How Link Spammers Killed My Wife’s Web Site

If you’re link spamming, you suck. If you know someone who is link spamming, they suck — and you should tell them so. If you don’t know why you suck, here’s a story about the human impact of what you do.

About a year ago, my wife Lorna Harris launched a social news site for woman called Boudica. You won’t find anything there now. The site’s closed due to a link spamming attack and will probably never reopen.

Lorna wanted a place where women could share stories relating to women but without a predominance of “mommy” content she’d found in some other places. Not finding what she wanted, she dived into creating Boudica.

She assembled the site entirely on her own, finding a programmer, working to develop the features and watching over the small community that made use of it.

Most of her time was spent dealing with the inevitable spam attacks that a community site faces. While her site had some defenses, this latest attack was too much. Someone decided the world needed another 500+ links about discount prescription drugs.

Wiping the links out would be fast work for a programmer that knows Drupal, which her site was based on. But that’s still time and money for a small site that hasn’t generated income. Plus, the version of Drupal that she’s running really needs to be upgraded to prevent future attacks. That’s more time and money that’s not likely worth spending.

If Boudica had been more successful, doing the work would make sense. But it has remained small, and the link spam attack will probably tip her over to a decision she’s already been debating, of whether it makes sense to continue working at it. She doesn’t want to feel a failure if she abandons it; my feeling is that she’s learned much from doing it, so look at it as a building block for future success.

Still, being small doesn’t excuse the attack. Nor do other excuses that typically get trotted out carry much weight with me, such as “You get what’s coming if you don’t have strong defenses” or “it’s Google’s fault — they created the link economy that drives this demand.”

No, the core problem is that the web has people who think nothing of vandalizing other web sites. That’s what link spamming is. You’re not adding value to a site. You’re simply spray painting garbage on someone else’s property, for your own personal benefit. You have no manners. You have no morals. You ought to be ashamed.

Ironically, I was in a debate this week where I was sticking up for the SEO industry (see SEO FAQ That’s Not From The Land Of Unicorns). To some, that means I’m sticking up for link spamming, since they see the SEO industry as synonymous with link spam.

SEO doesn’t mean link spamming in my book. There are SEOs who also link spam, clearly. Aside from hurting individual site owners, you give the entire SEO industry a bad name. You should stop. Or call yourself something else — perhaps link spammer would be a good title?

I’ve written against link spam before. Back in 2005, I tried to get some consensus that automated link spam ought to be condemned by those in the industry overall. One example I pointed out during that campaign was Mike Grehan’s classic story of fending off link spam of a memorial web site in 2004.

Seriously, who wants to stand up in defense of dropping links on a site dedicated to a dead man?

Who wants to stand up for causing someone (me) to take time away during Thanksgiving last year to deal with link spam (see Crappy MP3 Sites, Comment Spamming & Enough Already)?

Who wants to stand up for killing a site that a mother was making time for in between the already full-time job of watching her kids?

In the US, we got CAN-SPAM primarily to help get junk spam email in control. It’s helped, though clearly spam email hasn’t gone away. Still, I think the time is overdue to look at updating CAN-SPAM to include link spam. I intend to explore that further.

We shouldn’t need laws as a deterrent, of course. Basic human decency ought to be enough. Those who are link spamming should be able to ask themselves one simple question about what they’re doing and know they shouldn’t go forward:

Is that the type of thing you’d be proud to tell your own mother about?

Postscript: By link spamming, by the way, I include comment spam as that’s often done solely to gain a link.

Postscript 2: Peter, below in the comments, sees this as a crybaby post. It’s not. Let me clarify a bit more, if my points above didn’t make this clear.

I’m not naive. I understand that sites should have anti-spamming filters in place. Lorna’s had some. It could have more. But I’ve also seen spam get through anti-spam filters on my own Sphinn social news site. That site employs multiple-CAPTCHA barriers, along with an array of other deterrents. It also has human moderators. Link spammers still attack it. Link spammers will attack ANYTHING out there, and nothing is foolproof. The first programmer that tells you they have a perfect anti-spam solution will soon after encounter another programmer who will blow that fallacy out of the water.

For success with a social site, or any site that allows user-generated content (such as a blog allowing comments), you have to be prepared to fight spam. Lorna expected it and has been fighting it. She could, if she wants, get this latest huge barrage of spam cleared out on Boudica and improve spam filters going forward, if she choses. She’s currently debating this. It just may be, as I explained above, that this was the thing that tips her toward closing the site, something she was already considering because of low usage.

But the main point is that decision shouldn’t be something forced upon her through an act of vandalism. That on the web, I feel we kind of accept that this type of spam happens, and you have to live with it. It does, you do — but I’m hoping for more than the usual rant that is all those impacted by it feel they have. I’m hoping in a small way that some of those who engage in these actions take a moment to think further about what they are doing. Or that perhaps some who know others who link spam will send a message out to knock it off.