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Professional Forum Spammers
Brett_Tabke




msg:1562195
 1:14 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

re: Professional forum spamming is becoming an increasing problem for us.

There are sites now that specialize in "acquiring targeted" traffic from forums. That is all they do. They go out and find forums that are ontopic to a customers needs and they carefully "spam" the forum to acquire link backs, name dropping, and often direct url dropping to bring back customers.

Some of the techniques they use:

- Tag teams. One or more agents will start and engage in conversations with each other to add credibility to a thread.
- Post count building. Often, agents will increase their post count, carefully contributing to the 'players' in a forum to beef up "nick recognition", and then slowly introduce a topic.
- Classic Q & A with themselves. Forums that don't watch ip addresses real close often have agents that carry on conversations with themselves under two different nicks.
- Name dropping and whisper campaigns. Often they just drop the name of a product with "what do you think of product X". After awhile they come back and work in the url with some member saying, "oh ya, I've heard of them".
- Profile building. I know one company that targets a particular industry, that has two agents with over 50,000 posts around forums under their nicks. With all that posting, those two agents are now considered "experts" in their topic area - and they are nothing more than salesmen.

The problem? They are getting very good at it.

What can we do to stem this tide?

 

greektomi




msg:1562225
 6:24 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Interesting thread...

Most (if not all) beginners guides to marketing on the web mention posting to newsgroups and msg boards as a good way to get free targeted traffic. Here's a quote from a book I bought about a year ago (real world book) called "Low Cost Website Promotion" and no I didn't write it :)

Promoting through newsgroups has a great many benefits, making your time spent worthwhile. It will ultimately drive a great deal of traffic to your website

It then goes on at length about posting strategy.

And of course internet marketing books and articles always tell you to use a SIG file on every post.

I have found some quality sites via SIG files from knowledgable posters. Were they spamming? In some form probably.

Like spam email, msg board spamming will never die. If someone is doing it on your board and screwing it up then ban them. If your not %100 sure than I would leave it alone. I'd hate to be wrong or wronged.

Msg board page rank=0,
Greektomi

rcjordan




msg:1562226
 6:27 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

>and things like "which is better WPG or TD"

Another winner. The wmw swat team goes to full alert when those come up.

mivox




msg:1562227
 6:40 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Like Mivox's New Mug (sorry mivox)

Hehe... and did I mention Mivox's New Mug can get you #1 rankings on ALL of the top 450,000 search engines and directories? LOL

In the FOO forum there's a good deal of conversation about non-promotion related topics... and mentioning non-promotion-related product names hasn't become a spam problem as of yet, so you'll see a lot of FOO threads talking about, "My trusty mouse just broke... Can anyone recommend a good replacement?" (I think that was Brett) "My trackball needs replacing, anything better out there?" (rcjordan?), "time to replace the keyboard...", etc., etc., or, even further from the internet professionals realm... "I just got this spiffy new coffee mug!" (Could have posed a problem if I'd also given a big plug for the online store I got it from...)

Discussions about hardware will necessarily include product names, but should almost never include links to places to buy them. If Brett wants to give a glowing review of his new Microsoft wireless super-duper scroll-wheel-o-rama mouse with glowing red heel, that's one thing... But if a bunch of internet retailers start showing up with "stealthy" nicknames like newkeyboardcoffeeaddict, making posts like, "I just saw this fantastic new wireless keyboard/trackpad/espressomaker combo ON SALE for the low, low price of only $450.00 at www.mystore.com!" then we've got a problem brewing. The perpetrators will be appropriately flogged.

EliteWeb




msg:1562228
 6:50 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Ok, this morning I got a email from eBay - ya i bid on that guys domain name just for the hell of getting it for 1.25 or something. My bid was canceled, and so was the auction. Thats what I hate about some people just trying to make cash and if they cant they run. First he spams the forum with his eBay advertisement, then he pulls out. Shameless - I was to win the bid :) I could feel it!

rcjordan




msg:1562229
 7:18 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

One thing the members can do to help the moderators... some of you read elsewhere on occassion, if you see a post that is suspect being floated in several other places out there (the words may not be the same, but they often smell alike) kindly stickymail a heads-up to the moderator.

ritualcoffee




msg:1562230
 7:35 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

so as circular as this topic is going to get...it looks like it is up to the kids to keep the village clean?! ;)

rcjordan




msg:1562231
 7:42 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

>keep the village clean

Yes, or at least see that there are some valid reasons behind those "Sorry, but" stickymails.

