Commonsense WordPress Comment Administration

Spam meme | WordPress comment spam

Comments are one of the coolest pieces of a blog. They turn a static piece of writing into an ongoing discussion—and they’re an important indicator of quality and form of social proof for the content itself.

Unfortunately, all WordPress sites are also in danger of being inundated by comment spam: the automatic mass submission of false comments for commercial gain, for example to increase exposure for a site they link to.

The aim here is take the average site owner’s comment administration from “nowhere near good enough” to “good enough” with a minimum of extra overhead.

This post is designed to help the average WordPress site administrator manage comments, and defeat comment spam, with a minimum of knowledge and special training. Spam prevention is a huge topic, and there are a lot of plugins, practices, settings, and hacks that we won’t be touching here. The idea here is just to help the average site owner get from “nowhere near good enough” to “good enough” with a minimum of extra overhead.

We’ll be proceeding in two steps:

1. Activate Akismet!

Akismet banner | WordPress comment spam prevention
Akismet is one of two plugins that come bundled with WordPress by default, along with Hello Dolly. If you become a WordPress developer, you’ll get a lot of practice deleting Hello Dolly, which does nothing useful, and activating Akismet, which is one of the most important plugins for any WordPress install.

Akismet will take your comment count from dozens or hundreds per day down to several per day.

Akismet solves most comment spam problems—it’ll take your comment count from dozens or hundreds per day down to several per day, which you’ll then need to moderate manually. So if you don’t know a lot about comment term blacklists, .htaccess hacks, and timed comment closedowns, activating Akismet is your first best step.

How to activate Akismet is a bit more complicated than most other plugins, but still pretty simple. The wrinkle is that you’ll need to register with Akismet to receive an API key—a big string of numbers and letters that serve as your authorization to use the service. The full process has been covered in other places, for example this post at WPBeginner. You’ll want to follow these steps—they shouldn’t take more than a minute or two.

A quick rant about activating Akismet

<rant>It’s kind of a shame that you have to do the “activate Akismet” song-and-dance for every WordPress site, because of the problem that a huge percentage of less savvy users never activate it. Akismet’s developer Automattic could surely work with the WordPress core team to integrate activating the plugin (with a unique API key) into the WordPress install process, along with a site alert to please review the Akismet terms of service and set up payment if the site is commercial in nature. I’m sure there’s some defensible reason why this isn’t the case—but the upshot is that millions of less technical WordPress users are drowning in comment spam with no clear understanding that it’s a solvable problem.

As a close-to-home example: My dad had a WordPress site built, and the developer didn’t enable Akismet, plus my dad set very liberal email comment reminders, with the result that his inbox was a zombie apocalypse for several years until I learned enough WordPress myself to help. WordPress-savvy folks might simply write him off for not bothering to learn the software—but they’re the same people who let algae build up in their backyard pools because of a deficient knowledge of pH management. The point is that nobody’s perfect.</rant>

Anyway, get Akismet and you’ll be much happier! On to the second piece.

2. Judge, Jury and Executioner: Learning to Love Manual Comment Moderation

Akismet will reduce the comments that get into your inbox to a manageable number. After that, it’s up to you to decide what makes it onto your site.

WordPress pending commentsWhen I opened up WPShout today, I had six comments pending review. To administer these, I clicked the “Pending” link in my Dashboard (like at right), which opened up the interface below:

WordPress comment moderation example

Understanding what Spam Looks Like

Most of these comments were clearly spam. You can tell this at a glance by looking for the following warning signs:

  1. Intentionally vague content. “I do believe all of the concepts you’ve offered in your post.” is the comment equivalent of a horoscope: superficially meaningful, but broad enough to match any situation. Like your horoscope, it was written for mass consumption by someone who has made odd career choices.
  2. Broken English. This isn’t an automatic disqualifier, but if you’re already suspicious about “My brother recommended I might like this blog.” (see #1 above), then “He was once entirely right. This publish actually made my day.” is the nail in the coffin.
  3. Obviously commercial links plus odd usernames. “auto repair Greensville SC” could sort of be a real username, but it’s obviously tailored for SEO. They’ve linked to an auto repair YouTube channel as well, also spammy-looking and keyword-dense. Even without the nonsensical comment content, this is probably spam.
  4. Anything that’s bizarre. “wendy’s salad apple pecan” is equally bizarre as a real comment (who would write that?!) and a spam comment (how could a spammer possibly make money writing that?!). Anyway, it’s spam.

In general, spam comments will combine these warning signs. I don’t have a set threshold for determining how many items on this list a comment must satisfy before it’s marked as spam—it’s an overall feeling, and is usually pretty obvious. Make sure you mark all these comments as “Spam” (don’t just “Trash”), as this may help reduce the spam load for other Akismet users.

Two of the six comments were not immediately obvious spam. They were:

  1. A comment in French, translated as “It’s a real pleasure to read your blog.”
  2. A pingback from news-wp.com.

I went ahead and approved the pingback—hey, why not?—which left a decision about the French comment.

Ultimately, I decided to “Trash” that comment. I visited the site linked to, and it had a weird URL with a bunch of numbers in it, a stock WordPress installation, and only one post from March of this year, also in French. It wasn’t clear what was going on, but things were getting bizarre (#4 above), and our readers certainly aren’t going to be very well-served by comments in French—so the comment wasn’t making it on the site. However, because of my lingering doubts, I simply “Trash”ed the comment rather than flagging the commenter for spam.

If I wasn’t writing an article about it, this whole process might take one minute or less per week. Not too bad! I think this system meets our good-enough test, and it tends to let through all the legitimate comments that do reach our site, so it’s all we use for comment moderation despite the array of additional tools out there.

In Conclusion…

There you have it! Easy comment moderation with a combination of a good spam-filtering plugin and a minimum of human common sense. Does this system work for you? What would you add to it? What’s your favorite Wendy’s salad? We’d love to read about it in the comments below!

Image credit: janet galore


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