Spamalot: Broadway Hit or Blog Epidemic?

As you read this, New York is abuzz over the BlogOn 2005 conference. It’s billed as “the premier executive conference for forward-thinking marketing and communications executives who are considering strategic initiatives in social media such as blogs, RSS and podcasts.”

Smart, passionate, and sincere blog aficionados, including A-list bloggers, are in attendance. The themes are optimistic, idealistic, and even a bit romantic: “Markets Are Conversations,” “The Power of Communities,” “Can Advertising Be Social?”

But is the age of innocence for blogs ending? Maybe.

For the past six months, two core architects of my firm’s blog search portal, Natalie Glance and Sundar Kadayam, have been warning me that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” In my usual fog of marketing bliss, I ignored their warnings until the forecasted ugliness started oozing across my own sacred blog comments email box.

Spamalot as a Blogosphere Epidemic

Folks, “Spamalot” is more than a Broadway musical. It’s a bona fide blogosphere epidemic, and it may get worse before it gets better. If we give a hoot about the themes at BlogOn and beyond, we must take a stand before it’s out of control.

Just how bad is the problem? According to Glance and Kadayam (who count blogs for a living) nearly 30 percent of blog posts today are spam. That’s a conservative estimate, they say, and doesn’t factor in the net total of spam comments, which could be upwards of 50 percent.

Spam blogs are such a big deal, there’s now a word for it: splog. According to Wikipedia, splog content “is often nonsense or text stolen from other websites with an unusually high number of links to sites associated with the splog creator which are often disreputable or otherwise useless Web sites.” Wikipedia further notes, “splogs have become a major problem on free blog hosts such as Google’s Blogger service.”

Is SEO a Four-Letter Word?

Splogs’ root cause can be traced to the practices we righteously beat to a pulp in marketing: click-throughs, PageRank, contextual targeting, and “next-day” ROI (define). We can’t see the commons for the trees.

Indeed, such practices as SEO (define) have been pushed to the unscrupulous outer limits in the name of getting results, unfairly tainting legitimate SEO white hats. There are far more results in Google for “search engine optimization” than “making money.” With so many SEO players in the market, we’ve got a massive, Sisyphean rock-push.

How It All Works

Marketers are catching on to the fact search engines generously reward link-rich blog content in results. Explains Kadayam, “Search engines like Google give blogs high ‘shelf space’ on search results based on the natural linking structure that exists in the blogosphere.” Though Google does a good job giving splogs lower relevance scores, they still receive optimized exposure, relative to other content sources, in results.

You needn’t read further than the first couple paragraphs of most SEO companies’ marketing literature to conclude these companies play an unmistakable role in “gaming” PageRank. They often encourage creating blogs that contain content matching relevant or high-traffic keywords. On top of this, they place links to other Web sites and blogs whose PageRank they want to increase.

Kadayam notes that “smart tools to auto-generate blogs” compound the problem. “The abusers grab a bunch of RSS feeds to get fresh content from out there, create headlines matching some criteria, auto-create a blog, and engineer it to consistently post entries with content snipped from the RSS feeds,” he said. Such activity can readily be implemented and published via Google’s Blogger API (define) or, more recently, WordPress.

A lot of ugly stuff is standing on the back of great, consumer-centered intentions. Google’s “add water and stir” Blogger offers simplicity and “anonymity” to users. But it also acts like a magnet on steroids for toxic spammers. Even the “add water and stir” ad models, ostensibly intended to help the “little guy” put food on the table, make it almost irresistible for abusers to co-opt the system.

Is There a Fix?

This won’t be an easy issue to resolve. But for the first time, there’s meaningful discussion about it in the industry. Members of our team, Technorati, Feedster, Google, IceRocket, and many others are really talking through this issue.

“Spam blogs hurt [almost] everyone, from bloggers to brand managers to search engines and more,” said Glance. “There are well-known solutions to fighting spam in the search engine world. And in some respects, blog search is simply playing catch up.”

Glance is optimistic this can be figured out. The blogosphere has proven to be relentlessly innovative on so many fronts. “From publishing to software tools to ping servers and tagging, we’ve been constantly innovating,” she said, “so there must be achievable solutions to addressing the problem of blog spam.”

One solution we’re pursuing is aggressive filtering for all kinds of spam: post spam, ping spam, link farms, tag spam, and so on. As a marketer selling the power and potential of consumer-generated media, I find it hard not to be hyper-sensitive about bogus data manipulating any research field.

If we really believe the consumer’s in control, we must stop stealing the wheel. If we really believe the conversation matters, we must stop hijacking it. If we really believe in the principles of transparency and exposure, we must expose abusers and pressure the companies, brands, and services so seductively used as bait in splogs. We must also give plenty of positive word of mouth to the SEO experts who truly respect the blogosphere.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.