We're bound and determined to keep this a cordial and gracious place, that makes us vulnerable.

txbakers




msg:1562232
 7:54 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I think you are doing a great job of it here on WW.
I for one am guilty of said offences on a number of occasions. It is a good way of getting cheap 'Press Releases

I've been scolded on occasion about this too. But I do see it elsewhere.

cyril kearney




msg:1562233
 8:02 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I find this topic somewhat amusing.

Many of the webmasters here are into search engine optimization which is marketing for free through someone else's site. This seems a perfectly okay thing to do and to improve their craft they set up this site and forum.

Then some guy comes along who is marketing for free through their site and they become outraged.

Now this guy will set up a site to optimize forum and newsgroup submissions and get outraged if anyone tries to market through his site.

rcjordan




msg:1562234
 8:11 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Aw, now cyril, you've gone and peed on our campfire... no more toasted marshmallows for you.

OK, let's just say we're working on the WmW algo.

rogerd




msg:1562235
 8:12 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Part of the solution in effect here that could be used at many forums is the severe limitation on URL posting. When I arrived at WMW, I thought this was kind of goofy - other fora that I posted in were very free with URLs. In fact, I think many people posted genuinely helpful replies to help demonstrate their expertise and, once in a while, scare up some business. It struck me as a win-win proposition: expert help, and very low-key self-promotion. (One great example of this was the Front Page Usenet group - I haven't used the product in a long time, but when I used to visit that forum it seemed that FP gurus would hang around waiting to pounce on questions. Arcane problems could often be solved in minutes. I couldn't have cared less if the poster had his URL in his sig.)

Over time, though, I've grown to see the wisdom of the WMW approach - URL limits that are enforced by vigorous moderation. I think it really cuts down on the incentive for spammers. Sort of like a house with a mean looking dog (sorry, moderators!) that encourages burglars to ply their trade somewhere else...

As a forum-master myself, on the boards I manage I've found most of the phony posts and bogus conversations easy to spot and delete (or, better, to leave the post, break the link, and humiliate the poster with a sarcastic counter-post ;) - thank goodness Brett wouldn't go for that here!). Rapid deletion of bad posts has helped keep this kind of traffic down - I think when spammers discover a wide-open venue, the word spreads and the spam attempts shoot up. Luckily, I haven't been afflicted with the kind of sophisticated spam described above. Keep up the good work, all!

nowhere




msg:1562236
 8:29 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

It may not be effective free advertising, but it is free link popularity. Message boards donít all show a Pr = 0, this thread is showing a Pr = 5. I know some of you say "no way, Google filters, etc.," but I donít buy it. Dynamic pages from popular forums such as this one are all over Google. Forums even give a person the power to give the page a theme and chose keyword density.

Brett_Tabke




msg:1562237
 8:32 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

EW, ya we saw that one and it probably should have been zapped. By the time it rolled in, it had been answered by several members. Once a thread like that is established we tend to just let it go unless it's severe.

BigD:> They will quickly notice if it does not and post that.

Some of them will post knowing they will get flamed under the old, all press is good press modus operendi. There is always the issue of liability too.

rg: humiliate the poster with a sarcastic counter-post
TT: genuine errors.

There is also the strategic promotion aspects (which you rarely find me talking about in public). Say we delete a post that looks like a classic tag team and get it wrong. They run off an scream to all their friends about it and it lives on some site for years to come? Can't happen? It has six times in two years (4 of those times we were 100% correct in our actions). Some people really do think you owe them a living. eg: they want a bite of the apple or they run off and flame you.

