7 Signals of Comment Spam

Recently, I’ve found myself giving the same advice to several of my clients, many of whom are still getting into the swing of blogging. All too often, they’re uncertain about whether or not to mark a comment as spam. Caught between the desire to avoid spam but foster legitimate conversation, they come to me, and these are the seven signals I tell them to look out for:

  1. Links to Spammy Sites. The biggest red flag should always be links provided by the commenter. Visit them and you can usually figure out pretty quickly if the commenter is working an angle. I’ve marked well-thought-out, on-topic comments as spam before because they linked to sites I didn’t care to be associated with.
  2. Lots of Links. There are very few situations I’ve ever seen in which a comment with more than two or three links isn’t spam. If the comment is chock full of them, or, worse, is nothing but a list of links, you should hear alarm bells ringing.
  3. Overuse of Keywords. Perhaps one of the most obvious cues is when a comment seems like little more than a list of keywords. This may be blatant, or the keywords may be hidden within the comment, at the end of the comment, or in the commenter’s name. This sort of spam is easy to catch, but you have to be willing to give your comments more than a cursory glance.
  4. Off-topic. While not a clear signal in and of itself, the topic of a comment can nevertheless be an important clue. Ask yourself what the commenter is talking about. Does it flow from the article in a natural way, or is it marginally related at best? Does it unambiguously mention anything from the article? The more it strays from the topic at hand, the more likely it’s copied-and-pasted junk.
  5. Complimentary. Make no mistake; spammers will play to your ego if they think it will get their comments posted. Beware comments that pay too much respect to your work. They may just be buttering you up to compromise your better judgment.
  6. Irregular Size. Comments vary in length, but extremely short or long comments beg greater scrutiny.
  7. Poor Grammar. This isn’t to say that ordinary commenters don’t have atrocious grammar some of the time. However, it’s been my experience that most spammers have terrible grammar, even to the point of being nonsensical. Whether this is because English isn’t their native language, the comment is computer-generated, or some other reason, I couldn’t say. Whatever the case, it’s something to keep an eye out for.

Remember; a comment may have one or more of these features and still be perfectly legitimate. When in doubt, ask yourself this: What value does this comment provide to my readers? If you find yourself on the low or negative end of the spectrum, toss the comment without a second thought.

Quality is the New Quantity

“Omit needless words.”
– E.B. White, “The Elements of Style

Answer these three questions:

  • What determines the difficulty of a school writing assignment?
  • What kinds of books are you likely to brag about reading?
  • What is the basis on which a writer should charge for his or her work?

If any of your answers involve pages or word counts, you’re stuck in the mentality that the value of a written work is based on its volume.

Now answer this question: Which are you more likely to read, a short article or a long one? Which are you more likely to value, remember, repeat, or link back to?

Focus on quantity and you’ll create swollen, fluffy content. “Happy talk,” to use a term from Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think.” Lots of words; low value density.

Focus on quality and you’ll create quick, easily-digestible content that makes visitors more likely to read, spread, and convert. Fewer words; high value density. Exactly the way your visitors want it in the age of Twitter-induced information overload.

Quality is the new quantity, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t forget it.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Combat Poverty

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty

What can a person do to elevate him or herself from poverty? What can the rest of us do to help the less fortunate and combat poverty on the local, national, and even global levels?

Everyone has a different opinion. Certainly, there are many good answers to this question, and you’ll probably hear a lot of them today. That’s because today is Blog Action Day, a day the blogosphere has singled out to discuss an important topic. This year it’s poverty. Since I’m not one to miss out on a good meme, here is my niche-appropriate take on the matter.

The one thing that separates the haves from the have-nots is most often education, not necessarily in the sense of school but in the sense of knowledge acquisition. After all, we’ve all heard of successful individuals who never so much as graduated from high school. Those with access to knowledge can develop and thrive, as individuals and as communities.

Before the modern age, knowledge was a limited resource, available only through books and teachers. Providing knowledge to the less fortunate, then, required considerable resources. That is no longer true. Compared to the significant expense of books and teachers, the cost of providing internet access is almost negligible. For developing countries, the primary expense lies in establishing the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure. Beyond that, decent computers can now be produced en masse and on the cheap.

We have the ability to give the poor access to the greatest information system the world has ever known. Imagine a world without a digital divide, where every person, regardless of their economic background or location in the world, could tap into the same global wealth of knowledge. Everyone could communicate, share, collaborate, and contribute to that knowledge equally. It would be the promise of the internet realized, knowledge leveraged for the good of all.

