A Brief History of Article Spinning

You spin me right round, baby...

Writing Pad ImageArticle spinning is one of the most talked about and least-understood technologies when it comes to online plagiarism.

For some it’s a mythical technology that makes it possible to create unlimited original content. For others, it’s a way to easily defeat plagiarism-detection technology. For others still, it’s an antiquated technology that that managed to hang around despite being completely worthless.

To a degree, all of these statements are true but none of them tell the full story. To really understand article spinning, we need to explore what it is and, most importantly, the history of the technology.

Only by understanding where it’s been can we understand where it’s going and why it’s still relevant over 14 years after it first became an internet phenomenon.

What is Article (or Content) Spinning

Scrabble TilesArticle spinning can be tough to define, so much so that even Wikipedia struggles to come up with a clear definition. However, the core idea of article spinning can be described like this:

Article spinning is a technique to generate seemingly original content from old content by replacing words or phrases with synonyms.

For example, if I were to write the sentence “The cat walked into the house” an article spinner might reinterpret that as “The feline strolled into the home” or “The kitty wandered into the shelter.”

This is done through “spintax“, which is a syntax that tells the article spinner what words to swap out. For example, in spintax the sentence above might be written as “The {cat|feline|kitty} {walked|strolled|wandered} into the {house|home|shelter}.”

The power of this is that, across a 500 to a 1,000 word article, a computer can automatically create thousands or even millions of permutations, each at least slightly different from the others. While most of these permutations might not fool human readers, they might fool computer algorithms, such as those used by search engines or plagiarism detection services.

In short, article spinning is usually about creating a large quantity of content in a bid to fool other algorithms. As you might imagine, this technology did not get its start in ethical uses and, instead, it’s origins are founded almost exclusively in the real of spam and unethical search engine optimization tactics.

ArticleBot and the Early Years of Spinning

ArticleBot LogoIt’s difficult, if not impossible to know when the first article spinning software got its start or what it was. However, the first one to gain mainstream attention was Articlebot, which started in 2004 and began to come into the spotlight in mid-to-late 2005.

Created by Don Harrold, ArticleBot (in 2005) was a surprisingly basic tool. Users would copy and paste content into it and ArticleBot, using the method described above, would generate thousands of articles based upon it. It didn’t incorporate an RSS scraper (though it was rumored) nor did it interact with article directories. It was up to the user to write or obtain the content as the only scraper pulled from search results.

This didn’t mean ArticleBot was an ethical tool. Though Harrold said he created it as a way to combat search engines from stifling free speech, the tool was primarily used as a black hat SEO tool, a way to generate a large volume of seemingly original content.

This was especially important at the time because one of the key concerns with search engine optimization was duplicate content. Though Google repeatedly claimed it didn’t penalize duplicate content (a claim it still makes today) it was also widely known that pages with similar content would not rank highly side-by-side in search results. Spammers were shifting away from simply repeating the same content over and over and using ArticleBot (and similar tools) to save time.

However, it wasn’t long before competing products began to flood the market and ArticleBot felt the effects. The most prominent of those competitors was Webspinner. Developed by Landon Ray, the tool became so popular in the space that, in 2006, Articlebot used quotes from Ray and others who worked on Webspinner to promote themselves.

But the effects of the competition were profoundly felt on ArticleBot. In mid-2005, ArticleBot cost $50 per month for a basic package and $100 per month for the full package.   By late 2006 it had fallen to $60 for the full package and by late 2007 it was down to just $40 per month.

By mid-2010, when ArticleBot finally shut down for the final time, it was only $30 for a one-time payment.

But even setting aside the decline in price, ArticleBot’s six-year run was far from smooth. A patent application for the technology was filed on May 25, 2006 but was abandoned, causing the case to be closed on March 25, 2009. ArticleBot was also plagued with customer service and outage issues, resulting it in it being taken off the market and reintroduced multiple times.

Fortunately for spinners though, ArticleBot was far from the only choice and other applications would help lead them into the golden age of spinning.

The Golden Age of Article Spinning

Action Comics 1 CoverWhile it’s usually tough to nail down the “golden age” of anything, it’s actually fairly easy to pin down the best years of article spinning. Mid-2005 through the end of 2010 were, without a doubt, the peak years for the practice.

During those years, article spinners were playing a game of numbers. They were spamming out thousands, if not millions of pages of content in hopes that a few would gain traction with the search engines. It was victory through sheer numbers and it seemed there was little Google or other search engines could do.

This was driven forward by a variety of article spinning tools. Many of those tools were not shy like ArticleBot about helping their users acquire content. They openly included RSS scrapers to grab content from blogs and then spin them into “new” articles. Many bloggers reported seeing oddly-rewritten versions of their content, almost certainly created by such applications.

