Search Engine Spam Meets Email Spam

It has been long suspected that the spammers who scrape and repost blogs wholesale are the same ones that flood inboxes across the world with junk email.

The products advertised, methodology used and intended target are almost identical in both cases and it makes sense that a spammer typically involved in email spamming might want to diversify as email filtering improves and less junk mail gets through.

However, a recent article on The Red Tape Chronicles on MSNBC seems to lend more credibility to that theory as a new email spam wave uses the search engines, especially Google, to direct users to their site and bypass email filters.

Though, in the big picture, it is just a slight escalation in the war between spammers and anti-spammers, it signals a growing importance in Web spam and likely marks an upcoming wave of spam blogs and junk content, including scraped material.

Webmasters and Internet users alike need to be alert.

How it Works

The idea behind this kind of spam is fairly simple and requires only three steps.

  1. Get your desired spam site to #1 in any Google search result.
  2. Locate the “I’m Feeling Lucky” link for that result.
  3. Sent massive amounts of spam with that URL instead of your home page and those who click land directly on your site.

Doing this prevents spam filters from simply detecting the URL of the spam site and blacklisting junk domains, a common technique for spam applications. Since Google links are frequently included in legitimate email, blocking letters containing google.com is not feasible.

While the technique isn’t perfect, few people send Google results via email and it is reliant on the search engines allowing the exploit to continue, Google does have a high amount of trust and few will suspect a Google.com link of being spam.

This is in stark contrast to other URL redirection services, such as TinyURL, which have much less trust among users and are often blacklisted by email filtering applications.

Though it will likely be a short-lived technique, it certainly points to a growing cooperation between Web and email spamming efforts and this is something for Webmasters, especially bloggers, to be concerned about.

Effects on Content Theft

An obvious limitation of technique is that, for it to work, the site has to be indexed into Google and has to achieve a number one result. With Google already filtering search results, that could be difficult for many would-be spammers.

However, the current best way for a spammer to get their site indexed well by Google remains the use of spam blogs and comment spam. That makes it likely any spam push using this technique will be accompanied by at least some push on one or both of those fronts and will likely become an annoyance for bloggers.

The good news is that such a push is likely going to be very small. Though achieving a number one search result for a major keyword is a difficult task for just about any Webmaster, this particular spam attack can use any search term, no matter how specific or targeted. For example, if you search for “Plagiarism Today” you will find this site at number one pretty comfortably.

Since the attack can use any keyword, finding a term that is unique to your site should not require too much work, just imagination in coming up with keywords.

The bad news is that it likely signals increased frustration with the effectiveness of email spam and could cause spammers to turn even more attention to their Web spamming efforts. This could mean, over the long run, more scraping and other content theft.

It seems as if email spam is taking the back seat to its Web-based counterpart and that is due in large part to the effective efforts of spam filtering services. Though that is great news for our inboxes, it is going to lead to more comment spam, more scraping and more spam blogging in the months and years to come.

Let us hope that technology catches up on those fronts as well.

Conclusions

The good news is that, according to the original article, Google is planning on plugging this hole shortly. The details of how they plan to do it remain to be seen. However, they certainly are the ones in the best position to put an end to this particular attack.

However, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be future attacks. Spammers could, theoretically, just link to search results they control or use a site search link to display only their results.

Though the extra step might dissuade most users from visiting the spam site, if the email is able to pierce the spam filters, it might be a worthwhile trade.

The bottom line, however, is that spam is both becoming more unified in nature and more multi-dimensional. It is no longer a game of shooting out millions of emails with an offer, it instead requires a push on multiple fronts including both email and Web.

As such, expect Web-based spam, including scraping and spam blogging, to play a major role in the future of junk and that role will likely only grow larger and larger as time goes on.

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