My work is syndicated on a few blog sites;, and on those that provide statistics of readership, it’s great to see the number of “reads” soar from time to time when an article catches the zeitgeist.
I tried to analyze these numbers and soon discovered that except in a few cases, where a geographic breakdown is provided as to where these reads are coming from, all you get is a flat number of reads per article. Since these sites are also heavily into banner advertizing to earn their income, one never knows whether the reader is reading your article or the banner ad, especially when there is a snazzy car, a scantily dressed woman or a movie trailer on those sidelines.
Then I began to notice another phenomenon (which I have written about in a previous article), and that is the presence of bots that read certain keywords of your article, associate them with an advertisement of one of their clients, and promptly post a comment (bearing very little relation to your topic) on your article with a link to a website promoting their client’s product. In recent times, essay writing services are very popular, services that write your exam essays and help you cheat the academic system of selection. Let’s not get into the morality of this form of advertizing, I covered it already in that previous article. Suffice to say that the next time I see a spike in the number of reads to my article, am I to infer that it is due to a genuine interest by readers, or that an army of bots, selling competing products, are waging a war for prominence over the battlefield of my article?
How does one rid oneself of this menace? Some use captchas, but simple captchas can be circumvented pretty easily, and the harder ones are so visually difficult for us humans to read that they defeat the purpose of engaging readers in a debate, for readers quit in frustration and never bother to post a comment because that captcha stopped them dead in their tracks. And even if we find a solution that is somewhere in the middle, what’s to prevent these bots being managed by a smart outsourced company in a low-income country that has a few lowly paid employees circumventing the captchas on posts worth preying on? Give bot management to the article posters themselves? This might work better, for a writer whose article comments are routed to her e-mail address, is alerted every time a comment is posted; she could quickly delete the bot-generated ones that are so blatantly obvious for their poor grammar and nonsensical context. This might be like killing mosquitoes, you never quite get them all, but over time they decline. And you get the satisfaction of having killed some of these pests—but you are still likely to be bitten anyway. Have a moderator filter all comments? An added expense, and who pays for the cost of the moderator?
This is a problem of our times, and the cost of online blog syndication. I noticed that even Flikr now inserts commercials in-between the feed of my photo album pictures. Alas, there is no escape from the almighty advertiser who pays for all our free activity online and extracts our secrets in return! If you want the fame and coverage, then pay for the crap that comes with it, is what I have concluded. I also trust that astute readers can differentiate bot-created comments from real ones and will ignore the former as background noise; and that bot activity will ultimately provoke content site owners to clean up their act or have their sites sink in the ranking of quality places to visit.
That still does not prevent me from dreaming of what I would do if I come face to face to face with a bot in a dark alley one day! Or do bots only lurk on the Internet?