We are in the top echelon of our industry now. If current growth holds, we will pass 50m page views for the year. That pretty much leaves us in the group where some top tier sites take notice. It means the challenge isn't to do something extraordinarialy brillant, but to keep from doing something exceptionaly stupid [home.millsaps.edu].

>WebmasterWorld algo

No matter how much it stings, Cyril definately has a good point. It has not gone without notice and due consideration. I'm sure many have noticed our softened - or as one moderator put it, "new found sympathy for the devil" views towards the search engines. We are into uncharted territory that very few sites get into. It's been an education the old fashioned way.

>phony posts and bogus conversations easy to spot and delete

Most everyone can. It's the more subtle ones such as yours above for the Front Page Usenet group that are tricky for most to spot ;-) Is it a whisper ad, or is it an innocent reference? How would you know? Those are the types that can cause hair loss.

fyi: since we began tracking spam and long term ip's, we have 1136 threads id'd as spam or problem posts since June of 2000. Runs about 3 a day now.

rcjordan




msg:1562238
 8:34 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

>severe limitation on URL posting

A week or two ago, there was a thread where the phrase "lack of noise" kept being brought up as a major asset of the board. I was told the same thing many times at both pubconference and barconference. I'm a firm believer that the pros here appreciate -even require- the white space.

digitalghost




msg:1562239
 8:34 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

some of you read elsewhere on occassion, if you see a post that is suspect being floated in several other places out there

Some of us read every pertinent forum out there, daily.
Timely issues manage to make their way into forums at about the same time. Some people post the same question in several forums and weigh all the responses.

Information provided by the spammers that isn't accurate will be discounted. If the information they provide IS accurate, is it still spam?

I see the very real risk of conspiracy theorists running amok amid an underlying tone of paranoia.

If I reread my posts from several forums in the last month I would find several references to XQASP, XML books, different cloaking packages, references to threads in other forums, (not allowed here) favicon creators, text editors, firewalls, AVG software, WIN XP, bulletin board software and security software.

All of those references were in response to questions about a particular item, sometimes followed up by many more posts in which the questions became more detailed and the answers more specific. Spamming? Hardly. Sharing information and experience. But by some of the criteria mentioned here to weed out those Pro Spammers, my posts would be highly suspect.

Knee-jerk reactions should be confined to a physician's office. Blatant spamming should be addressed. Attempts to read between the lines to determine one's motives smacks of a famous Senator that examined the minutiae of someone's daily life to determine their political leaning.

With the number of people reading threads here it is unlikely that a recommendation for some unknown piece of software or service will simply slip by without questions being asked. If the software or service happens to be good, then isn't the objective of a the forum met? To provide accurate information in a dynamic medium that allows for peer review?

Don't let a tempest in a teapot become a storm that swallows reason.

WebGuerrilla




msg:1562240
 8:39 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)


I think one of the best things we have done in along time to curb the problem is starting this thread. This is by far the number one topic of discussion amoung the Mod crew here. And because of the incredible growth this place has experienced over the last year or so, it's becoming more and more difficult to manage.

At this point, the biggest thing we can do, is spend a little more time talking about the problem with our members. If a large percentage of our user base learns to evaluate posts from a similar viewpoint as the Mods, then the value of spamming here is greatly diminished.

For me personally, the items that Brett mentioned that are the biggest concern are the tag team operations that start out as an innocent looking request for a recommendation and then go on to present a plug for a particular product or service. These posts are far more evil than the typical drive-by, because they intentionally violate an implied trust that exists among WebmasterWorld members.I hate those kind of threads with a passion, and as one of the more cynical Mods, I usually vote to nuke them without question.

But gethan's first post [webmasterworld.com] is a great example of the difficulty involved with making those calls.

If the decision was totally up to me, I would have nuked it. (which would have been the wrong thing to do). From my point of view, it clearly looked like a setup to drop URL's for a specific piece of forum software. Re-reading it all these months later, it is clear that gethan's request was completely genuine. However, it's also pretty clear that there were also a couple of trollers who used the thread as an opportunity to drop a plug.

