New Theory on SL signups that never seem to join: They’re forum spam bots

Hamlet AU on NwN blog wrote in the comments:
“The AdSense ads for Second Life bring in a ton of new users — trouble is, most of them go away because they can’t be bothered to download a client or figure out how to use SL”

My response is part of a loose theory I am currently mulling over:

Pussycat: “Or they go away because they never arrived.”

I suspect 99% of them are automated spam bots registered for what in the SEO world appears to be an online community with a forum.
- Spam Bots target these with 10s of thousands of account creations per day, on even small forums, just to register sleeper accounts.

Its like a flu infection – the virus sends millions of copies of itself out, assaulting immune systems, and millions of these germs land on you every day. Most of them never doing anything once they get there.

Forum Spam Bots seem to work like that. Creating accounts on open registration systems in the thousands per day with no human involvement.

They will then cycle back months later and post up a random worded post with all kinds of odd phrases compiled together. The purpose of which is to hide what terms in there apply to their actual client, and to make that client’s terms appear to be related to the forum, in order to ‘ride the coattails’ of the forum’s organic search ranking in google and bing.

- It only takes a post or two per week to do this. But you need to get a few hundred thousand accounts injected into a target system in order to hope that the system’s admins fail to catch and ban / delete all of them.

If you’ve ever seen spam that seems to talk about some news item, and then randomly in mid sentence switch to shoes or special medicines or study help or talk as if a friend… but with odd grammar and a few weird words… that’s the spam bots. If you have a blog, you’ve probably seen them in your comments filter. I’d wager they’re about half the comments I get here, which is why I moderate comments here. And my blog has bad SEO…

If the forum or site is run by people who do not know how to look for invalid accounts, or how to recognize the difference, you can easily put in a million or two accounts with no one the wiser…

Where I work in RL, we were up to 250,000 of them before I figured out what they really were, and came up with some patterns among our real customers that let us wipe the database with as low risk as possible of hitting real ones.
- And that was in a span of about 4 months. Being a ‘social scientist’ rather than an IT person (by education, I work in graphic/web arts/design), I see these patterns from a different angle – though I fuddle through the solution implementation part.

LLs / SL has been going for years being run by people who show all the signs of not knowing how to manage a community both in terms or customer relations, security, and awareness of who their customers even are. People who likely do not know how to recognize the difference between a human user and a spam bot. Especially given how quirky some of their real users are (in terms of name and sign-on details) – seeing the difference is not easy.

Consider that SL doesn’t even run Captcha software… although with OCR (my guess), some bots can blast past that now. When we put it on our system, it merely reduced bot accounts from about 10,000 per day down to about 100 – significant, but still a good number getting in. It took a change in our SEO to finally shake the bots. To make our forum no longer look like a forum, while still looking like a forum… :)

(Convoluted… we basically made it look like a branded FAQ page, but left the word forum in place in the link and in our marketing material. We down to about 1-10 spam bots a day now, and they seem to be focused in on specific old user posts -before- they arrive. Google Analytics is handy. Automated tools from the forum service we use knocks these out so I can focus on my real work: putting colors and letters on web stuffz… :p)

So my new theory is that most people who sign up to SL actually enter the world, and stay. Probably only a few dozens per day (but I have no idea on the actual rate of people that create an account and stay).

But most bots that sign up, never enter the world, because they never were even designed to. They are just like ‘bacteria’ crashing up against the walls of the internet, and in this case, getting into the skin… but not further because what they land on is not what they were designed to target.

What I do see inworld, is that people who are day one newbs, quite often become week one newbs, and many even month one newbs. Once they hit this point… I almost think its fair to shift any blame for their loss on the community’s ability to invite them in and socialize with them…
- And I’m suspecting almost half of them reach month one. But I have no data on that. Its just a feeling from what I see looking around in world and the newbs I regularly run across.

The ‘humans’ that signup, by far, actually give it a good try to make it stick. Being past the hype days, more often now they’re slightly dedicated before even hitting the signup page. Its a 10-year old platform now, and the humans who arrive, are more likely now to have looked for it before arriving.

But the spam bots, they just trigger on what web crawling or something leads them to…

So new theory:

Most of the signups are bots. So it makes sense that they never seen to enter the world or ‘stick around’.

Only a small handful are real accounts. A hundred a day might seem dangerously small, but for a 10-year old platform, its pretty good. Most of these actually go inworld, and I suspect most of them stick past a few days.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Crap Mariner
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 11:32:23

    *applauds* Well done.

    -ls/cm

    Reply

  2. garvie garzo
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 06:18:48

    i think that’s a pretty brilliant theory. that ratio of account creation to resident has always seemed completely bizarre to me.

