Twitter’s Real Time Spam Problem

And so real-time search begets real-time spam. We knew this would happen, but it’s annoying and becoming a growing problem. Question is, will Twitter do anything about it, beginning with removing its “Trends” feature?I got an up close & personal look at how bad Twitter “trend spam” has become when this week, our SMX Advanced search marketing conference became a trending topic.

Trends are topics that are gaining attention on Twitter, usually identified by the use of a common word. For example, at SMX Advanced, attendees were told to add the hashtag of “#smx” to the end of their tweets, as a way to help those looking for real time news about the show to have a common word to search on.

Since there were many tweets containing #smx, that helped #smx to become a trending topic. As such, it showed up as a link on the home page of Twitter Search and in the trends links along the right-hand side of someone’s Twitter account, when they’re visiting Twitter on the web.

Unfortunately, anyone searching for SMX news on Twitter quickly discovered how useless this was. For one thing, Twitter search is still suffering delays, where “real time” can actually mean a 20 minute or longer delay until a tweet appears.

For another, because of how prominent trends are — people will click trends links out of curiosity — people are putting out tweets that contain the trending words but which have nothing to do with the topic.

For example, consider this tweet:

Twitter Trends Spam

The beginning of it seems to make no sense:

#e3 air france sims 3 project natal new moon #wiebe #smx sony hummer #radio4minus1letter

But if you know trends, then you understand. Those were all the trending topics on Twitter at that time. But throwing in all these words, this person showed up in front of the curious, polluting the real-time stream for his goal at the end:

I need 100 followers by midnight! Help me!

How nice. But there are far worse examples. Consider:

Twitter Trends Spam

In that example, someone’s dropping a link after the trend words, making you think the link is somehow related to the trending topics. OK, making you think that if you’re not realizing how odd that tweet looks — but still, it sucks. Click on the link, and you get sent to some MP3 site. But you could be sent anywhere, including a malware site.

In another example, I saw a tweet that used a real comment made by someone at SMX, except that they added a link to their eBay option. Clever, because the tweet seemed about as legit as you could want — but sucky, because it was spam.

Today, it got even more personal. Our @sengineland account is being pounded with retweet spam. Someone is using multiple accounts to retweet things we’ve said — except we’ve never said what they’re putting out:

Pretending To Retweet

They’ve done this so much that our replies are becoming useless, flooded with this garbage:

Retweet Spam

But the real issue is that they’re also including trending topic words, autotune, which is on the front of Twitter Search right now:

Twitter Search Trends

That lets them get in front of a larger audience via Twitter Search plus tricks people into clicking on the links, since they appear to be retweeting something a trusted source put out.

It’s all pretty sucky, and those who know search spam predicted this would happen when Twitter added trends to its home page. I’d point to my own tweet about this back then, and Google web spam chief Matt Cutts joking back with me about it, but Twitter Search is so broken that I can’t find anything written from my own account.

For all the love real time search is getting, old timers know well why search engines long ago stopped doing unfiltered real time additions to their indexes. It made them too easy to spam. For a brief moment in time, Infoseek allowed for “instant updates” or additions of web pages. People, to be blunt, spammed the hell out of Infoseek with this.

It’s just going to get worse, and Twitter needs to put some solutions in place. For a start, they should pull trends. By listing trending topics, they’re in turn helping to generate all this spam, some of which may harm their own users. Pull trends until some actual spam protection is in place.

And what spam protection might that be? Some quick thoughts:

  • Accounts less than a day old don’t get to show up in Twitter Search and/or show up for trending topics
  • Figure a reputation score for accounts and only let those appear in for trending topics
  • Partner with a service for malware detection, so that any links Twitter puts out are analyzed to be safe

Finally, a note to those who are doing this. The US Federal Trade Commission has pretty strict rules on misleading consumers. Putting out a tweet on a topic with a link, when you have no relationship to that topic, is misleading. It’s even more so to pretend to retweet someone. It’s fairly easy to see who is benefiting from these tweets and hold them accountable. In the case of our retweet spam, I’ve sent notice to the site involve that if it continues, I’ll file an FTC complaint against them.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | SEO: Spamming | Top News | Twitter

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.solardave.com Dugdale

    Good write up Danny. Graywolf talked about one of those tactics in his talk at SMX this week, interesting to see it used.

  • http://www.chancebarnett.com chancebar

    Thank you for talking about this, and also offering some suggestions on how to deal with this problem.

    Here’s a potential solution you didn’t include that I think could be a quick and effective method for dealing with this:

    *Crowdsourcing the identification of spam and spammers.

    Meaning… Twitter could add a function that allowed users to flag a Tweet as spam. Enough votes and a Tweet is removed.

