Media World: Web publishers fight growing spam scourge

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In the comment section of a recent post I wrote about Warren Buffett was an odd message: "Even in this economy there are still great jobs out there if you know where to look," the strange message started. "I found one company that specializes in recruiting people who are looking for high-paying work-at-home jobs with major US corporations. They sure hooked me up with a great job with FedEx."

What happened to DailyFinance happens to lots of blogs and websites: comment spam. These are unwanted messages, often touting get-rich quick schemes or other dubious products and services. Experts say these junk messages are a growing problem, though they are as old as the internet.

What's new, experts say, is that spammers are increasingly targeting blogs, web sites and social networks. They have not given up on email either, as some experts estimate that 90 percent of email traffic comes from unwanted emails. Now, they are being savvy, hiring people to post messages on sites that seem related to the post but are, in fact, freeloading commercials.

"Content spam is definitely up," said Michael Sipey, vice president of corporate development at Six Apart, a developer of blogging tools such as TypePad, said in an interview with DailyFinance. "It's harder for publishers to determine if it's legitimate."

Blogs are attracting more spammers because they are attracting more readers, he said. The attraction is simple: gaining traffic. Linking to popular blogs can help spammers gain better placement on Google's search engine and therefore earn more money from ads. It appears that spammers are paying people to post comments on individual sites. Experts are not sure who is paying these ersatz commentators or, if like many email spammers, they are from overseas.

Six Apart is seeing an increase in spam attacks and spam volume, but is able to intercept a lot of it. Sipey's view is backed up by Matt Mullenweg of WordPress, who said in an email to DailyFinance, "We currently block about 14.8 million spam attempts on blogs every day, up from 10 million a day two years ago," he said.

Spam overall is surging. Web security firm Marshal8e6 has seen a 60 percent increase in spam for reasons that are not clear. Maybe it has to do with the volatile economy. Maybe spammers are getting more technically savvy.

Comment spam represents a serious challenge to publishers eager to engage readers on their web sites. Advertising dollars are getting tougher to come by as companies pare their marketing spending. TNS Media Intelligence estimates that advertising spending dropped 14.2 percent in the first quarter. Internet display advertising was a bright spot, gaining 8.2 percent.

Spam has proved to be a vexing challenge for everyone from corporate IT departments to the home PC user. Comment spam appears to have the potential to be as broad in scope. Readers of top blogs and web sites are bound to notice and may start complaining. Web sites are concerned.

Some are employing technology that negates the advantage spammers can get by linking to them. Others use tricks, such as making respondents type in a computer-generated phrases before their comments can be posted. Determined spammers, though, will find ways to evade these security measures.

"It's a pretty bad problem and getting worse everywhere," Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist with Symantec Corp. (SYMC), said in an interview.

For Willy Volk, programming manager for AOL's Weblogs unit (parent of DailyFinance), fighting comment spam is a job that never ends. The problem shows no sign of easing.

"We have always had a major problem with comment spam," says Volk. "They don't care about our blogs. They care about SEO [search engine optimization]."

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