The Comments Conundrum

comments.jpg
Spammer at work.

One of the cool things about blogs—in comparison to regular Web sites—is the opportunity users are given to comment on the material. Instead of merely reading the marvelous things you have to say, readers can react to your ideas by sharing their own opinions and insights. When you see a trail of insightful comments on your blog, you know you've done something right—something that provokes discussion on the topic at hand.

Alas, your thoughtful readers aren't the only ones commenting on your blog. The spammers—human and otherwise—are out there too, and they get trickier all the time. One of the biggest challenges I face as a blogger is that of de-spamming comments that may or may not be legitimate.

Why do people spam blogs?

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the primary reason you find spam in your blog comments. Web developers know that their search engine rankings will rise if they can get more sites to link to theirs. One of the easiest ways for them to do that is to put links to their sites in comments on blogs.

The search engines know this too, as do the software developers at Movable Type, Word Press, etc. In 2005 Google recommended adding rel="nofollow" to spam links to keep them from affecting the rankings, yet this doesn't alter spammer behavior and must be used judiciously in order to not penalize legitimate commenters. As one side comes up with a new way to deter the spammers, the other side comes up with a way to work around the technology. It's an ongoing battle.

Here at Case, SpamLookup and MT-Blacklist are installed to reduce the amount of spam that gets posted to your blog. If you go to the comments area on your blog administration page you'll be able to see the comments that were blocked so that you can either de-spam them or approve them.

These tools do a pretty good job. I find that about 90% of the time I can tell which comments should be deleted by just seeing the first line. But other comments sneak by and need a human appraisal.

Which comments are legitimate—how does one decide?

This is the tricky part. I immediately get rid of any comments that begin with just a link, start with a nonsense phrase or are obviously pushing pornography, performance enhancement drugs or exciting new investment opportunities. The others I actually have to read. I used to approve anything that seemed vaguely on topic and appeared to be written by a human. But now the robots are getting more clever, some include key words and my name in comments that otherwise offer little value. Others may be written by humans, but appear rushed and unfocused, as though written by workers in a cube farm—who surf the net looking for new places to post their links. Perhaps some of the SEO firms employ such teams.

I could just go ahead and approve any comment that seems vaguely on point. I don't get so many of them that this would pose a challenge to my readers, but eventually I might. Thirty harmless comments could obfuscate the one or two thoughtful comments posted on a given entry.

I also want to preserve the credibility of this blog. If I approve every comment, with every link to anyone's Web site, then I serve to weaken my own authority. Links included in vague comments shouldn't be given the same "stamp of approval" as links in specific comments or links that I include in my entry.

So what should I do? I have a new batch of comments waiting to be approved or de-spammed and some of them fall into something of a gray area. I have to come up with a new way to determine who stays or goes, and if they stay, whether they get to keep their link. To start with I'm going to test the following checklist.

Comment Approval Checklist Beta
  • Does the comment appear to be written by a human?
  • Do I know this human? Does he/she have a connection to Case? Is he/she a known respected authority in his/her field?
  • Does the human appear to have read the entry?
  • Does the comment add value to, or show clear understanding about, the entry?
  • Did the commenter post only on relevant entries or did he/she post all over the blog?
  • Are spelling errors/typos harmless accidents or indicative of spam?
  • Does the included Web link add value, reduce value or have neutral affect on the entry? (Given that I write about Web development, my readers may develop Web sites on any number of topics. I'm perfectly happy to keep someone's link to their ice fishing* blog if their comment is on target.)
  • Does the included link go to a site that provides real value or service? (I don't have time to read through all of the sites that people include in their comments, but I would like to weed out any that are clearly designed for nefarious commercial purposes or spamdexing.)

If a comment passes all checks I'll approve it. If it fails most checks I'll delete it, and if it falls somewhere in the middle I might just remove the link or add rel="nofollow". I'll test this out for the next few weeks and see how it goes.

What about you? How are you handling spam on your blogs? If you've come up with any best practices for how to handle this issue, we'd love to hear about them.

Spam Resources

* I wonder how many ice fishing comments this will provoke.

