A New Place for Spam's Same Old Pitches

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

Now that Web logs -- blogs, for short -- are a popular online pastime for millions of people, scammers are finding new ways to exploit them as vehicles for junk advertisements.

The Internet has even coined a term -- splog, a combination of spam and blog -- for a phenomenon that follows in the footsteps of rogue advertising such as spam e-mail, junk mail, junk faxes and adware. The new forms of spam can show up on blogs as fake comments posted by readers that actually have nothing to do with the subject at hand. Instead they are advertising pitches or attempts to get you to click on an unrelated Web site.

They also can be set up as bogus blogs; go looking for a blogger talking about, say, bathroom renovations, and you could wind up on a Web site that has a few random renovation-related words but that mainly tries to get you to click on links to advertisements.

For the most part, the ads are new pitches for old schemes -- gambling, porn -- and are posing enough of a customer nuisance that Internet giants such as Google and Yahoo are developing tools to clamp down on them.

Blogs are free and easy to set up, and until now, they have mostly been earnest forums for political and personal discourse. But their success is feeding the splog problem, because the more people look at blogs, the greater the potential audience for spammers. Some bloggers and search-engine users are calling on companies that help set up blogs to better police their systems.

"Yahoo and Google are the common carriers of the information age, and they have a reasonable responsibility . . . to prevent the illegal and inappropriate use of their services," said Scott Allen, an Austin-based online editor for About.com who also maintains a blog.

Last month, Blogger, a free blog service, identified a "spamalanche" that hit its system, and the company had to dismantle 13,000 spam-filled blogs created in the course of a single weekend.

"The readership of blogs has exploded in the last 18 months," and with it the popularity of splogs, said Jason Goldman, product manager for Blogger, which is owned by Google Inc. "The challenge is one of balance: to make it difficult for people to post bad script but not make it hard for our users."

Unauthorized advertisers are blighting the blogosphere by hijacking legitimate discussions of topics with a flurry of phony comments.

"We would get surges of it -- as many as 200 to 300 within two hours; we couldn't blacklist the [spammers' online] addresses fast enough," Allen said. "It hampers the open conversation that is the very nature of blogs."

Advertisers are also setting up bogus blogs -- what Goldman and others refer to as splogs -- and linking them to numerous other sites to inflate their popularity on search engines. When searchers click on what they think is a relevant site, they end up on imitation blogs full of gibberish and links to ads. Advertisers will pay the spammers every time someone clicks on one of those links.

Ben Popken, keeper of a blog called TheSpunker, recently searched the Internet for Swiss army knives and found himself stymied by splogs. Every time he typed in the topic on a blog search engine, he kept pulling up a site that appeared to be a legitimate blog but was filled with links to other Web sites.

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