But for those of us involved in content theft and spamming issues, 2007 was something of a bittersweet year. A lot of progress was made in the fight against spam, but a great deal went wrong. It seemed that, for every victory, there were at least two setbacks.
Sadly, it seems that we can expect a very similar year in 2008. However, there are new tools and new possibilities that might make the next year a little bit more bright than the one gone by. Perhaps, with a little bit of luck, 2008 can be a brighter year than 2007 when it comes to spam blogs.
A Look Back at 2007
To be certain, 2007 started out with a great deal of promise. WordPress.com showed us how to run a relatively spam-free service. A little while later, Blogspot hit back against blog spam on its service. Though the effect was not lasting, it was the first major public offensive by the BlogSpot team against what many see as the main source for blog spam.
However, as the year wore on, spammers began to evolve their tactics. 2007 would also be known as the year that we saw the rise of spinning spammers, scrapers that take content from RSS feed and then modify it through either translations or synonyms. These spammers are tougher to detect, for both copyright holders and search engines, and have a much more elaborate structure to their operation.
The rise of spinning spammers was coupled with the further rise in two other trends, a sharp rise in keyword scraping, where the spammer scrapes a Google Blog Search result or a Technorati Watchlist for a certain desired keyword, and a rise in spammers turning to domain hosting.
The latter trend is especially worrisome. Previously, the majority of spammers would simply create as many free blog accounts as they could, fill them up either with computer-generated garbage or content scraped from RSS feeds, include a few affiliate links/ads and then try to make money. This made them easy to detect and easier to shut down. The new trend for spammers is paid hosting with hundreds of domains. This is often done with “wink and nod” approval from Web hosts, happy to get a lucrative customer. These networks are harder to detect and even more difficult to shut down.
This evolution in spam was due in part to pressures from the free hosting providers but, most likely, due more to the fierce competition for search results and traffic. Simply put, spinning, keyword scraping and domain hosts generate results, that is why spammers have taken to using them despite their higher costs.
Sadly, it appears that trend will continue deep into the new year.
Looking Ahead to 2008
Unfortunately, the trends that ended 2007 will likely mar the beginnings of 2008. Spinning spammers will continue to become more common, more spammers will move to domains and keyword scraping will become even more popular. Though some spammers will always find a home on the free services, especially newcomers, the more skilled and prolific spammers will likely continue to favor more reliable hosting.
This means that spam blog hosts, once eager to get rid of junk content on their servers, will have less incentive to cooperate in the fight against internet pollution and Webmasters will struggle to get their content pulled from junk sites. Couple this with the continuing lack of cooperation from Adsense and other ad networks and these operations are going to be nearly impossible to shut down.
As Jason Calacanis pointed out in his presentation about internet pollution, much of the problem with battling spam is that the people who create the platforms that enable spammers would make much less money if they stepped in and effectively policed their services.
Sadly, as the amount of money spammers can make grows with the new techniques, they will likely find more and more services willing to turn a blind eye to the abuse. Services currently being abused by spammers will continue to be abused, albeit with more impunity, and new services will open up the back door to spammers, including at least some respected Web hosts.
However, there is good news. In response, at least in large part, to this rise in spamming and scraping, there is a rising counter-market for protection against it.
First, new services will take flight in 2008. For one, Attributor will offer a version of their service for individual bloggers. Attributor can help not only improve detection of infringing material by detecting more kinds of infringements, checking for license compliance and prioritizing cases, but also aid with the removal of any unlicensed content.
Second, Blogwerx is scheduled to re-launch some time in the coming months. This comes after the service stumbled after its first launch almost a year ago due to technical issues. Blogwerx has the potential to detect modified plagiarism, including that from spinning spammers.
Finally, as the problem grows, we can expect to see more and more programmers taking up the challenge. We already have several great WordPress plugins for dealing with content theft, 2008 seems as if it could be a great year for even more advanced tools and techniques.
In short, though 2007 brought out the worst in the spammers, it seems likely that 2008 could bring out the best in the spam fighters. The heightened interest in tracking content and preventing misuse is attracting investors to a budding industry and that, in turn, could make available cheaper, better and more powerful content tracking and protection tools.
More than anything, 2008 is poised to be a year of escalated warfare. In that regard, it will be little different than years gone by. After all, every year since spam first found its way onto the Web has been a game of cat and mouse.
However, what will make this year different is that, for the first time, corporations, along with big dollars, will be thrown into the fight. Companies will have to choose sides and decide if they can make more money by helping the spammers, tacitly or directly, or by promoting a healthy Web by fighting Internet pollution.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen how far too many companies have answered that question and, given that some of the biggest companies on the Web are already some of the most important “supporters” of spam blogs, it is going to be very hard for smaller companies to resist the temptation of an easy buck.
Let’s hope that 2008 is the year that companies start putting their foot down and start getting serious about fighting spam. If it isn’t, it could be too late to every hope to control the problem.
Disclosure: I am a consultant for Attributor.