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35 Comments
  1. I WOULD LIKE MYSELF TO BE WELL-VERSED WITH THE USE OF BLOGGER AND SOMETIME HAVE MY OWN WEB SITE. HOW CAN WE BE A MEMBER? BECAUSE I THINK YOUR SERVICE IS VERY APPROPRIATE

    Comment by corazon bongalos — May 8, 2007 @10:28 pm

  2. Corazon, The Case blogs are available to Case students, staff, faculty and alumni, but there are many blog hosts, such as Blogger, available to the public. You could start with this list of hosts from Wikipedia.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 9, 2007 @9:54 am

  3. Heidi, I go to the comments page on my administrator site a couple of times a day and delete all those that look like spam. I pretty much follow what you do, except not so systematically. I find that very few spam actually gets posted on my site. Mano

    Comment by Mano Singham — May 9, 2007 @10:42 am

  4. I think the best way to manage spam is the use of some sort of authentication system. Something like, 'Enter the letters that appear in the image.' Blogger and WordPress seem to have incorporated this type of authentication system better than MT. For my personal blog I had lots of trackback and comment spam problems. I eventually configured MT to not allow comments or trackbacks and used a 3rd party comment site (HaloScan) that had a good spam filter. I configured my comment link to direct to that site and added a bit of code so readers would get a pop-up window if they selected 'read comments.' All said, I think out of the three major blog platforms (not including myspace - a different animal) MT is the weakest with regards to spam control and management.

    Comment by dave — May 9, 2007 @12:37 pm

  5. I find that MT catches most of the spam, for me the big issue is going through the "pending" comments and deciding whether or not to approve the more ambiguous ones. These require more thought. It may be that the very topic of this blog opens me up to these. Anyone with a Web site might have something to say about Web development. If I were blogging about a more narrow topic, such as the wonderful world of capers, the comments might be easier to evaluate. The blogs that use the "enter the letters in the image" or answer this simple question seem to work well, but I wonder about accessibility issues. Do the image ones offer an alternative authentication path for those with visual impairments?

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 9, 2007 @2:17 pm

  6. "Do the image ones offer an alternative authentication path for those with visual impairments?" Yes. Many of them allow you to listen to the code. For example, try to leave a comment on Flea's blog: http://drfleablog.blogspot.com/ and you will see a handicapped icon. Click that icon and you will hear a sequence of numbers read to you against background noise. As far as considering whether a comment is 'on topic' or not, I think that if your readers are sophisticated and faithful, they will simply ignore any off-topic comment. This works ok when there is only 1 or 2 off-topic comments to any particular post.

    Comment by dave — May 10, 2007 @10:14 am

  7. I see you talking about spam, there are some little tricks you can do, people search for blogs and search for information like “post a comment” ”comment posting closed” ”you must be logged in” ”comment closed” If you blog doesn’t contain any of these keywords then you will not get searched and found from them, in my blogs I go through and find all the keywords people search for, now these keywords you normly find them in the buttons within the comment sections. If you are good at coding play with it and change it to something else, or you can also add an anti spammer divice. I hope this helps, thank you.

    Comment by Webmaster Karl — May 12, 2007 @5:45 pm

  8. Depending on your blogging software (Especially with the open source blogging platforms such as wordpress) you can get some really helpful plugins that really help reduce the manual checks on spam, sure some might still get through into your queue and have to be manually edited, but save yourself some time: Examples: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/spambam/ http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/bad-behavior/ Both the spam bam, and the bad behavior modules really help reduce wordpress spam We have a little or unique issue over at our Realtor community http://www.realestatewebmasters.com/blogs/ Non members comments always go into a moderation queue, however the members themselves occasionally try to sneak in completely unrelated links to the posts or comments and members are not moderated, so we end up with an education / discipline issue - we could moderate all members as well, but we really want to encourage comments. It's all about education.

    Comment by Morgan Carey — May 19, 2007 @12:08 am

  9. If I have to approve every single comment, that would not be very practical, because I don't have that much time. So I rather take one day a week and go through posted comments and delete what I find as irrelevant to the subject. And of course there is always captcha tool which manages do deter many bots

    Comment by Xigre — May 19, 2007 @5:52 am

  10. There are also numerous Akismet-based plugins that cut the amount of spam by 90%. I highly recommend you look into that if you suffer from spam. The plugins are free.

    Comment by Hunox — June 4, 2007 @9:47 am

  11. Just to give the brighter side of things. If read some of the comments this spammers leave, it's really entertaining. I mean, what could be better to end your hard day of work than to skim through the comments on your blog. It never really occurred to me that that certain body part of mine can be used with such grotesque words XD . I don't know where people come up with these kind of things. Too much talent is being wasted.

