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There was a time not too long ago when you could spot spam comments on a blog from a mile away. There were too many links, the comment was off-topic, and they were trying to promote a pyramid scheme website. But as human and automated filters started catching problematic posters, their techniques became more sneaky. Soon, there were comments that were on-topic but included a link to a product; or, the comment began with a chipper compliment to the blogger but ended with an off-topic promotion.

When commenters include links promoting their own services or blogs, they are fine as long as they remain relevant to the topic of the discussion. But more people are pushing that line every day. Now, I end up scratching my head about comments like this one I received on MediaShift about a story on Brightcove’s video service:

As everyone knows by now, video is very exciting. I think in the next few years people will discover that video is appropriate for certain areas of the consumer market; right now it seems like everyone wants to use video for everything. I think the small business arena will benefit the most from video which is pretty much the thesis behind Jippidy.com. —Anthony

While Anthony doesn’t include a link in his comment directly to Jippidy, he does include his Jippidy email address when he made his comment — so I can see that he works there. Not surprisingly, there’s a nearly identical comment on my video-advertising story, left by George, who links his name directly to Jippidy.com. So it appears that they are making a comment about online video on stories about online video. But the real purpose is to get that link to Jippidy and spread the word about their site, without making a comment about the story itself.

(In fact, a Google search for everyone knows by now, video is very exciting turned up 591 search results with the same comment popping up on sites such as Wired News and Lost Remote.)

So where do you draw the line as a site publisher? When does a comment cross the line and become an irrelevant a commercial message? And what about commercial messages that are relevant to the conversation — shouldn’t they be allowed? Many publishers say they can filter out comments that go over the line, while others such as Newsvine and MSNBC put up stringent registration regimes to keep unwanted commercial messages at bay.

Recently, I put this question to my Twitter followers: “When should commercial messages and promotions be allowed in online comments, how do you draw the line?”

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Jay Rosen

Here are some of their answers:

Howard Rheingold (author/blogger and professor): People can link back to whatever they are selling only as long as their comment actually adds to the particular conversation.

Jay Rosen (author/blogger and professor): When you’re pulling more from the conversation than you are putting in with a relevant link, you crossed over.

Lisa Pickoff-White (multimedia reporter/producer): Just debated this myself and posted a link to a report in a comment on Salon because it was on topic and added value.

In my conversations with bloggers and site publishers, they said there were many cases of judgment calls — comments that sounded good at first but didn’t pass the smell test. Steve Hall, who runs the Adrants blog covering the advertising business, says he depends on automated filters and his own common sense.

“It’s all in the eye of the beholder but yes, this sort of comment/forum spam is annoying,” Hall told me via email. “Thankfully, on Adrants, I don’t see much of it due to some pretty industrial strength filters. But these messages can appear organically in the middle of a comment or a post. Some are simple, innocuous references to a company that is completely in line with the subject matter of the comment/forum. Other times, they are blatant self-promotion…If all it amounts to is self-promotion and offers nothing to the comment/forum topic, I’ll delete it.”

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Steve Hall

Now it’s confession time. I’ve tried to promote MediaShift by having a freelancer leave comments on relevant blogs with a link to MediaShift. I directed the freelancer to make comments responsive to the blogs’ content, but the promotion only lasted a few weeks. Now I wonder whether I was crossing a line by trying to increase in-bound links to MediaShift.

Andy Sernovitz literally wrote the book on word-of-mouth marketing, and also helped create an ethics guide for marketers who are trying win over bloggers and online audiences. Sernovitz says there are no gray areas.

“Those kinds of mixed messages, where [commenters] contribute to the conversation but are shamelessly promoting themselves — most people in the word-of-mouth marketing ethics world would say you should delete those messages,” Sernovitz said. “You already are getting a place to put in your comment [on a blog], and you get to list your website. So adding another promotion for yourself [within the comment’s text] is really taking advantage of the publication….You should always disclose who you are and you should follow the rules set out by the blog.”

(Note that the MediaShift marketer never used pseudonyms and never broke a blog’s rules for commenting.)

Automated vs. Human Filtering

Larger news sites have to go through a much larger volume of comments, but they also have more resources in dealing with spam and unwanted commercial messages. The New York Times has human editors moderating every single comment left on blogs. Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor at the Times, told me that he didn’t think sneaky commercial messages were a problem.

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Jonathan Landman

“When moderators see these [commercial messages] they don’t approve them,” Landman said via email. “But lots of people link to their personal blogs. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the line between these and commercial ones is pretty blurry. Obviously it’s impossible to report out each of these so we’re happy to err on the side of allowing people to link to their sites.”

Fair enough. But Landman also points out that there are subjects that can become rife with commercial messages — often placed by people who don’t disclose their connection to the product or service they are endorsing.

