Taking The Spam Fight To User-Generated Content

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Rebecca’s article on “Reporting Spam to Google” provides guidelines for making a report concerning another website’s spammy activities, but what do you do when the spam is showing up directly at or on your site?

For example, one of the best ways to get free content for your site, which may also help your site move up the SERPs, is user-generated content such as reviews of your products or services or comments made by visitors and posted to various pages or sections of your site. However, allowing user-generated content on your site opens up the door to spam, which can have disasterous results for your site’s believability, reputation, ranking, usefulness, and overall appearance. Just think about a site you may have come across in your web travels filled with spammy comments that either add nothing to the conversation or range all the way to abuse and off-color remarks or links to websites you don’t even want to see the names of, much less actually visit. Probably not a site you were tempted to bookmark for a revisit anytime soon, was it?

We all know the problem, but how do you police this? Of course, you could decide not to allow comments on your site at all, but not only will you lose the opportunity to benefit SEO-wise, but you may also lose out on creating a rich environment for community interaction from which your site can greatly benefit. One of the easiest way to combat this problem is the addition of  a CAPTCHA tool to cut down on spam — where you make every commenter complete a typed box reproducing a word or solving a simple math question. This will stop spammy bots from leaving automated comments, but will only slow down tricksters determined to wreak havoc with websites. You still need to look at the comments and, in fact, those wanting success from online ventures NEED to look at the comments made on their site.

If you have a large website — or even a small one — it may not be possible to keep a 24-7 eye on who is posting what to your site, yet you do need to have safeguards in place to ensure that damage isn’t done to your online reputation before you discover and fix or delete the problem. I’m not talking about negative comments that are legitimate in nature, but negative comments that are derogatory and obscene or online vandalism such as the posting of multiple comments just consisting of names of various pharmaceuticals with links to questionable online pharmacies. You know it when you see it, and every website owner needs to be on their guard to take whatever steps are necessary to catch it early on.

Of course, many of the products we rely on and use in building and maintaining our websites have built-in safeguards and can be strengthened in a various of ways to make it difficult for the more noxious forms of spam to infect your site, and there are many ways you can take a proactive stance to deal with others. Let’s look at a few suggestions for dealing with spam related to comments.

1.  Choose to use comment moderation – Comment moderation is useful for nipping comment spam in the bud. By not posting any comment until it has been vetted by a human being, you protect your comment threads from invasion by comment spammers. Be careful, however. Some systems don’t by default show the entire comment in the preview and what might look like an innocent comment in the first 100 or so characters can turn into prime spam material by the end — so read it all before approving. This will also help you deal with those commenters who are a little over-zealous with including links to their own products and websites.

2.  Automatically disable hyperlinks in comments – This is a way to deal with those “over zealous” link builders who specialize in making comments to blogs for no reason other than to sneak a link to their site or a link farm or other spammy location into every comment they make. Each site owner needs to make their own decision about hyperlinks being allowed in comments — they are sometimes very useful for linking together relevant material and discussions and thereby increasing relevancy and quality, but more often they are used as an easy means of self-promotion or online vandalism. Remember that the presence of spammy links in your comments will affect your reputation both with visitors to your site and with the search engines. I prefer to deal with links in comments via the moderation route and make a case-by-case decision, but that is entirely dependent upon your personal preference and the situation of your site (and perhaps even how controversial your topics tend to be). Most configurations will let you disable hyperlinks automatically if you wish.

3.  Blacklist domains hosting multiple spammy profiles — If you find some domains are repeatedly filing spammy comments to your site through obviously fake profiles, your site/blogging software should allow you to block those domains. If you do take advantage of this option, check periodically to make certain that the blocking is working as you wish and innocent sites and people are not being blocked.

4. Block comments from search engines – With some serious cases, you may choose to block your comment area from being indexed by search engines. A related technique is to use the “no follow” attribute. This may protect your ranking, but you still need to monitor the content of the comments to avoid having your site appear spam-filled to visitors, which will certainly give them a negative impression of the care you take with your site and the pride you have in your product.

Comment spam — and other user-generated spam — can be a real disaster for a website in today’s competitive online market. As the old saying goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Spam makes your site appear as if you don’t care about it enough to make sure that your visitors have a good experience, and if you don’t appear to care about that, potential buyers may well assume that you don’t care much about the product or service you are trying to sell them. Technology is becoming much better at providing us with easy ways to stop this type of spam from appearing in the first place, but in the interim, we must continue to do what is necessary to continue to make our sites a safe and comfortable place for prospects.

About the Author

Frances Krug has worked in market research since graduating from UCLA with an MA and CPhil in Latin American history. As an editor and online content provider for the last 7 years, she currently is Associate Editor at iNET Interactive, where she also directs Search Marketing Standard's email marketing program.

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