    Comment by Costa Rica Real Estate Loco — June 7, 2007 @9:19 pm

  12. I agree with Morgan, those plug-ins have helped my blogs a ton.

    Comment by Jeremy — June 7, 2007 @11:46 pm

  13. This is the exact reason why I decided to use WordPress when I started blogging. Thanks to "Askimet" (plugin that comes along with the WordPress installation), I filter 99% of spam comments.

    Comment by SEO Blog — June 22, 2007 @10:37 am

  14. I was half expecting you to mention the fact that .edu domain blogs could be a spam target more than most, because of the SEO weight often attached to them. :) Askimet deals with spam better than anything I have experienced as far as blogs go. I don't even bother to look into any alternatives with it installed. I even use it on a forum of mine, for users with under a certain post count, it's that good.

    Comment by Simon — June 24, 2007 @11:47 pm

  15. Yes, blogs are having an advantage of comments for the visitors. You can post your view on different topics. This is the reason why blogging is getting popular day by day. But you can't blame SEO directly for spamming a bog. There is some other reason too for which people used to spam a blog. This is true that through blogs website owners are getting a good amount of link which is equally necessary for having a higher rank in search engine. But in the other hand blaming the SEO world is not right at all. Yup, some web developers are applying such spam methods to get a good search engine rank. To prevent such activity search engine also applying different methods to sandbox those websites.

    Comment by Daniel — July 4, 2007 @5:55 am

  16. I have no problem with people linking back to themselves from my blog as long as they have something useful to add to it. If it appears like an automated message it gets deleted, simple as that. But if someone is contributing without using any adult material i have no problem with this

    Comment by internet marketing blog — July 20, 2007 @6:42 pm

  17. If you're a blogger (or a blog reader), you're painfully familiar with people who try to raise their own websites' search engine rankings by submitting linked blog comments like "Visit my discount pharmaceuticals site." This is called comment spam, we don't like it either, and we've been testing a new tag that blocks it. From now on, when Google sees the attribute (rel="nofollow") on hyperlinks, those links won't get any credit when we rank websites in our search results. This isn't a negative vote for the site where the comment was posted; it's just a way to make sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.

    Comment by Anonymous — July 30, 2007 @2:06 am

  18. Wow this post generated alot of comments! I like the comment approval checklist but I'm not sure I meet all the criteria myself. :) The last spammer to post on my blog did a trackback to one of my postings so I visited the link and found that their post was my exact post regurgitated. What value is that? I deleted their comment/trackback. Just another spammer I guess...Regards, Jared

    Comment by Jared Blake — August 3, 2007 @2:41 am

  19. The problem here though is that the ability to add a linkback to a website or blog from a legitimate comment is consider ok and not outside the boundries of unethical. It is a key feature to attract visitors within your niche or field that will contribute to your growing community. The better option is a link spamming prevention tool which will not override legitimate comments. SEO spin doctor will fastrack your site to GTD!

    Comment by azzam — August 3, 2007 @5:34 pm

  20. I would add one more point to your "Comment Approval Checklist Beta"; It could be written: "Does the same comment appear anywhere else on the web?". Because people/robots spam where possible. Even if they can't get link from there, they try to spam. I always do "duplicate content" test if I don't know how to decide. In addition, this thing can be automated because it's easy to take few words as a phrase within quotes and send query to Google. If it finds anything, then it's probably spam. However, this requires some programming skills.

    Comment by Jan from thrusites design — August 4, 2007 @4:51 pm

  21. Jared, I've seen sites like that, that include my entire post or more often a portion thereof. As long as it's properly attributed and the links to the original are there I usually don't mind. At least it is spreading the word. The sites of seen this happen on seem mostly to be they type that aggregate posts on some topic from a variety of different blogs. Of course if your scenario was different and they were trying to make it look as though your content were their own, then that is another story. Jan, great point about the "duplicate content" issue. We saw that happening on an associate's blog. Variations of the same comment appeared on multiple posts. When I googled key phrases I found similar comments on other blogs as well. This particular spammer was disagreeing with my colleague and the other bloggers, so actually in googling his comment I stumbled upon some pretty cool sites. (Given that I was in agreement with my colleague and not with the spammer)

    Comment by Heidi Cool — August 5, 2007 @8:40 pm

  22. It is difficult to define spam, obviously people comment on websites for their own gain, but as long as people have something useful to say i am haapy to let them contribute

    Comment by internet marketing company — August 19, 2007 @2:57 pm

  23. It's been a long day I'm trying to post some comments on different sites. But unfortunately failing. Though I post comment but its not going to be public. I got a site which deal with fishing boat and luxurious traveling boat. In the comment section they are offering URl to be added. But yet they are not showing my comments. I think commenting is turning out to be a time wastage work for me. Can anyone have some idea why this is happening?

