Why You Should Reconsider How You Use Akismet

Teli Adlam —  December 28, 2007

To many bloggers, Akismet is a godsend. It saves them from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unwanted spam comments and trackbacks each day. But, something you may not have been aware of when you activated the plugin is that it comes with a great deal of responsibility.

Have you ever found yourself reading a blog that inspired you to comment — and not just any comment, one that was well thought out and took you about 10 minutes to write — but when you submitted it, it was lost to the oblivion of cyberspace? Or rather, Akismet moderation?

Even if you haven’t, chances are increasing that you will. It’s actually happened to me a couple of times, but luckily I knew the bloggers personally and I was able to drop them a quick e-mail to inform them of the situation.

And even as I sent those e-mails, I felt I was inconveniencing the blog authors because they needed to comb through hundreds of spam comments just to find my one legitimate comment. Instead of receiving an angry reply for making them, a couple blog authors actually thanked me because they found other legitimate comments that had been blacklisted for some unknown reason.

Now, before you get mad at me for even suggesting you disable Akismet (I’m not), there’s something I need you to realize — your actions when clicking that "Delete All Spam" button may be affecting legitimate commenters.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Akismet system may be very open for a malicious troll to drop the ban stick on you using black hat methods, thus limiting how you can socially interact with other bloggers as well as promote your blog. The system seems like it could be used to sully the name of anyone you don’t like or to backstab a competing blog.

To make matters even worse, there’s no way to have yourself removed from the blacklist — at least not yet.

I look up the Akismet site and contact them through an online form to request an explanation. A few days go by and I hear nothing back. Since there is no telephone number for them, I then attempt to contact them with a v-mail left with the secretary at their venture capital backer True Ventures. More days go by and again I hear nothing. Early last week I discovered that the president of Automattic has a v-mail box at the True Ventures. So I leave a message asking him or someone else involved with Akismet/ Kismet to contact me.

It’s now a week later and I still haven’t heard a peep out of them. I don’t know why this is. (Maybe they are feeling shell-shocked from all the complaints? Not just mine.)

So, what would you do if you ever found yourself in such a tight predicament? First, begin by practicing the golden rule (do unto others as you’d have them do unto you). Take the time to scan your Akismet moderation queue for any false positives and make sure to mark them as legitimate comments before deleting the comments or allowing Akismet to delete the comments.

I know the task of scrolling through spam comments seems like a daunting one, especially if your blog gets a lot of spam attempts, but there are things you can do in place of that.

When I redesigned the OptiNiche blog, I added a challenge question to the comment form and I watched the number of spam comments in my moderation queue drop from a few hundred per day down to about 5-10, which had gone up to about 30-50. (Unless you feel like hard-coding the question into your template, you can just download and install a math validation plugin.) About 99% of the spam attempts I received since adding the challenge question were trackback spam, so installing a trackback validation plugin helped a great deal, too.

When you actually stop the spam attempts from making it into your queue, you’ve greatly reduced your workload when scanning for false positives. After you get your first line of defense under control, make sure to check your second line of defense (Akismet) regularly — daily is best, but every few days should be good. And most importantly, make sure that you take the time to approve comments that have been marked as spam inappropriately so the Akismet database can note your findings.

Second, if you suspect that your comments are being eaten as spam by Akismet, politely contact the blog owner to inform her of the problem and ask if she could look through her spam queue and mark your comment as “Not Spam”. In most cases, unless the blog author is extremely busy (or you’ve unduly pissed her off), the blog author should be obliging.

Finally, contact the Akismet staff to let them know about the problem. With this route, your mileage may vary, but it’s still worth a shot.

[tags]akismet, wordpress, false positives, comment spam, spam protection[/tags]

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Teli Adlam

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21 responses to Why You Should Reconsider How You Use Akismet

  1. Thank you for the reminder. I usually scan my bulk email folder before deleting but hadn’t thought of scanning my Akismet list. Also, I appreciate the plugin links; I’ll certainly check them out.

  2. Coming across this post is the first I’ve heard of any Akismet problems. Did you ever consider contacting Lorelle VanFossen at http://lorelle.wordpress.com/about concerning this problem

  3. First, the “solution” to getting your comments out of Akismet’s basket has been published repeatedly by many. Akismet learns and when you mark caught comment spam as legit, it learns. It takes a few times, but it learns.