Granted, I’m biased in this opinion; the internet is my bread and butter. And I’m not deluded enough to think that global internet access would solve the problem of poverty on its own. Especially in developing countries, it wouldn’t be enough. Many people would have to be instructed in basic skills like reading and writing first, and access to information wouldn’t directly solve problems like hunger and healthcare.

Still, I believe it would be a great start. Knowledge is the first step to solving any problem. It’s not about elevating the poor; it’s about empowering them to elevate themselves. To paraphrase the old proverb, give a man information and he learns for a day. Teach a man to use the internet and he learns for a lifetime.

Explaining Blogs to the Uninformed

When I first mentioned the word “blog” to my wife back in 2005, she swore I’d made it up. It wasn’t until she started hearing it in mainstream media that she conceded blogs were real. (To this day, she still harbors suspicions that the whole thing might be some massive conspiracy I cooked up to fool her. Shhh, just play along… 😉 )

Much like social media optimization, it can be difficult to convey the value of blogging to the uninformed. I’ve had to convince a few technophobes clinging to old media traditional media enthusiasts in my career, and I’ve found the following points useful for getting them up-to-date.

A blog is a publishing platform. Much like a newspaper or magazine, a blog is a form of composition that is written, distributed, and consumed. The only real difference is the electronic medium, which drastically reduces the production overhead and allows even independent publishers to achieve a global reach.

Not all blogs are personal. One of the first objections you often hear is how blogs are nothing more than personal drivel masquerading as valuable content. This is certainly true of some blogs, but it couldn’t be further from the truth with others. Many blogs are written by well-respected experts on useful niche topics (e.g., Ward on the Web). In fact, the most popular blogs now have more readership and authority than many traditional print publications.

A blog is a conversational tool. Interactivity is what distinguishes new media from traditional media. By default, blog posts allow readers to comment and discuss the topic at hand. This can be useful for developing rapport with customers, colleagues, clients, or whomever else might be reading your blog.

Blogs are great for SEO. Done correctly, a blog adds relevant content, expands a site’s long-tail keyword profile, generates inbound links, and demonstrates that a site is regularly updated, all of which help to improve its overall search engine rankings.

Blogging isn’t as easy as it seems. While anyone can start a blog, few people have the creativity, diligence, and savvy needed to make a blog truly successful. If you don’t have what it takes (and if you’re not sure, assume you don’t), take the time to educate yourself and do it right from the start.

7 Lessons in Online Copywriting from Stephen King

Yesterday, I finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I didn’t read it with the intent to write a post about it; after all, Ward on the Web is about better websites. To be honest, I read it in preparation for NaNoWriMo (incidentally, I’ll be taking a hiatus from WotW in November for that purpose). However you look at web copy, though, it’s still writing, and King shares more than a few insights that add value to the medium.

  1. Read a lot; write a lot. If you want to be a good writer, you have to eat, drink, and sleep the written word. This is as true online as it is off. Want to learn how to blog well? Read and write blogs. Want to compose great online sales copy? Read and write online ads. The more you take in and practice, the better you’ll do, period.
  2. Adverbs are not your friend. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use them at all. Rather, King advises you to use adverbs sparingly. They should be reserved for those instances when they are truly necessary to clarify the sentence. Otherwise, they’re mostly filler to be discarded.
  3. Use the active voice. I knew this tidbit was true when it came to writing ad copy, but King gives it particular emphasis. Readers don’t want to read tentative, uncertain writing. They want to read bold proclamations of surety. Don’t be a wimp; step up and use an active voice.
  4. Everything has its place in the writer’s toolbox. Some people criticize King for his use of profanity. However, even profane language can be a useful for communicating ideas in the right context. To be clear, I don’t advocate swearing; neither does Mr. King. The point is to recognize the different tools in your box and use them when the need arises. For the online medium, this includes simple things like font modifiers (bold, italics, underscore, size, face, color, etc.) as well as complex interactive elements (images, video, Flash, forms, etc.). Remember; if you limit your options, you potentially limit your effectiveness.
  5. Take criticism for what it’s worth. No more, no less. Especially when it comes to blogging, the pros are often thick-skinned. King points out that some critics, like editors, offer genuinely constructive advice that adds value to your writing. Others may offer subtle yet powerful encouragement. Of course, there will always be those whose only purpose in life is to burn your writing and dance around the flames. It pays to recognize whether criticism is valuable or not before you take it to heart.
  6. Write the first draft for yourself; the second for everyone else. King equates the first draft to uncovering a fossil. It should grow organically, along whatever natural progression it takes you. The first draft should always be done with the door closed; no distraction, no critique, nothing but you and the blank page. Once you’ve got the first draft done, it’s time to open the door and start editing. Show your writing to helpful critics. Identify and reinforce themes. Cut out the crap (King uses the formula: Second Draft = First Draft – 10%). Especially on the web where attention spans are at their shortest, trimming your work down to make every word count is essential.
  7. Don’t tell when you can show. I took a few notes on the autobiographical portion of the book prior to the section about writing. This was one of the points I wrote down, not because he came out and said it (at least, not until alter), but because he demonstrated it so well. I found reading Stephen King’s life story very instructive about being a writer. The point here is, instead of making your points explicitly, it can be more useful to tell a story that leads your readers to those points naturally. Use compelling narrative and anecdotes instead of straight-forward facts and opinions. It may take a bit longer, but your reader will come away with a valuable lesson that is more easily remembered because it is tied to imagery.