    Comment by Daniel — August 28, 2007 @10:48 pm

  24. Daniel, The trick is to match your comment to the topic of the entry and to find blogs on topics related to your product. I approved your comment because it related to the topic we were discussing. But I don't know that it will get you much traffic. I have had a few Australian readers, but probably not a lot, and of those few, I don't know how many need boats. Just make sure that wherever you post you contribute to the discussion in a way that benefits other readers and then you'll start making some headway.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — August 28, 2007 @11:05 pm

  25. No spam protection system is perfect. Even individual review of each and every entry will not guarantee 100% success. What it really comes down to is whether the blog comment in question has value to the blog readership. If it does, the value of the comment, in effect, outweighs the fact that the comment may have been placed there primarily for commercial purposes. The concept of "placement" for commercial purposes is not new in the business world. Companies often exploit legitimate avenues in their own best interest. For example, businesses donate to colleges, universities and non-profit organizations all of the time in the anticipation of the publicity they will get from it. In many cases, these colleges, universities and non-profit organizations wouldn't have access to the funds otherwise. Giving money, or in this case valuable blog comments, seems like a reasonable exchange to me as long as it serves the needs of everyone involved.

    Comment by Search Engine Optimization Expert — August 29, 2007 @12:08 pm

  26. Blogging is a good experience of what is called internet interaction. With every positive thing there is definitely a negative constituent. On one hand, blogging brings all web visitors on a single platform and on the other hand, it initiates spamming.

    Comment by seopeek — September 1, 2007 @12:57 am

  27. Just to give the brighter side of things. If read some of the comments this spammers leave, it's really entertaining. I mean, what could be better to end your hard day of work than to skim through the comments on your blog. It never really occurred to me that that certain body part of mine can be used with such grotesque words XD . I don't know where people come up with these kind of things. Too much talent is being wasted.

    Comment by image fight — September 2, 2007 @9:19 am

  28. spamming is really a matter of concern but the blogs are a great help for people who wish to interact and share views.

    Comment by SEOpeek — September 3, 2007 @11:27 pm

  29. Relevancy is the prime matter of concern while posting comment. spamming are to be taken care of. However, various techniques are in prevail while filtering the comments for their legitimacy.

    Comment by Jenifer — September 7, 2007 @12:49 am

  30. We use SpamKarma with WordPress. It seems that for every 50 spam comments we get 1 good comment. SpamKarma works wonders!

    Comment by Denver Web Design — September 14, 2007 @11:26 am

  31. That is true, SpamKarma does work wonders. We have been using it for a while now & have found it to be very useful.

    Comment by SEO Services — September 14, 2007 @8:00 pm

  32. Yep, I too have had excellent success with SpamKarma for my site. A lot of people seem to attack real estate sites with other real estate spam links. This has been a real time saver for me.

    Comment by Myrtle Beach Condo Rentals — October 4, 2007 @4:02 pm

  33. The points you have mentioned are absolutely right. But just think if you too have a site and want to get higher rank in Google or any other search engines by getting few links through posting comments on blog, then what will be the scenario. I do respect your thought. But in my opinion if a person is posting comments on theme based site then it’s no harm from both the site owner point of view. And more of all both are getting benefits…

    Comment by webexpert — October 10, 2007 @1:02 am

  34. [...] you know from my earlier post on commenting, people (and robots) like to leave comments on other people's blogs in order to provide links back [...]

    Pingback by » Enhance your reputation & increase traffic by joining discussions on other blogs | Web Development Blog: Heidi Adams Cool — March 30, 2009 @5:02 pm

  35. Twitter Comment... RT @hacool: @MackCollier I blogged about trying to decide validity of comments (the spam line) awhile ago at [link to post] #blo ... - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by MackCollier (Mack Collier) — August 16, 2009 @10:15 pm

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