Tip:always keep in mind when reading old threads that the member post count reflects their current number of posts, not the number of posts they had at the time they contributed to the thread)

The other issue that is tough, is post count building. When determining whether or not to edit or remove a post, one of the biggest factors that determines what action I'll take is the level of contribution of the particular member. But you cannot accurately assess that by looking solely at their post count.

The clever spammers understand that many people use the post count number as a measure of credibility, so they will spend a couple of days posting a bunch of "I agree with what <insert member name here> said" type posts. When you are only typing a sentence or two with each reply, it doesn't take too long to rack up a count that looks good.

On the other side of that coin, we have members whose post counts don't even come close to reflecting their true value and staus around this place. One of the best examples that comes to mind is Paynt. To this day, she probably has one of the lowest total post counts amoung the Mod crew. But the depth and quality of her posts are absolutely amazing. I was so blown away with the amount of time and effort she put into her initial posts here. In my mind, she was a Senior member after her first couple of posts.

From a Moderators point of view, those kind of variables make it pretty tough, because they ultimately produce situations that can appear to be a doubled standard, or prefferential treatment to newer members who have the impression that our policies are a bit more black & white than they really are. The truth is that they are extremely subjective, and other than the blatant drive-bys, each post that may fall in the grey area gets evaluated individually.

I think that as we continue to grow, it becomes more and more important for all our members to have a good understanding of our overall spam policing process, and more threads like this one, will go along way to accomplishing that. If you have a comment or question about a particular situation, by all means post them here, or drop a Mod a SM. The more input we get, the easier it becomes to stay on a course that benefits everyone.

IanTurner




msg:1562241
 8:47 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

cyril

Look at WebMasterWorld as a bit of a Robin Hoods camp. There are standards inside the camp that have to be maintained. We all know what goes on outside and many of us have our own forums and do website promotion (white, grey and black).

Many (if not all) of the members here have used these techniques elsewhere. If we let WMW become a free for all for use of the techniques the place would not have the reputation that it does. WMW is run by professional webmasters for professional webmasters, and therefore should be able to, not only teach people about promotion techniques, but also teach them how to avoid the worst excesses that they may be subject to.

I think this thread is doing a great job in that respect. How many places around the internet could you learn the difference between a drive by spammer and tag team spammers?

ritualcoffee




msg:1562242
 8:55 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Strangly enough - I tend to look at the join date instead of post counts.

That's my one line/two line post to rake up counts ;)

MarkHutch




msg:1562243
 8:59 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I may be showing my age with this comment, but I remember when news groups were a good place to find information. Now look at them. In my view, a total waste of time. Nothing but spam and trash is left in most of them. Do what you have to do to keep this and other forums from being turned into one large SPAM advertisment factory.

digitalghost




msg:1562244
 9:11 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I could care less about post counts, join date, letters that follow someone's name, etc.

I care about the information. If people are using post counts as a means to determine the value of the information presented perhaps they should learn the difference between a prolific writer and a good writer.

The join date is meaningless as well. Now if there were a meter that indicated posts read and information absorbed it might be valuable as a yardstick to determine the authority of a poster's viewpoint, but still meaningless in regard to the actual information presented.

Anyone can be wrong about a particular idea regardless of the amount of study involved. Being wrong isn't a terrible thing, closing your mind to opposing ideas is unforgivable.

In any event, information should be weighed carefully at all times, not given tacit approval because the information is presented in a "respected" medium, regardless of the medium.

DG

ritualcoffee




msg:1562245
 9:19 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I'm sure that opposing ideas are well respected around here since most of what we post a month ago isn't necessarily correct today.

However, if I am going to take the advice from someone within this forum you are darn right I am going to look at their join date and make sure I recognize their username - because I won't always know what is a quality post and what isn't.

digitalghost




msg:1562246
 9:24 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

So, advice from someone that joined recently should be discounted?

The join date determines the quality of the information?

Interesting...

DG

heini




msg:1562247
 9:26 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

DG, being around for a while here usually shows some committment, which is a quality in itself.
That does not imply that new members can't make a huge impact with a only handful of posts.
Concerning ProFoSpam anyhow this is just not exactly the point. There's a difference between offering some unique point of view with a first post or some request for a piece of software or a site.

