With the exploding popularity of Web logs for sharing personal news, information and commentary on almost every conceivable subject, there are now must-read blogs in most content areas including education. For example, influential technology blogs include Engadget and Slashdot, as well as insider blogs from employees at Apple, IBM and Microsoft. However, if your staff and students search for blogs on school-related topics using online tools such as Technorati, Feedster or Bloglines, much of what they find will be bogus.
Purveyors of spam are now exploiting the ease of adding comments to legitimate blogs, by inserting links that lure readers and build traffic for unrelated commercial sites.
Such spam blogs, or "splogs," typically collect money from advertisers as users click on their links, and some visitors purchase the promoted products. To illustrate, a column I wrote on school cell phone camera policies soon became linked to several non-education sites that sell camera equipment and services.
But sometimes the bogus links are not even remotely related to the search topic. For example, the term WebQuest --a teaching concept developed by Bernie Dodge and used in schools throughout the United States--is strangely tied to sites such as Aluminum News that supports the aluminum industry. Even though the content has little to do with K-12 education, the blog owner inserted the sentence "This Weblog will serve as a WebQuest Data source for my students" to hijack searches and deliver viewers that raise site ranks among search engines.
Many bogus sites are themselves set up as blogs, and blogger Philipp Lenssen estimates that as much as 60 percent of blogs hosted on Google's free Blogger.com are splogs. And particularly annoying are the links to junk ads that have long irritated e-mail users, including pitches for getting cheaper mortgages, losing weight, growing hair, purchasing pharmaceuticals and enlarging body parts. "I use Technorati to keep track of the buzz about WebQuests in the classroom," Dodge says, "but little by little my searches would lead to blogs with other stuff mashed together. It's as if they took the word WebQuest and threw it into a blender with sentences about arthritis joint pain or golf bags."
Splogs are rapidly becoming huge online problems, particularly for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, because these major search tools also provide free services for creating blogs. For example, Blogger recently dismantled 13,000 spam-filled blogs that were created in a single weekend. Splogs are choking the Web with useless content, blighting the blogosphere and subverting blog-facilitated discussions. Since spammers continue to seek this fertile new ground to push their wares, as the expanding SplogSpot directory will confirm, the problem will get much worse before it gets better. As Tim Bray who produces the blog Ongoing put it, "Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere: we have an emergency on our hands."
Scott Allen, an online editor for About.com, says the blog providers have a responsibility to monitor and prevent the illegal and inappropriate use of their services, and various user-verification and spam-flagging measures are presently being developed. In the meantime, use the resources below to make sure that your staff and students are informed about research issues related to splogs, and report new examples to grassroots initiatives such as Fight Splog and Splog Reporter. Mark Cuban, a majority owner of the IceRocket search tool, calls splogs the "biggest problem on the Net after identity theft."
Odvard Egil Dyrli, email@example.com, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.