Losing the War on Splogging?

According to Technorati, a full eight percent of all new blogs are spam, an estimated 5600 splogs a day. Google, whose Blogger service comprises over 80% of all splogs, has effectively stopped deleting splogs reported to them and the techniques sploggers use to make their money have advanced the point that traditional techniques, including reporting them to Adsense, fail to work effectively.

Though the blogging community is mobilized and coordinated in dealing with the problem, we’re still losing the war. A handful of very clever, but very ill moraled individuals have taken the blogging world hostage, bringing with them, loaded search results, massive amounts of plagiarism and a slew of other ills.

Though the strategy for victory isn’t clear, it’s obvious which way the battle is headed and the results are not good.

The Fear

The fear is that splogs will become to blogs what spam has become to email. Everyone has read the statistics that say approximately half of all email is junk of one variety of another. Between scams, advertisements, viruses and chain letters, using email without some sort of spam filtering is nearly impossible.

Right now, the percentage of actual splogs on the Web is small. There are far more blogs on the Web that are simply unmaintained and not used than there are true bona fide splogs. Most blog searches, including Technorati, are still pretty much usable (save on popular splogger keywords) and the average user will, likely, only encounter a splog irregularly.

Still, the damage that splogs do is very severe. Many splogs, in order to obtain their content, simply scrape other site’s RSS feeds, making them the most prolific plagiarists on the Web, they load down search engines with useless results, they take bandwidth from well-meaning service providers and they hurt the credibility of bloggers in general.

Worse still, as of right now, there are no ways for the end user to filter splogs. Where a consumer can download antispam software or turn on the filters of their favorite client, splogs are an attack on search engines and can’t be filtered by users. If splogs ever do rack up the kind of numbers seen by traditional spam, users will be at the mercy of search engines and hosts and the blogosphere as we know it could become a barren waste land of synonymized content, search engine scraping and other garbage of little or no value.

Blogging, as we know it, could cease to exist.

Time for a Counter-Attack

Bloggers have long since been mobilized to stop this and, though their efforts have shut down tens of thousands of splogs, the problem has continued to grow out of control. Like brave firefighters battling a large forest fire, they’ve been overwhelmed, too many flames, not enough water.

Though their efforts are noble, the problem has to be tackled at the source. Search engines, advertisers and hosts have to tackle the issue head on. Unfortunately, in this case, that is the exact same company in all three cases, Google. Though many sploggers target the Yahoo search engine because it seems to favor the Blogspot domain, Google remains the search engine holy grail due to its status as number one.

Google, however, has been a mixed ally in this matter. Though they took token steps to prevent splogs from being created on their service, those steps have proved inadequate and no further plans have been made. Though their “Flag as Objectionable” button was designed partially in response to the splog epidemic, it requires that a large group of end users click it before action can be taken. Since end users are unlikely to ever find a splog directly and even less likely to click the flag, such mob justice does little to stop the problem. Most people who do stumble across a splog, right now anyway, simply hit their back button and try again.

As I said before, Google has a conflict of interest when it comes to splogging that makes them a questionable ally. They make revenue from the ads that sploggers post and, though it is their bandwidth being wasted, they can probably more than recoup their losses. They’re own database has been relatively clean from splog accounts while sploggers have intentionally targeted Yahoo and other search engines, something else that plays well into Google’s hands.

In the end, even though Google’s motto says that you don’t have to be evil, we clearly can not trust them to be the gatekeepers or fight this battle for us.

Attacking the Flames

So how do we attack something at the source when the source is a reluctant ally at best? You follow the lead of the aforementioned firefighters and you build a fire line. Sometimes, if the blaze is out of control, the best thing you can do is contain it.

When Icerocket owner Mark Cuban placed a temporary moratorium on accepting new blogspot posts, he had a good idea. Google, by not adequately policing its own service, is passing the burden of stopping splogs to the rest of the Internet. However, the farther away from the source one tries to solve the problem, the harder it gets. The only simple and effective way to deal with the matter is to contain it, preventing the problem from damaging other areas of the metaphorical forest.

Thus, if the major blog search engines simply (for the time being) stopped accepting any new blogspot accounts (and only took new posts from old ones) Google would suddenly have a motivation to attack the issue of splogging effectively and completely.

While many will say that this will adversely affect legitimate bloggers, which it no doubt will, we can’t blame search engines for protecting their databases when Google, with a few simple steps, could easily block the vast majority of splogs. It would also serve as a warning to other services to take similar steps so they too don’t fall victim to sploggers.

While sploggers could always set up junk domains and run their own services, doing so is much more complicated and expensive than just using a script to open up a series of Blogger accounts. Every obstacle that is thrown up, no matter how minor, becomes a very large deal to sploggers as they have to deal with that minor obstacle thousands of times.

On that note, it might also be time to take a look at some of the behaviors we’ve picked up in the blogging world. Pings, trackbacks, posts, all of these things are sent automatically. We’ve built the entire blogosphere around the idea that it should be automated. Now though, that automated nature is being used as an exploit for ill gotten gains. We have to remember that anything we automate can be easily imitated by machines.

Perhaps it’s time that we removed some of the automation from the blogging world. Perhaps pings, trackbacks and comments should come with some form of authorization. Even a simple Hashcash setup, a system by which a user has to take a few seconds to complete a simple task before finishing an action, could go a long way to fix the problem.

Would these steps be annoying to legitimate bloggers? Of course. But they’d literally be thousands of times more annoying to sploggers who are trying to repeat the process countless times. It would go a long, long way to stopping the plague of splogging.

Because, as annoying as they would be, it would be a million times more heartbreaking to see the blogosphere reduced to nothing but burning embers by a firestorm of splogging. As bloggers struggle to gain a foothold of credibility and respectability, splogging is one of the clearest threats to the progress that has been made.

After all, no one is going to bother with bloggers if they can’t find what they want and have to spend too much time sorting the wheat from the chaff.

However, the problem can be fixed; we just have to be willing to make sacrifices today to preserve the future. It will not be easy to do and I have no doubt many will refuse to participate. But this is potentially the future of blogging we’re talking about and, if that’s not worth a few sacrifices, then blogging isn’t worth doing.

It’s that simple.

[tags]Plagiarism, Splogs, Splogging, RSS, Content Theft, Blogging, Trackbacks, Pings, Blogspot[/tags]

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