These are just the points I could remember the morning after finishing On Writing. It’s a great book, filled with gems that a writer of any medium will find useful. In fact, it’s one of the few books I’ve ever finished in less than a week. If you’re in trying to take your writing to the next level (like me), or could just use some inspiration (also like me), do yourself a favor and order a copy of On Writing.

A Surefire Way to Spot Fluff Posts

Consider the topic of this post. What if it was just a collection of links to other sites about fluff posts? What if it was something you’d already heard about fluff posts? Would you be as interested? Would you even be reading this sentence?

Probably not. The fact is, a post that doesn’t offer enough original value probably won’t be read. If they occur too frequently, even loyal subscribers may start looking elsewhere. I call these “fluff posts.” Here are three varieties to watch out for.

  1. Link Roundups. Few posts will be skipped as often as the old-fashioned link roundup. The assumption goes that a noteworthy post on another blog would deserve a more detailed response. By offering up a long list of links, each with very little or no response, the perceived value is very low. Remember; the value of the post is not the sum of the value of each link.
  2. Live Blog Posts. Especially in the SEO blogosphere, live blogging at industry conferences is a common practice. Unfortunately, by regurgitating every detail, you leave it to your readers to pick out the important points.
  3. Repeat Coverage. Naturally, when something notable happens within your niche, readers often expect you to weigh in on it. However, if all you do is give the facts of an already well-known issue, your readers will simply move on.

There’s a common element to identifying fluff posts like this. If your readers are left searching for original value, it’s probably a fluff post.

Here’s a revelation, though: Fluff posts are okay. In fact, most of the prominent blogs I read post plenty of fluff. However, they post fluff in addition to plenty of original content.

The point is to offer up more than just fluff. By all means, post a link roundup. Blog at events, or about the news. Just don’t make that the entirety of your blog. The more original value you offer your readers, the more successful your blog will be.

The Secret to Blogging for Money

For many, professional blogging is a dream job where you sit at home, work your own hours, and earn boatloads of money with little effort. You can live freely and make your living writing about your passions, all without changing out of your PJs. These starry-eyed dreamers look up to the greats and say, “Me too!”

Wake up. You’re drooling.

Here’s the truth of the matter. For most, professional blogging is just that, a dream. It takes a distinct combination of writing ability, charisma, blogging savvy, and luck to make a living through blogging. Most of us are fortunate to have a functional blog that remains active for more than a few months. A few of us eventually manage to extract some monetary value from our blogs. It is a rare, rare few, however, that have the panache to go pro and make a decent living at it. Much like becoming a rock star, some succeed at pro blogging, but the vast majority fail.

This post isn’t about them. Professional bloggers are already vocal about how they got to where they are. In fact, it’s an integral part of their appeal. My question is, how do the rest of us earn money through blogging? If you don’t have the savvy to go pro, where does that leave you?

I thought about this question for a long time. I even managed to build my personal blog up to the point where it earned a nice residual income. However, the time and effort required to get there proved to me just how difficult professional blogging is.

Let me illustrate my point. Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger takes regular polls of his visitors’ earnings. Darren’s audience includes bloggers of every niche with an interest in getting the most out of their blogs. Of the 3,000+ who responded to last October’s poll, only 16% earned $2,500 or more (the equivalent of a $30k annual salary) from blogging. These are bloggers who put forth the time and effort to succeed, and most of them don’t earn anywhere near a decent wage from it. I myself fell into the “$100 – $499” range at the time, and even that meager amount put me ahead of half of the other respondents. I believe Darren puts it best himself when he says:

For me the most striking ‘lesson’ from these surveys is that while there is significant hype around the idea of bloggers making money – that the vast majority earn very little (or nothing). A quarter of those who earn something make less than 0.33 cents per day. If that’s not a reality check then I don’t know what is.

