Since joining the Web Analytics World team I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of different websites, from existing ones getting a revamp to brand new start ups and websites with forums attached. I’ve been a member of forums in the past but this year has seen me join the admin team on a forum and it’s been a steep but most excellent and enjoyable learning curve.
Forums, or any online community or message board, allows like-minded, or even opposing, individuals who have a shared interest to: discuss and share information related to that interest, gain solutions to problems from those with differing experiences, alert each other to breaking news and join in on off-topic chat.
As we looked at in last month’s post on comment spam, if you allow web visitors to enter information that can be seen by others or indexed by search engines, you will unfortunately gain your share of spammers. Forums provide more than the opportunity to post just a single comment:
- forum members have profile fields (signatures, home pages)
- members can post multiple times
- members can create image albums, groups
- members are able to send private messages to other members.
The spammer or spambot will register as a new forum member and may then:
- never complete the registration – you’ll see them as “users awaiting email confirmation”
- leave the account dormant
- not include any spam links and in fact start to post non-spammy content
- include a hyperlink or links in one of the profile fields and perhaps post spammy or non spammy content.
Dormant accounts can be left as they are for months with no spam links and then, perhaps when it’s anticipated that the forum moderators and admin’s attentions will have moved onto newer members, the account is edited to include links.
Spammers posting non spammy content can, once they’ve built up their posts, then edit their profile to include spam links in the signature (which is then displayed against each of their posts).
This is just a few examples of spam activity but the aim is the same as with comment spam; to increase the linked site’s search engine rank or gain visitors by enticing the forum’s members to click on the links provided.
Don’t waste your time and don’t take it personally
No one wants a perfectly spam free forum if it means that you as the admin or moderator have to spend all your time reviewing every post or new member. Perhaps it may be feasible if you have a small forum, but what about one with over 5,000 members, 20,000 threads and 600, 000 posts? The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce the level of spammers that post spam, or include profile spam, without spending hours on reviewing profiles and posts.
The majority of the time the spammers are hitting your forum because the member page is in essence a form – a place where they can enter spam. I’ve seen very specialised communities get hit with spammers and bots, who then become non-completes or non active members as they can’t easily post or include spam links on their membership fields.
Where to spend your time
- Settings – use your forum’s admin settings against spam
- Check out how you are getting users to register as new members. Make full use of captcha and questions designed to catch out spam bots, recently I’ve seen CAPTCHAs where the user has to turn a picture the correct way up, or click and drag the image of a cat out of four random images into a circle. Remember to think to about accessibility if you are using CAPTCHA and provide an alternative interface for users who cannot see the screen.
- Look at the user permissions e.g. not allowing new members to have access to their signature field or putting new users first posts into auto moderation until they have achieved a set number that have passed and been published
My tactics have improved as I’ve got more knowledgeable about forum spam and I’m sure they will have evolved/changed by this time next year but there are two valuable lessons which I don’t see changing:
- Trust my instinct – I’ve spent all my life working with people, and even though I’m just reading posts…the user behaviour which doesn’t sit right, results in a spammer identification over 90% of the time.
- I’m human – I won’t ever get the forum 100% free from spam and I will make a very occasional mistake. It’s not a disaster if I ban someone who shouldn’t be – bans can be lifted. So I just have to ensure that members have another route to reach our admin team e.g. via contact form.
We may alter our tactics in the future but so far we’re happy with how it’s working. How about you? – We’re keen to hear about your experience with forum spam and any hints or tips that you can share with our readers.