“In a few places this is problematical — for example, on travel sites where everybody knows that the travel industry does all sorts of things to try to influence reader-comment sections in its favor,” he said. “Big travel sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia deal with this on a large scale. For us it’s an issue, but a much smaller one. If we see something fishy, we don’t approve it. But I’m sure we miss things all the time. I don’t think, though, we’re seeing any evidence that commercialization of comments is causing any serious disruption.”

Now that MSNBC.com has bought out social-news site Newsvine, it is counting on the new division to help sort out valuable comments from irrelevant commercial ones. Their solution? Newsvine (and MSNBC) requires that people go into a “greenhouse” after first registering, a kind of holding pen that only allows people to write text comments without links. Because people have to jump through more hoops — sometimes waiting 48 hours to become full-fledged members — the impulse to spam the comments is blunted.

Mike Davidson, CEO of Newsvine, explained to me that the greenhouse method has its good sides and bad.

“The greenhouse turns spamming into a high effort, low yield thing, when what they want is a low effort, high yield thing,” he said. “On the upside, it keeps out the sorts of characters you don’t want, but on the downside, it does limit growth somewhat. When we were a startup we didn’t want to have the most users, but we wanted a good number of good users, and that involves turning away people at times.”

On Davidson’s own personal blog, he recently got a long, informed comment from someone who ended up pitching his business at the end. While it irked him, Davidson let the comment stay up because the person’s business was relevant to the blog post. One trick he says that Newsvine and MSNBC use is a brief JavaScript code that times how long someone spends writing their comment. If it is less than 5 seconds, then the comment does not get posted, as most “form spam” is carried out quickly by automated code.

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Mike Davidson

“But you can’t publish things like that [as a commercial plug-in], because as soon as someone releases a WordPress plug-in that does that, then all the Russian bots will figure out a way to delay their form posts by 5 seconds,” he said.

The cat-and-mouse game between spammers and site publishers will continue, with each side coming up with ways to game — and protect — the system. For each new CAPTCHA engine, there will be a spammer who can cleverly look like they are responding to the previous comments while linking their name to a site running a pyramid scheme.

I had heard that you can increase your search engine optimization (SEO) by getting in-bound links to your site, including from other blog comments. However, word-of-mouth marketing expert Sernovitz said that’s not true for links in comments at this point.

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Andy Sernovitz

“That usually doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “Most of the blog platforms put in no follow code for links in comments and the search engines don’t pay attention to them. So links in comments don’t drive search engine traffic.”

Sure enough, the link that the Jippidy folks put into MediaShift has “no follow” code around the link, generated by Movable Type, which takes away its SEO value.

Community-Filtered Comments

Rather than rely on human editors, automated filters or registration schemes, some sites rely on the community of readers to filter comments, with users voting each comment up or down, thus giving less useful comments less exposure. Steve Yelvington, a blogger and digital strategist for Morris DigitalWorks, told me that communities can police their own in many cases.

“I’ve found that the people formerly known as the audience are pretty good at handling the people formerly known as spammers,” he said via Twitter. “If people come together as a community, they develop community standards and ruthlessly reject deviants, but most news sites have weak community, even if they have busy commenting.”

The granddaddy of community-filtered comments is Slashdot, a technology forum that relies on people rating each other’s comments. And comments are the lifeblood of the site. Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda, who founded Slashdot, told me he’s seen a lot of variations of commercial messages in comments — but in most cases, the audience can see through the smoke-screens.

“I think the key difference is motivation: if you are posting to make your advertisement, no matter how valid your contribution, I think most people see through it and you tend to get moderated down,” Malda said via email. “But if your post is insightful, informative, or intelligent, no amount of commercial component will outweigh that. I think my audience has a strong BS detector, and a lot of folks are posting just so they can spin their message.”

In mature communities like Slashdot, it’s difficult to find acceptance for your commercial message, especially if it’s irrelevant. But in newer systems with less safeguards, spam and self-promotion can flourish. Where there’s a will to spam, there’s a way to get it posted. Longtime blogger and social media consultant Tish Grier told me that this issue is not going away with so many people determined to boost their commercial schemes through blogs and social networks.

“Perhaps it’s an issue that the business blogging and marketing communities have to address,” she said via email. “I know that sometimes they do. But the message doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the right people. And there always seems to be some new guru, every day, trying to sell another ‘get rich quick from blogging’ scheme involving spam commenting, faux social networking and the like. As long as people believe they can make big money from their blogs via ads, they’re going to do what they can to get traffic to them.”

What do you think? Are unwanted commercial messages ruining conversations on your favorite blogs or news sites? Or do they have a place in the conversation if they’re somewhat relevant? How do you draw the line on your own sites? Share your (non-spam) thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Akismet spam filter by Jochen Wolters; photo of Rob Malda by Scott Beale, both via Flickr.