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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 June 13, 2019

    How to Quit Your Boring Life and Start Living an Interesting One

    How to Quit Your Boring Life and Start Living an Interesting One

    Think you have a boring life?

    The definition of boring is dull or not interesting. Maybe you’ve been doing the same thing and living the same life for too long, or maybe your daily routine is limiting your growth and happiness. Whatever your reason is, the following list of 20 things can definitely make any day more interesting. Some of them are silly, while some are more meaningful, so hopefully just reading the list makes your life less boring and sparks your creativity.

    Let’s dive in the list to quit your boring life and start living an interesting (and meaning) one!

    1. Channel Your 7-Year-Old Self

    What would he or she want to do right now? Color? Paint? Run around outside? Play dress up? Eat with your hands? Play that instrument hiding in the back of your closet that you haven’t touched in years?

    Just because you’re a grown up doesn’t mean any of this stuff will be less enjoyable than you remember it. Give yourself permission to play.

    2. Go Play with Kids

    Speaking of little kids, if you have your own or access to any (in a non-creepy way, like they’re your niece or your best friend’s kid, you get the idea) go play with them!

    They didn’t create an entire show called Kids Say The Darndest Things because kids aren’t hilarious. They also keep things so simple, and we can really stand to be reminded of this and stop allowing ourselves to get bogged down in boring details.

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    3. Order a Hot Dog

    While you’re eating it, Google: “What’s in a hot dog?” You decide whether or not you want to finish it.

    4. For the Ladies: Wear Your Sexiest Lingerie Under Your Work Clothes

    Your “little secret” will leave you feeling anything but boring all day!

    5. Play Cell Phone Roulette

    You’ll need at least one buddy for this. Scroll through the contacts in your phone, stop on a random one and call the person.

    You could spark an incredible catch up session or be incredibly awkward. Neither are boring.

    6. Fill out a Pack of Thank-You Cards

    Give them to random people who probably don’t get thanked too often for doing what they do ever day.

    Ideas: police officers, librarians, servers, baristas, cab drivers, sanitation workers, teachers, people behind any check out counter, receptionists, your friends, the guy at the falafel stand, etc.

    7. Sign up for a Class in Something You’ve “Always Wanted to Do”, or Something That Makes You Really Uncomfortable

    Ideas: pole dancing, salsa lessons, improv, pottery, cooking, knitting (yup, there are classes for this, too!), karate, boxing, something techy like the workshops they run in Apple stores, get Rosetta Stone and learn that language you’ve always wanted to speak, etc.

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    What’s good about joining an interest class is that you will also meet new people!

    8. Interview Your Grandparents About Their Lives

    You can bet they’ve had some crazy experiences you probably never knew about.

    9. Get up on Stage at an Open Mic Night

    Whether you’re funny or not, get up on stage and just talk funny. And if you’re not, memorize a few of your favorite jokes and tell those!

    10. Do Something for Someone Else That You Wish Someone Would Do for You

    We all have a few ideas on this list. I promise you will feel amazing after and anything but bored.

    11. Start a DIY Project in Your Home

    It doesn’t have to be super complicated. If you need ideas, there’re plenty on Pinterest. Or you can also check out these 30 Awesome DIY Projects that You’ve Never Heard of.

    12. Plan a Weekend Trip or an All-Out Vacation

    This will give you something to look forward to.

    Even if you don’t have the time or money to go on a vacation, plan for a staycation, which is same fun and relaxing!

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    13. People Watch

    Find a bench in a crowded area (centers of transportation like airports, bus stops and train stations are great for this!) and just observe.

    People are infinitely interesting.

    14. Eat Something You’ve Never Eaten Before

    Bonus points if it’s a random fruit or veggie.

    15. Dance

    You can get your friends together for a night on the town or just pull up a video on YouTube and bust a move from your own living room.

    If you’re feeling extra brave, you can even dance in public and get other people involved.

    16. Go to YOUTUBE and Search “Funny Pets” or “Funny Babies”

    This is also a great quickie ab workout as you will be laughing hysterically.

    17. Pick up a Book and Start Reading

    Check out the NY Times Best Sellers lists and grab a new book you can get lost in.

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    18. Step Away from the Computer and Go Get Some Time with People You Care About in Real Life

    Facebook stalking doesn’t count as real social interaction. You can even share this post with your friends and vote on which one you’d like to do together!

    19. Check out a Museum You’ve Never Been to Before

    OK, depending on your interests, this one might actually be boring. If you love learning, art or different cultures though, this one is for you!

    20. Write a List of Things You Desire and Truly Want

    This is a great way to help you figure out the real reason why you’re feeling bored about your life. Maybe you haven’t really done things that you truly enjoy? Maybe what you’ve wanted to do all the time has been left behind?

    Think about the list of things you really want to do, and ask yourself why you aren’t doing these things (yet). Then start taking your first step to make what you want happen.

    Now go make your life interesting and live your dream life!

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    Featured photo credit: Kev Costello via unsplash.com

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