Why Google is the service of choice for sploggers?
GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
By Michael Pollitt
Spam bloggers are making cash from the search giant's AdSense - but they face opposition froma very determined man
What's the difference between WordPress.com and Google's Blogger? Both offer a free blog hosting service that's easy for first-time bloggers to use; you can set up your own blog in a matter of minutes. But if you're planning on setting up a spam blog - or "splog" - don't try your luck at WordPress. While Google's Blogger is sometimes described as a haven for splogs, with some estimates suggesting that three-quarters of the blogs there are just empty spam, WordPress.com keeps the tricksters out, with splogs estimated at just 1% of the total.
Splogs are about making money (Cashing in on fake blogs, November 17 2005, tinyurl.com/2t5frc) by unethical means. Their creators design spam blogs to achieve high search engine rankings by filling them with questionable or stolen content that is added automatically. Set up a few thousand splogs, use Google's AdSense ad-serving programme to line the pages of the blog with paid-for click-through adverts, and the money rolls in while polluting search results for everyone else.
There are probably millions of splogs, which are constantly being deleted by their hosting services. Technorati, which monitors 86m blogs, reckons between 3,000 and 7,000 splogs are created each day, peaking at 11,000 last December.
The spam-fuelled money-go-round works like this. Advertisers pay Google, Google pays its AdSense publishers, and some of the latter either create splogs or pay professional sploggers to do so. When users click on AdSense links, it encourages sploggers to create more splogs, and that makes for increasingly useless search engine results.
An anonymous American who calls himself "Splogfighter" (fightsplog.blogspot.com) has battled splogs on Blogger for two years by reporting them to Google. He has detected at least 1m splogs including, earlier this year, a splogger in charge of a record 265,000. His database contains details of 13m blogs; he has even created a visual method for watching when they're created (tinyurl.com/2k6xr3 and right).
"It used to be that a splog will have lots of links but almost all of them would be pointing to a web page on a single domain or to a single IP address. The newer splogs now contain a number of links that point to a large number of domains," says Splogfighter. "I think people are paying spammers to create these splogs so they can get traffic to their site, which ultimately translates to AdSense revenue."
Not every splogger wants to become a Mr Big. Splogfighter sees many sploggers with small numbers of splogs carrying AdSense adverts or links that point at "made for AdSense" sites - which only exist to carry advertisements. His dilemma is whether his time is better spent finding and reporting a thousand sploggers with 10 splogs each, or 10 sploggers with 1,000 splogs each.
"Then there are so-called professional sploggers. They generate large blocks of splogs with links that point to websites that are not owned by one individual. The number of these professional sploggers is pretty small but they tend to keep generating splogs indefinitely," he says.
"Google is making money every time someone clicks on an ad shown on splogs or on MFA [made for AdSense] sites that are linked from splogs. I have reported hundreds of AdSense accounts of sploggers, but very few had their AdSense account taken away."
Two months ago, Splogfighter saw the splog problem quadruple, although more recently, he says, Google has started to block and delete splogs in large numbers - leaving him optimistic but isolated. Google has contacted him only once, to offer lunch and a gift from the Google store.
"Google has been very much silent. There are times when I'm largely ignored. They do actually respond quickly to sploggers that create tens of thousands of splogs," says Splogfighter. "Google has more resources and engineering know-how to tackle this than me. This is more of a priority issue than a technical one."
And what is Google doing? Over the past month, we have contacted Google several times trying to find out how many blogs there are on Blogger, and how many splogs and AdSense accounts are terminated for abuse each month. But our questions have gone unanswered.
"We've always had a policy that publishers are not to create web pages specifically for ads, and we are actively enforcing this," says Google. What about Splogfighter's campaign against splogs on Blogger? "We can't comment on the issues raised by this site [Splogfighter]."
Why then does WordPress.com, which also offers free blog hosting, have so little trouble? In part, because Matt Mullenweg, WordPress's founder, makes cracking down on splogs one of his priorities.
"For WordPress.com, keeping splogs off the system is as much economics as anything else," says Mullenweg. "I like to think that the internet's perception of WordPress is better because we're vigilant against spammy content."
Users of WordPress.com are encouraged to report splogs. Says Mullenweg: "We respond within hours to any splog report, 24 hours a day."
There's another, perhaps essential, difference: WordPress.com doesn't allow AdSense ads. Might that be the reason why sploggers haven't prospered there?
Mullenweg plans to allow users to add Google's AdSense to their blogs. But will this open the floodgates to sploggers? "Part of the WordPress brand is high-quality blogs, and we're not going to do anything to damage that. We have an extraordinary number of really high-quality blogs, and some of them could do quite well with AdSense," says Mullenweg. "We plan to make it a paid upgrade, at least $15 (GBP7.45) a year per blog, and our policies on splogs or spammy content aren't going to change."
Another perspective on splogs comes from Jonathan Bailey, who runs Plagiarism Today (plagiarismtoday.com), a site about online plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues. Copying helps splogs multiply, thanks to programs that create Blogger-hosted splogs automatically and then fill them with relevant content stolen from the internet. While Bailey can advise how to limit this, finding the culprits is another matter.
"Chasing sploggers, generally, is not worth it. The software that these guys use can generate thousands of spam blogs an hour. Even the people who gave them the blog to use don't know who they really are," says Bailey.
Advertisers should also consider where their adverts are being presented, says Bailey: "If they find out that their adverts are being displayed on these junk sites they're not going to want to spend as much. Google, for better or worse, has its hand in every aspect of spam blogging. It finances them through AdSense, hosts them through Blogger and directs traffic to them via the search engine."
There is, Bailey believes, some pain ahead for Google: "These sites do make Google money and are not going to be done away with without both spending money to stop them, and losing at least some business."
Without figures from Google, how much pain there might be is frustratingly unknown. Other than Splogfighter's monthly data, there are no reliable figures available that put Google's splog problem into perspective. And that's badly needed to help clear - or damn - the company's name.
"It appears that Google's response boils down to 'trust us'. They, to date, have offered no real evidence of their efforts and, have kept all attempts to gather information at arm's length," says Bailey.
"This is in stark contrast to other search engines, like Microsoft, that have published papers on their spam-fighting techniques and seem to be taking pride in their efforts. Google could take a few simple, but harsh, steps and practically stop spam blogs on its Blogspot [Blogger] service; similar improvements could stop the abuse of AdSense."
Splogfighter continues to keep a close eye on the numbers, noting a recent monthly fall in his splog detections from 575,000 to 275,000 with cautious optimism. While he believes Google is deleting a lot of splogs, he's now going to ramp up data collection and test some new identification methods.
But as long as Google keeps quiet about the true extent of its splog problem, he could have a long battle ahead.
Sci. & Tech.