Is splog the new spam? That's the question being asked by an increasingly irate weblogging community as it grapples with the dodgy sites that are starting to ruin search engine results. And top of the list causing the splog explosion is Google, the search engine giant.
A splog is a spam or fake blog created to achieve a high search engine result. The splogger makes money from advertising placed in the splog - often using Google's AdSense service - or by directing visitors to e-commerce sites. Topics range from cruises and health to porn and gambling. On a cheap-looking splog about gambling, to take one example, AdSense advertisements may link to well-known betting firms. The placing of these advertisements is beyond the firms' control, and end up wasting their impact.
The splog issue has grown quickly and nobody knows how many there are. Tracking service Technorati, which follows 20m blogs, says up to 8% of the 70,000 blogs created every day are fake. Feedster blocks thousands a day while Splogspot.com publishes a weekly list. The latest shows 41,000, of which 34,000 are on Google's free Blogspot hosting service.
Splogfighter, an anonymous American, was so incensed that he started a one-man war. He is prompting Google to delete thousands of splogs a day from Blogspot.
"The splog situation has deteriorated quite considerably lately," he says. He has personally downed 25,000 splogs since late August. "One spammer created about 13,000 spam blogs, which set off sharp criticism of Google's inaction."
That inaction has created a money-making opportunity for sploggers tricking search engines by overusing key words and links. Such chicanery boosts the search ranking of featured pages, and draws in visitors who click on pay-per-click advertisements. Splogs can be built quickly by simple automatic scripts or programs.
Such stunts have caused a sharp reaction from bloggers and retaliation from search engine IceRocket.com, which temporarily stopped indexing Blogspot sites.
Fighting the frustration
"In my opinion, Google's Blogspot is by far the worst offender," says Blake Rhodes, chief executive of IceRocket. "The blog software people need to make the signup process a lot more difficult and users should have to verify each post by email. We are indexing Blogspot again and will keep a close eye on things."
Rhodes' suggestion is aimed at perhaps the biggest issue - ensuring reliable search engine results. Bloggers say splogs have no value, and frustrated users find splog- infested search results contain little of value. The problem is that, unlike email filtering, they can do nothing to stop it.
Jason Goldman, product manager for Blogger, says it is taking action such as visual word verification and various filters. A "flag as objectionable" feature allows users to report splogs to the company's anti-spam and anti-fraud teams.
"These tools are just the initial steps as we work with other blog services for a larger solution," says Goldman, who believes only a minority of the millions of blogs on Blogspot contain spam. Google deleted 13,000 splogs and published the list that caused the original outcry.
But isn't there a conflict of interest? Splogs earn Google revenue from AdSense adverts, and provide exposure for advertising customers unwittingly included on splogs - including Bupa, Halifax Bank, and Co-Op Travel. However, such companies may dislike their image being cheapened by splogs and the unscrupulous getting a cut of their advertising fees.
"Spam blogs cost Google money both on the hosting and infrastructure side for Blogger as well on the AdSense side with spam prevention," says Goldman. "We take our obligation to our AdSense advertisers seriously and spam, left unchecked, would dilute the confidence our advertisers place in us. By being aggressive on combating spam, we want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Yet this is a battle Google will not win. There are always people who see the Internet as a money-making tool. Just as spammers rapidly adapt to anti-spam measures, the sploggers are learning fast, too. It's a highly technical war and the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.