Wikis: The Next Frontier for Spammers?

Wiki maintainers can expect an increase in spam after a webmaster newsletter highlighted the effectiveness of Wiki spam in raising a site's Google ranking. WebProNews described how a webmaster improved his rank in a search engine optimization (SEO) contest using links in Wiki "sandboxes" - pages where users are urged to test drive the format and learn how to use it.

Spam and abusive behavior are not new issues for Wikis, web pages that anyone can edit or even delete. But it has yet to approach the level seen in weblogs, where automated comment spamming with links to Viagra, porn or herbal remedies has forced many bloggers to shut down their comment section or install blacklist plugins. The torrent of comment spam is not designed to produce clicks, but rather to improve the spammers' Google ranking.

This week Jan Philipp Lenssen described how he used a campaign of Wiki sandbox postings to attain the top position in an ongoing competition between SEO professionals to attain the highest Google rank for a random term - in this case nigritude ultramarine.

Lenssen said he would halt the practice after being chastised by a wiki operator. "Pilipp, I have had to lock four of my wikis to control your trashy misuse of them," Prometheus wrote. "For many people, the internet is a production tool. Converting portions of it to your own little SEO litterbox is arrogant conceit."

Even if Lenssen does cease and desist, his demonstration - and the WebProNews article explaining the strategy - has likely put Wiki spam on the radar screen of those with less restraint, including spammers and disreputable SEO practitioners seeking to improve their Google PageRank. "Google measures its PageRank based on links from one site to another, plus the PageRank of the site linking to the other," notes the WikiSpam page at Meatball Wiki. "Wikis are PageRank machines, being both massively linked and with hundreds or thousands of pages. These two factors - openness and PageRank - make wikis the ideal target for spam attacks."

Posts in sandbox wikis are regularly deleted, but even the temporary presence of a link appears to boost a site's Google ranking. Wiki maintainers can make their sites less attractive targets by using their robots.txt file to instruct the Googlebot and other search engine spiders to skip the sandbox pages. The same strategy could protect other areas of a Wiki as well - but only at the expense of the Wiki's own Google placement. Other access control strategies have been outlined by the Wiki community.

The interest from SEO practitioners may well test whether Wiki's core philosophy of openness is its greatest strength or an exploitable weakness.