court against those who have abused their systems. Google could, theoretically, do the same against sploggers since such blogs are against their TOS. They are in a great position to take those thieves to court and wreck the financial viability of the entire “industry”.

Though this seems to place an undue burden on Google, one must remember that they are sharing in the profits of sploggers. Every dollar that a splogger gets from his sites is merely a cut of what Google is raking in.

In the end, that might be one of the reasons why Google has been so slow in addressing this serious issue. It’s very hard to take a stand against something that is making you a great deal of money, especially when you have investors that you have to impress.

I would hate to think of this as a potential showdown between content creators and Google, but in the long run, that might be exactly what has to happen.

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[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Splogs, Splogging, RSS, Copyright Infringement[/tags]
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