Brad




msg:1562248
 9:28 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

>Do what you have to do to keep this and other forums from being turned into one large SPAM advertisment factory.

Yes please do.

This reminds me of the Web Entropy [webmasterworld.com] thread. Spammers are the barbarians hammering at the gates. And it chases the good visitors off from both the sites and the Web.

Unfortunately, with so few free directories and search engines left with any traffic it puts even more pressure on forums being hit by spammers. I suspect it is only going to get worse.

digitalghost




msg:1562249
 9:33 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

Concerning ProFoSpam anyhow this is just not exactly the point

I believe my previous post addressed that point.

Further, "being around for awhile shows some level of commitment."

It certainly does not. Commitment isn't measured in length of stay. Commitment is measured by the adherence to values, the ability to stay focused and remain true to your beliefs in the face of adversity. There are many members of organizations that aren't committed, inertia keeps them in place.

I've seen this thought process in action, seniority is given precedence, and it is wrong consistently. Information should always be based on its own merits.

DG

(edited by: digitalghost at 9:43 pm (utc) on Mar. 21, 2002)

feeder




msg:1562250
 9:34 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

"At this point, the biggest thing we can do, is spend a little more time talking about the problem with our members. If a large percentage of our user base learns to evaluate posts from a similar viewpoint as the Mods, then the value of spamming here is greatly diminished. "

Fully agree. If we make people aware of the practice, then we'll spot most of it. The really slick stuff will still get through, but should be such a small percentage as to be insignificant.



ritualcoffee




msg:1562251
 9:40 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

DG - I think there was a misunderstanding...between dropping and adding value...

If a new member drops a product name or url in response to a request for info - I am not going to take that as seriously as I would if another member I recognized dropped it.

heini




msg:1562252
 9:40 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

DG, the point I want to stress anyhow is we as a community need both - committed members setting the tone and standard of the board AND new members with fresh, controversial points of view.

skibum




msg:1562253
 9:46 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

"lack of noise" as RCmentioned is one of the best benefits of the forums here. Virtually ever other forum I've seen is absolutely full of super long sigs, pictures of the members that accompany every single post, and lots of other distracting noise.

Even the stuff from Adventive, they've got some great Q&A in the discussion forums they moderate and send out. Often though, it seems like the people who post are more interested in the book length sig they can post. It's a lot easier and more enjoyable to read here, than having to sift through all that stuff.

Would it be appropriate to create a porducts/services forum here? There are definately times when it's great to be able to get recomendations and find out what works from other board memebers. Most of the time though, if it's not a recognizable nic that talks about said products or services I don't pay much attention to it. If a forum like that was created it might be beneficial to keep it out of the engines. It would get less exposure that way, be less desirable to drop URL's there and any URLs to things posted in there would probably get realistic feedback from those that hang around here and are familiar with whatever lies at the other end of the URL. If the claims are bogus, they'd probably get knocked down pretty quick, and if it is something worthwhile, then everyone would benefit.

(edited by: skibum at 9:47 pm (utc) on Mar. 21, 2002)

jeremy goodrich




msg:1562254
 9:46 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

It's good to read so many members thoughts on this, because as the other mods have said this is what we talk about the most when discussing board issues.

The reason I love this place is because of the lack of 'self promotion' and the willingness for everybody, no matter who they are or how long they've been around, to help a fellow webmaster :)

My personal opinion is that as long as it helps maintain the open atmosphere, and we are nice about it, any promo or url dropping forum spammer should get a nice, friendly stickmyail that says we just don't do that here ;)

digitalghost




msg:1562255
 9:50 pm on Mar 21, 2002 (gmt 0)

I see your point Coffee, but I disagree. If a new member provides a URL that I can use, that is relevant or provides additional information then it serves a purpose for me.

If Brett provides a link to a product that doesn't fit my needs, the information does me no good.

A lurker might not post until a contribution they are confident about can be made.

For me, there is no distinction made between how long they have been a member or how many posts they have made.

It is all about the information.

DG

(edited by: digitalghost at 9:54 pm (utc) on Mar. 21, 2002)

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