As the Internet evolves, is there a place for spam?

Spam volumes are down dramatically, but the scourge of the Internet is smarter and more dangerous than ever

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The hunt for new ways to pump out unwanted messages is a natural evolution. Old fashioned e-mail isn't the ubiquitous connector it once was. According to the Pew Center for Internet Life, young Internet users shy away from e-mail, preferring texts and instant messages. Pew's December 2010 Generations report on Internet usage found that 70-year-olds are now more likely to use email than teenagers.

In an effort to reach these younger Internet users, scammers have turned to search engines too, poisoning search results by gaming Google or Bing.

"People are spending more time on Web properties than they were four or five years ago," said Paul Judge, chief research officer at security appliance vendor Barracuda Networks. The result is that search engine results are becoming cluttered with blatantly commercial or useless pages, in much the same way that email boxes were flooded when spam first spiked about a decade ago.

Scammers know how search engines work, and they work hard to get their dodgy pages to pop up near the top of search results. They bombard online forums with links to their pages or hack into websites to add links -- all in an effort to boost their Google ranking. For less than $100, crooked marketers can automatically add 10,000 links --typically from the comments section of blogs -- to whatever webpage they want. This can quickly push a webpage to the top of Google or Bing's results.

This doesn't only lead to bad Web-searching. Sometimes it means that people get hacked. In fact, the number of malicious Web pages that use search engine optimization tricks to lure visitors nearly doubled between June and December last year, Judge said.

Even spammy Web pages that aren't malicious, the ones slapped together with stolen or low-quality content, are becoming a problem. Earlier this year Google was forced to acknowledge a "slight uptick" in spam pages, and said it was trying new tricks to exclude unwanted pages from its results.

Spam is morphing. So while the spam boom that kicked off in the late 1990s may finally be abating, that doesn't mean unwanted mass emails are going away. It's still an effective way for scammers to quickly and cheaply connect with millions of people they don't know, and convince them to buy something they don't need or to go to a Web site they should really avoid.

On Monday, Cisco's IronPort group tracked more than 45 billion spam messages. That means spam accounted for 86% of all the email on the Internet that day. In a recent report, Symantec pegged spam at 73% of all email. But both companies agree that it's at its lowest levels in years.

Robert Soloway believes spam will never die, so long as email is free. But the barriers to entry are getting higher. According to the former Spam King, people will try it out, then once they realize how hard it is to make it big, most will move on to something else.

But those who have found a way to make money will be around for a long time, said Dell's Stewart. They may be dinosaurs, but "they're dinosaurs that are still making money," he said. "I don't think they're going to quit."

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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