    Reply

  3. Shug Maitland
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 12:27:22

    A promising theory. If it proves true it is actionable. LL should delete all accounts that do not leave Destination Island after a reasonable time. Only those accounts that actually come “in world” should count as signups.

    Reply

    • Pussycat Catnap
      Jan 23, 2013 @ 14:57:27

      -If- my theory is right, it could be handled by just deleting all accounts that never even log in within 10 days of creation – full deletion opening that name up for use again. I like your Destination idea too – but those folks are more likely people who gave up rather than just bots. Bots won’t ever even download SL, they are just mistaking the place for a forum to leave ‘SEO spam’ on. We see them hit the actual forum a few times a day – which is pretty similar to how they work on other forums. Even while creating them in the 10s of thousands per day on some forums, most “go into a file somewhere” and never get triggered.

      SEO bots can be largely (but not fully) avoided by very basic changes to website meta-data too…

      Another problem for us is that with no last names, they are draining our naming system out…

      Reply

  4. Gwyneth Llewelyn
    Mar 07, 2013 @ 17:40:16

    Wow, you’re an utter genius! This should be *obvious*!

    To give you more fuel for your theory: I co-manage a forum from a SL community which has been around for eight and a half years. The forum has about 80 or so members, about half being active, and corresponding to the number of community members. The forums are open to anyone, not only community members, but in fact, only very few non-members are interested in participating, of course…

    But the forums get *500* registrations per month or so from spambots!

    Of course we *know* they’re spambots. But if we pretended they weren’t, we could say: “We’re doing something wrong. 500 people register for our community every month, but we never see them in-world. We need to work more on those retention numbers! After all, if we got 500 new members every month, we would be the biggest and richest community in SL!”

    But of course that thought never ever crossed our minds because we KNOW they’re spambots!

    Now imagine that LL knows very well that their own 12k registrations per day are all spambots, but they like to show these numbers to everybody, because it seems to show that SL is still “relevant”. This would also explain why they aren’t really making a huge effort to improve the first-hour-experience. Why bother? Practically all new registrations are spambots anyway…

    Not all, of course. If you hang around the entry spots for newbies, you can see many popping up who truly have humans behind them. In fact, during the Mentor era, they would regularly pop up every 10 or 15 minutes, and they were real humans. So it’s true that LL did have, at some point, that amount of registrations (12000 per day would mean something like 7/second, and there were 30 or so Orientation islands, so it would not be unusual to get one newbie every 14 minutes on average). It’s hard to tell nowadays. Possible, yes, but spambots make so much more sense!

    Reply

    • Pussycat Catnap
      Mar 23, 2013 @ 19:49:30

      I um… went “AFK” there for a long time and never saw that I had comments pending in here… so it took me a while to approve yours there. :)

      Reply

    • Wolf Baginski
      Jun 28, 2013 @ 03:10:06

      That arithmetic looks a bit off, possibly a typo.

      12000 per day is 500 per hour, spread over 30 locations would make one new account every 4 minutes, more or less.

      I don’t know how the newbie pathway is structured now, how many different places they might pass through when leave the Linden-run locations. There are ways that estimates can be made if you know the structure, taking into account that the input of real people is not constant.

      When I signed up, in ’09, I didn’t see enough newbies passing through to match those figures. Now, every weekend, I seem to see bursts of spam in the forums, often plugging TV viewing services. They don’t use name which anyone would want.

      I am going to talk to some people I know. There might be some way to collect some figures.

      Reply

      • Pussycat Catnap
        Jun 29, 2013 @ 01:20:54

        Humans would have trouble making that many accounts unless the service was crazy hot. I doubt even Facebook gets 12,000 -REAL- signups on the average day.

        (when its in the news it would get many more, but on a regular day likely less)

        But spambots can be completely automated programs – when I was running that forum (no longer at the job I was at when I posted this blog – it was an ill fit for me), looking through the logs was insane…

        I would see a few hundred created miliseconds apart all from the nearly identical IP addresses (last digit might randomly change).

        Even scarier, many later started having detailed but nonsensical profiles. Random small web images, sigs to various products, and bits of text in fields like carrier, hobbies, and so on – fields that were common on many forum profiles. But a human eye would note weird entries – the nonsensical in relation to each other. Basically trying to sneak past spam detection systems that work by seeing if a profile is filled in.

  5. Trackback: Second Life’s Tenth Birthday | Gwyn's Home
  6. Mona Eberhardt
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 10:20:40

    One may also want to consider the fact that several well-known SL forum and feed trolls & cyberbullies have admitted to regularly creating more and more alts to use as sockpuppets in order to harass users.

    Reply

  7. Dave Irvine
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 00:31:44

    I think many of them are spambots,i’ve been noticing the SL forums have been getting hit hard with stuff like escort spam and such.

    Reply

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