The Wild, Wild Web

During the mid nineteenth century the US was renowned for its anarchical madness as trailblazers pushed westward. Without precedence or established protocol for guidance, with feeble enforcement of the few laws that existed, the West was run by loose canons making their way across the vastness of the Great Plains, the Rockies and on to the Pacific coast. There is a similar lawlessness and impropriety swamping the WWW today. You are all familiar with email spam. Spam filters do a pretty good job of keeping our mailboxes from being deluged with junk. It’s estimated they stop more than 85% of it, but it’s a constant battle. (Think about what it’d be like if there were no filters.) Every few months I get a rash of spam from some unscrupulous source that’s found a new way to evade the filters. But what for? It’s obviously spam and immediately deleted.

Email spam is not the only type. You may not be familiar with a couple of other forms unless you manage a website. One is referrer spam. Sites try to boost their search engine rankings by pretending to link to another site. This places a link to the spammer’s site on the statistics page of victim’s site. If a search engine robot has access to the stats page, it will see this link going back to the spammer. Bingo! The more external links pointing to the spammer’s site, the higher it will rank in search engines. (This is euphemistically called SEO, Search Engine Optimization. There are companies that specialize in providing SEO services. Imagine getting paid to commit fraud. Spamming is illegal, which may explain why so much of it comes from outside the US, particularly former Soviet block countries.) Despite not being a real link that anyone visiting the victim’s site would click on or even see, the link gets read by the bots crawling the site and registers it as a referral. Most, not all, sites block the stats page from bots, but that doesn’t stop the spammers. All it takes is that tiny percentage of the millions of referrer spams set on countless stat pages to get a few extra unearned points from search engines. It’s double cheating. Not only are they not linking to the victim’s site (no credit for the victim), the victim isn’t actually linking to them in the first place (bots don’t know it’s not on a public page).

There’s another even nastier form of spam : comment spam. I get hundreds of comments on this site every month. Every one of them has been spam. The goal here is to post a comment with an embedded link to the spammer’s site—again to show a link pointing to their site for boasting search engine rank and with the hope that someone reading the comment might be gullible enough to click on it.

Consequently I have blocked all Yahoo and Hotmail address from my email inbox. (Recently there’s been a huge rash of spam from Yahoo addresses and no apparent effort on Yahoo’s part to stop it.) I have also blocked all the IP addresses assigned to three entire countries from accessing my sites. (Those in my address book using banned email services are put on a white-list that allows their mail to pass through.) That still doesn’t stop the spammers from trying. It’s all a game of numbers. And because it costs next to nothing to send out millions and millions of spam emails, or fake references, or phony comments all it takes is a fraction of a percent of them to slip through for their ploys to get a few hits.

No matter the margin of success, spam is stupid. Most of it comes in one of three categories, porn, meds, knockoff designer products. You know, if you’re looking for those things, they’re too easy to find on your own—no spam necessary. If you’re not looking for them, the spam is an aggravating, annoying, antagonizing nuisance. Spam produces negative returns that exceed any positive hits.

To the spammers of the world : GAFC!

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