However, the favorite source of content was article marketing websites. These sites had thousands of articles on a wide variety of subjects. Though spinning and plagiarizing them was often against their terms of service, the authors were still much less likely to object.

The spam technique even began to spill outside of spam blogs. Twitter bots began to widely use spinning and social media in general became a haven for spun content. The technique was even used by email spammers who sought ways to avoid having their emails flagged and filtered.

While it’s unclear just how successful these techniques really were, any success they were having was going to be short lived as something of an apocalypse was on the horizon and it changed the internet in ways that we are still only beginning to understand.

The Panda/Farmer Explosion

Google ImageOn February 23, 2011, Google made one of its most significant algorithm changes in all of its history. Impacting a full 12% of all search results, the Panda/Farmer update was a nuke dropped on article spinning.

The update wasn’t aimed at spinning sites. It was aimed at a phenomenon known as “content farms” where sites would pay human to write short, low-quality articles by the dozen. Demand Media, perhaps the best known of such content farms, was effectively destroyed by this update.

Still, when one looks as the components of a content farm (low quality content, lots of ads and very low engagement) it’s easy to see just why spam sites engaged in content spinning were also impacted. This is especially true when combined with an “attribution” update less than a month before that targeted content scrapers.

Panda would be updated six more times before 2011 was over (and many more times since). Google would also introduce a Penguin update on April 24, 2012 that directly targeted spam sites. Though it was much smaller, only impacting 3.1% of search results, it was an additional nail in the coffin of content spinning as an SEO tactic.

In January 2011, SEO sites were happily touting the benefits of article spinning. By December, they were explaining why it was a bad idea.

As quickly as article spinning had risen, it had fallen out of favor. But that didn’t mean that the technique went away, it was just waiting for a new audience… and a new purpose.

A New Purpose

Turnitin LogoThanks to Panda and its updates, article spinning as an SEO tactic was effectively dead. Though there are some who continue to use it, they heyday of article spinning ended when Google put its foot down.

Still, if you search for article spinners on Google right now you’ll find plenty. However, rather than being services that charge $50 or $100 per month, they’re free tools you can use right now.

This free and open access has created a new target market for content spinning: Students

The rise of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin have caused many students to try and find ways to fool them. Some of them have turned to article spinning as a way to quickly “rewrite” a piece and escape detection.

Purveyors of article spinning technology have been all-too-happy to meed that demand. Often referring to the technology as “Automatic Paraphrasing” they offer up spinning tools to students for just this purpose.

Unfortunately, the results of such tools are usually very lacking. In one Reddit thread, for example, a teacher mocked a student who turned in a paper on George Orwell’s 1984 that spun the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” into “Enormous Sibling is viewing you.”

This new use is especially interesting given the history and previous use for article spinning. Students, desperate to avoid detection for plagiarism, are using a tool that was designed to produce a large amount of garbage content in hopes that it would fool automated algorithms. Teachers, most likely, will not be fooled even if the technology is.

And that is where things will likely stay for a bit, a questionable technology producing garbage results for students who don’t wish to write their own essays. It’s a fitting end for a technology that, even at its best, had no legitimate use.

Looking to the Future

Article spinning, as a technology, is functionally dead and has been some time. Though it may be having a resurgence among students, it’s a tool that no longer fools Google with any reliability and was never meant to fool humans. Its usefulness as an SEO tool is done and it was never really useful for students.

Sure, some will still try to use it but their success will be, at best, limited.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end for automated authorship, especially as artificial intelligence steps up and begins writing more and more compelling works.

We’re already seeing the beginnings of this at the upper tiers. The Washington Post, for example, has an AI reporter that published some 850 articles last year.

AI authorship is only going to get better, easier and cheaper, soon making it practical for spammers and students alike.

Spinning may be effectively dead, but it will likely be replaced quickly by something that many will see as much scarier while others will see as much more promising.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, article spinning was (and is) a very basic technology. Taking an article and using a thesaurus to replace words is neither especially difficult nor clever. It’s an idea that’s both easy to implement and is remarkably effective, at least in terms of numbers.

But, in the never-ending tech war between spammer and search engine, it was a hopeless dead end.

Once Google found a way to target low-quality content, regardless of origin, there wasn’t much that the spinners could do. Though the tech may have seen a resurgence lately with students, that too is a dead end as teachers are quickly catching on to the approach.

However, that doesn’t mean that the war is over. Artificial intelligence promises to bring much higher-quality automated writing to the web and that will raise a series of new questions about what we actually want from our content.

In many cases, we may decide automated content is just fine, such as with the Washington Post’s AI reporter. But where it isn’t, including the classroom, we’ll have to find new ways to combat this threat.

Spinning may be a dead end but there are no laurels to rest on. Instead, there’s just another, much larger war on the horizon and fresh battles over originality to be had.

(Disclosure: I am a paid blogger and consultant for Turnitin)

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