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Blogspam Is the Web’s Pollution

My own words, mangled by a bot, suggest some lessons about the dumbness of pay-per-click advertising–and about a threat to the Internet.

I’m involved in a variety of obscure research projects. I’m always interested when one of them gets mentioned by other researchers in the field, so I’ve set up a little “Alerts” on Google to drop me a missive whenever a new Web page mentioning one of my projects is added to Google’s index.

Sadly, my research areas are so obscure that Google normally just sends me a copy of my own Web pages or postings to my mailing lists. Every now and then, Google drops me a note containing something I wrote several years ago–it seems that Google’s index is still playing catch-up for some of the Internet’s more remote corners. Sometimes I get messages from Google that are really interesting. And then there is the truly bizarre.

On January 1 at 2:21 AM (EST) Google sent me an as-it-happens Alert of a blog purportedly written by somebody named Johana and entitled “Current Research.” Here’s a sample:

Google Blogs Alert for: simson garfinkel

Current Research
By Johana(Johana) 
Garfinkel obtained three SB degrees simson twin World’s Leader in fake diamonds, synthetic diamonds, diamond synthetic and much more … World’s number one simulated diamond, Very hard, Cuts glass, Save money. Jewelry Directory guide to Luis blog - http://luiscezh7.blogspot.com/index.html

I clicked on the link and was taken to a weird alternate reality of my own Web pages. Somebody–or, more likely, some program–had taken pieces of the text on my Web pages, reassembled them in a manner that made no sense, and embedded into the text links to a website called “find.fm.” That website, in turn, had links to other link farms. One was to a website called Monster Marketplace, which had links to well-known retailers like eBay, Target, and Amazon. Another link was to a website called Batanga.com, which appeared to be a legitimate website that streamed Latin music, sports, auto news, and fashion (according to this press release, at least).

This is the world of blog spam. The first website, at luiscezh7.blogspot.com, was almost certainly constructed by a bot (or an army of bots). Its sole purpose is to be picked up and indexed by Google. Once indexed, there is a chance that somebody might jump to the page. Once there, there is a chance that somebody might click on one of the links.

Those links, in this age of pay-per-click advertising, might generate anywhere from a hundredth of a penny to a few cents every time they are clicked. Since blogspot will host blogs for free, every click is free money. A blog page like “Current Research” might only generate a few cents per week, but that quickly adds up if the bot master has a few hundred thousand such pages.

Much of the money in this pay-per-click world bounces around in a hall of mirrors. A friend of mine who works at Google recently told me that some of the most successful advertisements on Google are for Web pages that aggregate other Google ads. Entrepreneurs will pay money to bring people to a Web page in the hope that they will click on one of the page’s advertisements. Google loves this, of course: the company makes money both coming and going. But ultimately, this practice is bad for the Internet because it’s not creating anything that could be considered useful content.

Like any pyramid scheme, there needs to be a source of new funds–otherwise, the entire thing collapses. That source is those ads for eBay, Target, and Amazon. Those companies take some of the money generated from the sale of real goods and use it to buy Internet ads. Some of that money gets channeled, either directly or indirectly, into this same game. EBay, Target, and Amazon aren’t willingly supporting blog spam, but in practice, they are.

You might think that the root of the problem here is that websites like Blogspot are giving away their service for free. But these days Web hosting is so cheap that even if the blogger-spammers needed to pay the going rate, they could easily afford to build link farms with millions of pages.

Spam in all of its forms is a real threat facing the future of the Internet. Of course, spam is just another form of pollution, and man-made pollution is a real threat facing the future of humanity. Why should the Internet be any different?

Simson Garfinkel is a Technology Review contributing editor. He researches computer forensics at the Center for Research on Computation and Society at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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