    With highly social apps like Twitter, I believe this could be an area where crowdsourcing the issue of identify spam/spammers could go a long way.

    In a sense… all Twitter users have a vested interest in protecting the quality of the conversations they engage in- whether it’s @ replies or around hash tags, etc.

    I’ve felt like Search on Twitter (which is what Trending Topics provides for you automatically) has been such an unbelievably undervalued and unrecognized goldmine/loophole for those who get what’s really going on with Twitter. A lot of people don’t seem to get that though, so for simplicity I’ve likened Twitter Search functionality to be something loosely like a “Free Google AdWords”- you get to search on a keyword, identify those talking about it, and you have a means of driving an impression with them by Following and @Reply.

    Putting the Trending Topics for everyone to see is like giving you a kind of real-time keyword research tip sheet.

    I hope Twitter is taking notice and thinking of ways to protect what is a good thing right now in the engagement that’s going on in the Stream right now.

    Wherever there is an opportunity and traffic/viewers to exploit, spammers will be there.

    So will direct marketers.

    This difference is relevancy, trust, and are you actually looking to contribute and add real value.

    Curious what you and @mattcutts think of this.

  • mrbishi

    spam, plus the lack of link transparency with the use of short links, equals massive potential for problems. As you say a link could take you to an mp3 site, but it could also be a malware site, much more dangerous.

    This is why I made http://www.expandmyurl.com to protect myself and others from getting tricked by short links taking you somewhere you don’t want to go. It’s common sense, don’t trust links from people you don’t know, so check them first!

  • http://www.searchmarketingcommunications.com Cohn

    Not having attended SMX, I used Twitter search to find relevant #SMX tweets.

    I too encountered the real time spam problems as your show was occurring specifically for Tweets pertaining to #SMX.

    I captured a screen shot and wrote a post about it – Attention Thieves – on June 2nd.

    http://timothycohn.com/2009/06/02/attention-thieves/

  • Hutch Carpenter

    I do hope the spammers don’t ruin trending topics and hashtags. The theft of your identity in the retweet is despicable.

    One other thing – you may want to sign up for FriendFeed, and pipe your tweets into there. They are saved forever (figuratively speaking), and are very searchable. Think of it as your own personal content database.

  • tamar

    IMO Twitter should terminate accounts of users who have abused this trending topic. From the screenshots you generated, Danny, it’s clear that these guys don’t give a darn about establishing credible and genuine accounts. I reported some of these people capitalizing on trends for Traffic and Twitter actually suspended these accounts, so it looks like they do take it seriously if reported.

    The problem for Twitter is now making it *easy* and *swift* for these accounts to be reported and subsequently suspended.

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    I agree with Tamar, I think twitter should consider terminating accounts on users that abuse trending topics and RTs. I saw similar RTs from spammers today and was wondering what was going on. Sometimes I think others aren’t seeing these tweets, apparently they’re affecting lots of people.

  • http://ItsTheROI.com Jonahstein

    Yet another example of Virtual Blight and the willingness of certain people to exploit and destroy for their personal gain.

    Twitter will also need to restrict API postings and implement a captcha or a captcha alternative like humanpresent.net because it is much to easy to automate the Twitter Spam process. Scrape some trending terms, insert a tiny creative , piggy back some popular users with “RT @” and link to whatever affiliate/malware/parasite site you are promoting. Voila, you have a simple recipe to destroy another brand.

    Tamar has it mostly right in that Twitter can crowd source account reputation to kill posts and users, but that only increases the cost to the spammers from almost zero to very, very little. As long as scripts and bots have free range access via the API, it is asymmetric warfare and the machines and the parasitic marketers will chase the rest of us away.

    Meanwhile, how about adding auto expand and malware detection to every shortened URL. These services are convenient but they are a great place for spammers to hide.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    Great post, I agree that Twitter spam is a real problem, along with not really knowing what type of links you are clicking on in a tweet. Hopefully this issue will continue to get better in the near future, however, I think it is only going to get worst…

  • http://andybeard.eu AndyBeard

    If it was the same product as I was spammed with, who did you file a report with?

    The person spamming was an affiliate using Clickbank links, to an ebook with an affiliate program.

    Clickbank do police stuff that are brought to their attention, which is why I nudged them in a tweet.
    The product owner can’t really control individual Clickbank accounts

    On the FTC side, certainly in the UK there is a difference between B2C and B2B – different laws about WOMM, disclosure etc.

    From what I know of the product, it is about making money with Twitter, which is clearly B2B

    I must admit I don’t care that much for the hashtag spam, what I do care about is the fake endorsement

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