Bad Behavior and Spam Karma do a good job of fighting most of the spam that hits this site, but over the last few weeks I’ve seen a (relatively) new kind that seems to require manual intervention: pingback spam.

It took a long time for spammers to really start abusing pingbacks, because of two things: First, pingbacks require the remote site to link to your site before they can get you to link to theirs. Second, it was just so much easier to abuse trackbacks and ordinary comments. I guess those have gotten locked down enough that it’s worth the effort to target pingbacks now.

The pingbacks show up within a few minutes to a few hours of posting. When I look at the site, it’s running actual blogging software; often I can recognize a particular WordPress theme. But it’s got more advertisements (usually Google ads) than content, the title and description look very keyword-stuffed, and the about page, if any, is just default text. The 15-minute–old post linking to mine has already been pushed off the front page, or else there’s only one post there anyway. Often they don’t bother with friendly permalinks, and just have the p=12345 structure… and the number is very high.

And that post that links to mine? Something like, “XYZ wrote an interesting post on [post title]. Here’s an excerpt:” followed by the first few lines of my post, and yes, an actual link. The funny thing is they rarely bother to make XYZ match either my name, or the site’s name. It’s often completely random.

Clearly they’ve got some RSS search looking for keywords, like Prius or Toyota or Christmas, then they automatically generate an excerpt and post to a blog that’s been set up not for human consumption, but for machine reading, and wait for the hits to come in. (At least they’re just using excerpts. It used to be more common for this sort of site to copy entire posts, and that really pissed me off.)

There’s a screenshot of such a page at Masters of Media, along with some commentary on the failure of nofollow to deter spammers, and the irony that Google is making money off of them. Meanwhile, the Blog Herald goes into the mechanics and ethics of the issue.

I don’t want to disable pingbacks, because it’s a useful feature—just like comments or email. But it’s clear that my current countermeasures aren’t up to this type of spam. Bad Behavior won’t bat an eye, since they’re using actual blogging software to connect. Spam Karma doesn’t seem to be catching them. Sure, I can add some phrases to the blacklist, but I’ve already seen variants popping up. And I’m reluctant to use Akismet, because I don’t want to submit every comment to some other site for verification.

Any suggestions?

Update (Nov. 27): A couple of relevant posts popped up on the Dashboard today. It seems Akismet is running into problems with people marking these messages as not spam. Also, Lorelle discussed the related topic of content theft, in which sploggers repost not just an excerpt, but the entire article, in hopes of getting their copy of your content indexed in search engines.

5 thoughts on “Tired of Pingback Spam

  1. I’ve had a couple of these come through from Thorny Path. I’ve not felt compelled to do anything about it … yet … but I do find it vaguely irksome so far …

  2. I don’t care if they link here, as long as they aren’t posting more than a brief excerpt. But I sure as heck am not going to help them out by linking back to their site.

    Fortunately a few just-general-enough blacklist entries have helped Spam Karma get a handle on the current wave, and most of them are at least going into the moderation queue now.

  3. This morning I got loads of pingbacks. I use Akismet, and it works pretty well… akismet came with my wordpress blog already. All the pingbacks (except my own) went to the spam folder immediately.

    If you mark it as not spam, then the pingbacks will show up if they’ve all been coming from the same IP.

  4. This pingback thing gives me a migraine, I get those when I can’t seem to grasp something, day after day I see these in my email inbox starting with the [ ] and my text. I always use the WP comment manager and delete as spam. Am I doing the right thing?

    • Well, that depends. Not all pingbacks are spam, just like not all email is spam and not all comments are spam. So if you’re reporting every single pingback as spam, you’re doing a disservice not only to the people who are linking to you, but to everyone else who uses the same spam filter (if it’s a collective learning filter like Akismet).

      If you really want to just block all pingbacks and not worry about which ones are spam and which ones are legit, it should be possible to turn them off entirely. WordPress lets you turn them off on the Settings/Discussion page, though you might need to reset it on older posts. (Fortunately the bulk edit features mean you can do this in batches of 20 instead of one at a time.) Other blog software should have a similar option.

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