Digital Fingerprints to Detect RSS Scraping

Though I’m a little late to this party, I want to talk about Kirk Montgomery’s recent Digital Fingerprint WordPress Plugin.

It’s a new an interesting way to detect potential scraping of your WordPress feed and to discourage content theft. By turning the splogger’s favorite weapon, the search engines, against them, it aims to make detecting of scraping as easy as possible.

It is a plugin with many benefits and uses, but also a few drawbacks. However, as a beta program, it still has a lot of room to grow and develop.

The Big Idea

The idea behind the plugin is fairly simple. You take a unique word or phrase, for my test I used a semi-random collection of letters and numbers, and embed that code into every entry of your RSS feed.

Then, whenever that unique phrase appears in a search engine, you have a potential scraper and can take actions to stop him or her.

The MaxPower plugin makes it easy to do all of these things. By adding a button to your WordPress editor to embed the fingerprint into the entry and a special page to the admin area to display the search results, it enables you to both protect and monitor your works without leaving the administration area.

However, the plugin isn’t without limitations and drawbacks. Fortunately, most of these are issues that may be able to be resolved in later updates to the plugin.

Problems

The main weakness in the plugin is likely its reliance on the search engines. Since search engines are getting better at filtering out spam and duplicate content, it’s very likely that a scraper might not appear in them. Though the plugin mitigates that some by polling as many search engines as possible (five by my count), many known sploggers will not appear.

This may be improved later by offering an invisible image which can be tracked by an internal hit counter.

Second, though the administration interface is a convenient place for many WordPress users, others, including myself, use applications like BlogDesk to write their blog entries. Using the plugin requires editing the entry by hand and then visiting the admin area later to check on the results. Many only visit their administration area to check on comments, install plugins or make theme changes. Automatic insertion of the fingerprint could ease this some.

Also a concern is that any legitimate reader viewing your RSS feed will also see the fingerprint. This could cause some confusion, especially if it is placed in the middle of the entry, and an explanation as to what it is might reduce its effectiveness.

Finally, the biggest overall obstacle the plugin has to achieve is providing protection that Feedburner can not. Feedburner, by detecting where a feed is actually used, does not rely on the search engines and can provide very early warning to possible infringement. Also, its protection is invisible to the end user.

Though the MaxPower plugin is more convenient to most users, it is not necessarily better protection at this time. That may change though in future versions.

Conclusions

For a beta, the plugin is already very useful and is a must-have for any WordPress site that can not or does not use Feedburner (Sadly, plugins are not allowed on free WordPress.org accounts). Even sites that use Feedburner will likely find it a valuable second layer of protection.

Most of the kinks and problems with the plugin can easily be ironed out in future versions (it is still in beta) and it easily grow in a must-have plugin for all WordPress users worried about content theft.

Though it certainly shouldn’t be the only layer of defense, if at all possible, it can definitely be a valuable one.

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