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Elgan: How spammers will poison your social graph

They wrecked e-mail, then they ruined search, and soon they'll go after your friends and family

December 11, 2010 08:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced in 2004 that the problem of e-mail spam would be "solved" within two years.

Well, it wasn't. And it won't be, at least not anytime soon. The reason is that unscrupulous, shameless marketers who pursue a spam strategy evolve and adapt like a virus. As soon as you build a better spam filter, they figure out how to get around it.

As a result, e-mail long ago became a bad neighborhood. And now an increasing number of people, especially young people, avoid e-mail altogether.

Search has been similarly compromised, at least for some kinds of purchases. If you're looking to buy products that are easily counterfeited, or looking for, say, a hotel to stay in or other travel services, a regular search may favor "search spammers" -- shady companies that "game" the search engine to give advantage to their own offerings over better ones.

A particularly hideous case shocked readers of The New York Times recently. The paper told the story of a woman who searched the Web for a place to buy sunglasses and discovered a site called, which appeared fairly high in the search results.

Long story short: The owner of the company, Vitaly Borker, deliberately cultivated bad customer service, threatening the woman and even posing as her in a call to her credit card company when she tried to cancel her order. The reason is that on the Internet, there's no such thing as bad publicity. The more horrible Borker treated his customers, the more links his company got on Google. The more links it got, the more sales it made.

Because of publicity from the Times article, Borker was arrested and the site was "demoted". However, is still up and running and taking orders. And for every unscrupulous search spammer who gets caught, there may be hundreds who don't.

Another kind of "spam" occurs in open message boards, or in user-ranked content services like Digg. Some companies or organizations that want to "astro-turf" an opinion or idea may send legions of fans, employees or paid posters to overwhelm a topic with that point of view. One of the best known is the Chinese government's so-called 50 Cent Army, which involves thousands of people paid to post pro-Chinese Communist Party opinions on message boards and social media sites inside China and around the world.

The Chinese government's well-organized effort overshadows the more informal actions of many organizations that do something similar. Many large multinational corporations encourage employees to go out on the social networks and message boards and say nice things about the company's latest initiative. Some smaller companies use this technique as their main source of marketing.

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