The idea of forum spam is nothing new. Spammers have been targeting forums and message boards for well over a decade and forum admins have a variety of tools, including CAPTCHAs and flood control, to prevent such abuse.
However, forum spam has typically shared the most in common with blog comment spam. A few junk links mixed with some garbled text in a bid to create a search engine pump. Although such spam has been the bane of forum admins, it has been relatively easy to control and has raised few issues for content creators.
But a new twist on forum spam changes that game. Spammers have begun to use forums much like spam blogs, using them as a tool for posting scraped content, rather than just garbage links.
This brings a whole new series of challenges to both forum admins and copyright holders as they both seek to keep the Web clean of spam content and plagiarized works.
Spammers are naturally drawn to forums for a lot of reasons. Consider the following:
- Open Registration: Anyone can set up an account at most forums and the process of doing so can be easily automated at many locations since most forums use one of a handful forum applications, many of which have weak signup protections.
- High Trust: Forums generally have a high level of trust with search engines and are very search-engine friendly in most cases. Many forums carry a high PageRank and can provide an excellent platform for spammers to build search engine ranking.
- NoFollow: Unlike blog comments, which are almost always “nofollowed”, the linking policy for each forum is different. Many, however, do not nofollow links contained in the post itself.
- Overworked Admins: If spam is able to get through the automated protections, it may be quite some time before an admin or a moderator is able to remove it. Active forums have many times more posts than most blogs have comments and most forum admins do not receive email alerts for every new post.
- Low-Hanging Fruit: In addition to active and trusted forums, there are countless inactive ones that still have a Web presence. The forum admins may never remove spam on those, making them ripe targets for spammers, despite the lack of trust and updates.
However, these reasons for targeting forums are well-known and have been around for some time. Forum admins took an interest in stopping spam well before most bloggers did and have tools in place to try and block it.
But while many of those protections have been cracked, most well-maintained forums are relatively free from spam, the same as most well-maintained blogs.
But a new wave of spam may be changing that and very soon.
Forum Spam Redux
As is typical with the games of cat and mouse, spammers have escalated their attacks on forums and are working harder to blend in with legitimate users.
One of the techniques they are using is the scraping, or mere hand-copying, of articles and posting them to related forums. However, the use of the work is, for the most part, unattributed and often times the links contained within the article are altered to point to the spam sites.
Other times, spammers simply create profiles, post seemingly legitimate but otherwise junk content, usually by copying other sources, and bury the spam links in their user information.
Both of these techniques closely mirror the activities of legitimate users and, since many forums take a lenient attitude toward copyright infringement by itself, forum admins are often slow to take action against such spammers as they rarely spot them.
It is not uncommon to see cases where a spammer has posted a scraped article, loaded it with junk links, and has received replies from regular members, further validating the post.
Content creators, however, suffer from this. While they might not be opposed to the copying and reposting of their work on the forum, the unattributed use practically guarantees that, in many cases, the forum will rank higher in the search engines and their own site will suffer.
The forum itself will also suffer, potentially having to face copyright complaints from angry Webmasters and dealing with potential Google spam blocks that could make it harder for them to be ranked in the long term.
It is in the best interest of forum admins and content creators alike that these spammers be thwarted.
What Forum Admins Can Do
Forum admins already have their hands full and this new spam attack is not going to make things any easier. However, there are some things that they can do to help not only themselves, but their community and content creators.
- Be Available: A good general rule for forum admins is to be available for anyone who visits your forum to make complaints, point out spam or otherwise raise issues. This means having an email address on the public-facing portion of your site so non-members can contact you as easily as your users.
- Don’t Tolerate Copyright Infringement: Don’t wait for others to file copyright infringement complaints. If a users republishes an article or is clearly copying and posting whole works in posts, truncate the post and link to the source. Make this part of your policy. Forums rely on original content and good discussions, wholesale copying is not necessary for that.
- Investigate Questionable Users: If a user does infringe, especially if they do so more than once, take a closer look at them including their profile links. Make sure they are not trying to spam the forum discreetly.
- Nofollow Links: If your software has the ability to nofollow links in posts, it is likely a good idea to do so, especially with new users or users that have not earned a great deal of trust.
- Update Spam Protection: Keep on top of your regular spam protection tools and keep your countermeasures up to date. Like most of these items, it is a good idea in general but is especially important as spammers continue to crack CAPTCHAs and other torture tests.
In short, these are good steps that all forum admins should take, regardless of whether they are currently spam targets or not. Though the problem seems to be currently isolated to technology forums (video games, computers, cell phones, etc.), some gambling forums and adult communities, it is only a matter of time before it spreads.
That is, if it hasn’t already.
In the end, this is just another escalation in the war between administrators and spammers, but this escalation has some potentially drastic consequences for bloggers, journalists and other content creators.
It is important that this trend be watched closely to see if it continues or if it fizzles out and goes nowhere.
However, given the nature of spammers to constantly try different techniques, it seems unlikely that they will retreat from a method if it has been shown to have any success.
Rather, they will just add on other techniques and further expand their operations.