So what’s an ordinary blogger to do? To answer that question, first answer this one: What do ordinary people do to earn money?

Hopefully, you answered work. Most people work at ordinary, non-blogging jobs to earn their income. Since we’ve already established that most people cannot make enough money directly from blogging to earn a decent living, the question becomes, how can blogging help an ordinary person earn money?

You’re looking at my answer to that question. I started Ward on the Web in order to enhance and expand my real-world career potential. I tried to generate income through advertising on my blog. I tried to generate it by getting paid to blog for others. In the end, neither of those income streams came anywhere close to the salary from my everyday job.

So I thought, “Why fight an uphill battle?” If I earn the most by working at an ordinary job, why not repurpose my blogging activities to aid that income stream rather than compete with it? By accepting that blogging is not my profession, I could begin to blog about my profession instead.

It’s a shift in perspective. Instead of focusing on the immediate gratification of a blogging payday, you focus on the long-term advantages of blogging to aid your career. Consider my case. In the three years I’ve been blogging for money, I’ve made around $4,000, which is hardly worth the time, energy, and expense it involved. If I had spent that time blogging about my work as a web professional, however, how likely would it be that I’d be earning a substantially higher salary as a result? I don’t know about you, but I think three years spent honing my professional profile could easily net a lot more than $4,000.

Therein lies the secret to blogging for money: Don’t. Blog to improve your career instead. Done correctly, you can expand your networking opportunities, enhance your resume, establish your expertise, and broaden your exposure to the professional marketplace. In the end, you’ll earn more by improving your career potential than the pittance you’re likely to earn from blogging alone.

Ward on the Web Entered in Blogging Idol Contest

Blogging Idol

After all the positive feedback I’ve received, not to mention winning that marketing contest a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to enter Ward on the Web in the Blogging Idol competition over at Daily Blog Tips. Throughout the month of July, I’ll be doing everything I can to promote my subscribership. Even short of winning, the conversational and linking benefits of participation are just too good to pass up. So, if you haven’t already subscribed, click here to have Ward on the Web delivered straight to your email or feed reader and help me become the very first Blogging Idol!

7 Essential Tips for Corporate Blogging

According to JupiterResearch (via Search Engine Watch), 34% of large companies and 15% of Fortune 500 companies blog. That’s quite a bandwagon. Before you jump on board, though, you should know what you’re getting into. Here are seven essential tips to keep in mind as your company enters the corporate blogging arena.

  1. Don’t be afraid. If a blog can benefit your company, you’ll do more harm by never trying than you will by messing up. The technology won’t stop gaining acceptance just because you don’t have the familiarity or willingness to use it. The important thing is to get out there. If you do mess up, learn from your mistakes and keep going.
  2. Establish goals. Just as bad as starting a corporate blog for the wrong reasons is starting one without clear goals. Do you want to have a voice in your industry? Develop your brand? Enhance your public relations efforts? Your blog should have a clear purpose that coincides with your company’s values.
  3. Don’t market; converse. To be successful, a corporate blog must be a conversational tool, not a propaganda engine. This means ditching the advertising and press releases in favor of engaging content. Imagine walking into a car dealership. Who would you rather talk to, an amicable salesman with a genuine interest in your wants and needs, or a pushy salesman whose only interest is selling you the biggest, most expensive car on the lot? Who would you recommend to your friends when they go car shopping?
  4. Provide value. Nobody will engage or subscribe to a blog that doesn’t provide valuable content. Know your readers. What are their interests? How do those interests relate to your products and services? What do they want to know about your company? Determine the topics that will offer the greatest value and structure your blog around them.
  5. Build relationships. The purpose of engaging your audience is to build relationships. This means being a part of the conversation. Listen to feedback through comments, trackbacks, and emails. Address customer concerns through open dialogue. Reach out to other bloggers in your niche through links and comments. By developing relationships with your customers, you help build their trust in your brand.
  6. Be human. Customers don’t want to talk to faceless corporations; they want to talk to people. Don’t just write; tell stories from your unique perspective from within the company. Share opinions, not sales pitches. When you mess up, admit your mistakes. Never forget that you represent the company, but censor posts with care to preserve their personal voice. Your company’s culture must be flexible enough to accommodate this level of personality if the blog is to succeed.
  7. Be positive. It is often said that the greatest bloggers have thick skin, and with good reason. The blogosphere is an open forum for criticism and outright negativity. Despite this, your corporate bloggers should take it in stride, respond constructively, and attempt to turn every conversation in a positive direction. Nothing good can come of giving into the temptation to respond to your critics with negativity.

Additional Resources

Most of this list was collected from the following articles: