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Confessions of a Spam-Catcher: How to Identify Spam

Confessions of a Spam-Catcher: How to Identify Spam

    As part of my role as Lifehack’s manager, I am responsible for moderating the comments queue. Lifehack’s back-end has a “Pending” queue for comments that our spam-catching software thinks might be spam, a “Spam” queue for comments labeled “spam” either by the software or by me, and another queue for comments that have been approved, again either by the software or by me. As a general rule, I check that “Pending” queue several times a day, the “Approved” queue every day or so, and the “Spam” queue every week or so.

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    I’ve been doing this for two years, and I’ve gotten pretty proficient at figuring out what is and is not spam – a tough call to make sometimes, since spammers get more and more sophisticated in lock-step with those of us charged with blocking them. I present my “formula” here for two reasons: one, to give less experienced bloggers and webmasters an idea of how to catch spam on their own site, and two, to give commenters an idea of the kind of thing to avoid so their comments don’t get accidentally thrown in the “Spam” bin.

    I should say, a big part of catching spam is a “feel” – intuiting that some comment just doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure I can capture exactly what goes into that feel. Andy Warhol once said that to recognize a great painting, first you have to look at a thousand paintings, and catching spam is a bit like that – the experience of having looked at thousands of spam messages cannot be easily encapsulated. But I’ll try as well as I can.

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    What is spam?

    What makes a message spam is relative and subjective. In a sense, spam is like a weed – a weed is not any particular kind of plant, but a plant that isn’t wanted where it’s at. (See, for example, Wikipidia’s definition of Weed as “a plant that is considered by the user of the term to be a nuisance.”) For instance, Corn is delicious, but if it’s growing in your soybean field, it’s a weed. A message that, say, pimps a word processor might be perfectly welcome on a post that asks for product recommendations for writers, while on a post that just happens to mention writing, the same message could be considered spam.

    Some messages are clearly spam; for example, anything delivered by a spambot programmed to leave its message wherever it can find an open form to submit through. But a message can be left by a living person, custom-written for the particular content it’s posted to, and still be spam. This list starts with the most obvious signs and moves to more vague and difficult-to-interpret signs. My guess is that a lot of people run into the ones further down the list because they post without thinking very clearly, so pay attention.

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    A comment is spam if it:

    1. Contains links to websites that are unrelated to the content.
      For example, a comment might say “I think your baby is really cute!” but the word “baby” links to a site selling baby clothes or even a Forex trading site or other scam.
    2. Is posted on more than one post.
      This is obvious, right? Real people don’t post the same comment over and over on different posts, no matter how relevant. most likely it’s a spambot responding to multiple posts on your blog that contain similar keywords.
    3. Contains more than one link.
      While there are a few situations in which a legitimate comment could contain several links, they’re fairly rare. As a general rule, the likelihood of a comment being spam increases directly with the number of links; anything over three and it’s virtually guaranteed to be spam.
    4. Is not directly related to the post.
      A lot of spambots (or even live spammers) crawl the web looking for posts with certain keywords and then insert a generic message loosely related to the topic on the hopes that it will slip past any human reader who is likely to just skim through their comments. Unless a comment addresses something specific about your post, it’s likely to be spam.
    5. Is overly complimentary.
      Most spammers are fairly astute observers of basic human psychology – particularly our desire to believe good things about ourselves. So they butter us up, saying things like “Great post! In fact, I love this whole site – I’m definitely going to come back again and again!”.
    6. Has keywords or a business name in the “Name” field.
      A basic search engine optimization strategy is to get your website’s address associated with specific keywords, and search engines look closely at the text associated with a link to determine the usefulness of the website linked to. Real people aren’t trying to game search engines, and frankly, we want to be recognized for our contribution, so we use our actual name, or a username. If you can’t imagine replying to a person by the name in their “Name” field, you’re dealing with a spammer. (For example, here’s one taken from our spam queue: “Having a good vocabulary not only gives a framework for thought. It also allows you to be concise and precise to make communication better.” This is relevant to the post, and thoughtful, but it was left by an entity named “dining room table”. It’s spam.)
    7. Links to a spammy business.
      This is a tough call – sometimes I’ll see a thoughtful comment clearly written in direct response to the post it’s commenting on, under a real person’s name, and still mark it as spam because they link to a site whose legitimacy is questionable. Could be porn, WOW gold scams, Forex scams, get rich quick schemes, blogs with stolen content, or anything else that feels to me like someone left a comment more to get their link out than to add to the discussion.
    8. Quotes the post without responding to the quote.
      This is a relatively sophisticated spam technique: pulling lines out of the post it’s responding to in order to make the language of the comment sound like real writing. Real people mark the quotes they’re commenting on (usually with quotation marks, but it could be by italicizing or bolding it, putting it in blockquotes, or some other means) and try to clearly separate their response form the post’s words.
    9. Is posted on an old post.
      Old posts tend to attract a lot of spam. Real people generally recognize that if a post is a year or so old, the conversation there is pretty much over. Spambots do not realize that. It still sometimes happens that someone comments on an ancient post, but the age of the post is a big red flag.
    10. Is in a different language from the site.
      If the point of a comment is to engage in discussion with the author of the post and his or her readers, it doesn’t make much sense to comment in a language that you’re not sure the author knows.
    11. Is from a Russian .ru domain.
      I hate to stereotype an entire top-level domain like this. I’m sure there are Russians out there making thoughtful comments on blogs all the time. And yet I’ve never had a comment that wasn’t spam from a commentor with a .ru domain or email address.
    12. Tells a long, personal story.
      This is experience talking – a lot of times you’ll see what appears to be a blog post in its own right in your moderation queue that starts off, at least, relevant, and is clearly written by a real person. This falls under the “Weed” heading – it might have been totally welcome except it’s out of place as a comment on your blog.
    13. Asks for specific support.
      This is another “weed” situation: a comment on a post about, say, installing Windows 7 that asks for help with a specific problem. Unless the point of your site is to answer specific questions about computer problems, this comment is out of place. There are better and more likely places to get help than on your blog.
    14. Feels wrong.
      Sometimes a comment just feels wrong – it is a little too smarmy, maybe, or it’s a little too formal and stiff. You click through the link and it’s a legitimate-enough site, maybe a little sketchy, but you can totally construct a case where this comment was written by a real person with something to say. The question, though, isn’t what was the intention of the writer, but what is the effect on the conversation on your site. If a comment doesn’t seem to quite fit, you’re well within your rights to “spam it”.

    Anyone else have advice for would-be spam-catchers? Or for commenters who might be finding their comments relegated to the spam-heaps of history? Leave a thoughtful, non-spammy comment below!

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    What do I want to do with my life? It’s a question all of us think about at one point or another.

    For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it takes a lifetime to figure out.

    It’s easy to just go through the motions and continue to do what’s comfortable and familiar. But for those of you who seek fulfillment, who want to do more, these questions will help you paint a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.

    1. What are the things I’m most passionate about?

    The first step to living a more fulfilling life is to think about the things that you’re passionate about.

    What do you love? What fulfills you? What “work” do you do that doesn’t feel like work? Maybe you enjoy writing, maybe you love working with animals or maybe you have a knack for photography.

    The point is, figure out what you love doing, then do more of it.

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    2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

    Think about your past experiences and the things in your life you’re most proud of.

    How did those accomplishments make you feel? Pretty darn good, right? So why not try and emulate those experiences and feelings?

    If you ran a marathon once and loved the feeling you had afterwards, start training for another one. If your child grew up to be a star athlete or musician because of your teachings, then be a coach or mentor for other kids.

    Continue to do the things that have been most fulfilling for you.

    3. If my life had absolutely no limits, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

    Here’s a cool exercise: Think about what you would do if you had no limits.

    If you had all the money and time in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you spend time with?

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    These answers can help you figure out what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t mean you need millions of dollars to be happy though.

    What it does mean is answering these questions will help you set goals to reach certain milestones and create a path toward happiness and fulfillment. Which leads to our next question …

    4. What are my goals in life?

    Goals are a necessary component to set you up for a happy future. So answer these questions:

    Once you figure out the answers to each of these, you’ll have a much better idea of what you should do with your life.

    5. Whom do I admire most in the world?

    Following the path of successful people can set you up for success.

    Think about the people you respect and admire most. What are their best qualities? Why do you respect them? What can you learn from them?

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    You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.[1] So don’t waste your time with people who hold you back from achieving your dreams.

    Spend more time with happy, successful, optimistic people and you’ll become one of them.

    6. What do I not like to do?

    An important part of figuring out what you want to do with your life is honestly assessing what you don’t want to do.

    What are the things you despise? What bugs you the most about your current job?

    Maybe you hate meetings even though you sit through 6 hours of them every day. If that’s the case, find a job where you can work more independently.

    The point is, if you want something to change in your life, you need to take action. Which leads to our final question …

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    7. How hard am I willing to work to get what I want?

    Great accomplishments never come easy. If you want to do great things with your life, you’re going to have to make a great effort. That will probably mean putting in more hours the average person, getting outside your comfort zone and learning as much as you can to achieve as much as you can.

    But here’s the cool part: it’s often the journey that is the most fulfilling part. It’s during these seemingly small, insignificant moments that you’ll often find that “aha” moments that helps you answer the question,

    “What do I want to do with my life?”

    So take the first step toward improving your life. You won’t regret it.

    Featured photo credit: Andrew Ly via unsplash.com

    Reference

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