    I also highly reocmmend Akismet Auntie Spam Firefox Greasemonkey Script to speed up handling of comment spam caught by Akismet.

    Second, I am not the direct conduit to Akismet. I know how it works, but contacting me, or Akismet, will not get you out of the comment spam chain. By informing bloggers that your comment has been caught, or monitoring your own comments to see if they are caught and then training Akismet to ignore them, you get yourself out of Akismet’s net.

    It’s not a perfect science. I’ve found myself caught my Akismet many times. I just followed my own advice and Akismet stopped catching my comments.

    When I was using Bad Behavior and Spam Karma before Akismet, the ratio of uncaught comment spam was higher than with Akismet. Akismet is doing an incredible job. When used on a self-hosted WordPress blog, you can add those two Plugins for a triple threat of protect. That does the best job for me on my full version blogs.

  4. Hi Lorelle,
    Thanks for popping in and sharing your thoughts. I have to say, though, that your comment seems rather defensive and frankly, there’s no reason for it.

    First, the “solution” you reference is basically just what I’ve already mentioned in the article — i.e. contact any bloggers and ask them to fish out your comment and hope that Akismet learns.

    This is all well and good when the system works as it’s supposed to, but what about those bloggers who don’t realize they’re in the system at all because they a) don’t use Akismet; and b) don’t realize the comments they’ve left have been eaten until it’s too late? Again, the onus of responsibility is placed on the blog owner to see that those legitimate commenters aren’t penalized by checking their Akismet queue regularly.

    One of my regular commenters is always sent to the Akismet spam queue despite my always unspamming his comments (and it’s been far more than a “few” times). For all I know, someone (or multiple someones) has a grudge against him and takes some weird pleasure is relegating his comments to Akismet hell. I don’t know. That’s something he has to deal with and it’s no fun.

    Second, I’m not sure if you were directing the latter portion of your comment to Bob (above you who said to contact you), but I’ve in no way suggested that people contact you directly or that you were a direct conduit to Akismet. If people took it upon themselves to bombard you with references to this post, please accept my apologies.

    As for contacting Akismet directly, it’s funny that you say not to when Matt says exactly the opposite.

    Just a reminder to anyone else, feel free to contact Akismet support any time.

    In fact, the little blurb under Akismet’s math equation spam CAPTCHA seems to contradict that statement:

    You might wonder, if these guys are so good at spam blocking why would they put a stupid question like this on their contact form to keep spam out? Well, Akismet is great at protecting contact forms, we use it on all our other sites, but on Akismet.com sometimes people use the contact form to tell us they’re being blocked by Akismet.

    Finally, I never denied that Akismet does an incredible job at catching spam — quite the opposite — I merely suggested that people use it far more wisely because it’s not foolproof. Instead of just clicking the “Delete all” button, they should take the time to scan the spam-can for any false positives.

    In fact, since publishing this article, I’ve had numerous people e-mail me just to say thank you because they had no idea that Akismet even has such a thing as false positives. And that’s how good bloggers end up there in the first place.

    One thing that has me unsettled with Akismet is how far behind their comment management is when compared to the Defensio plugin.

    Based on my dealings with spam comments, it’s not difficult to weed out the worst offenders, while separating the possibly not/possibly are spam comments and displaying them in such a way for the blogger; it would make scanning for those legitimate comments a lot easier for the end users. Not everyone who uses Akismet uses Firefox and not everyone who uses Firefox has the Greasemokey add-on installed.

    In any event, I do appreciate you taking the time to come by and leave a comment.

    ~ Teli

  5. Frankly I ‘m more than a little surprised that Lorelle choose to react this way. Maybe it was passed off to a staffer, who knows? In any case my only reason for contacting Lorelle was to bring it to her attention and prehaps she would feel that it was important enough to pass onto whoever at WordPress. My apologizies to Teli for Lorelles response

  6. Ah, the problem with people reading in emotions into text where there are none.

    Akismet is an amazing tool, as you’ve said, and Defensio is great competition, so I expect both to be improved through competition and comparison.

    However, Akismet does learn. This point was not made clear with emphasis in your article. It learns well. I’ve had this problem with my own comments, and it does learn.

    No, it’s not perfect. And it’s a good point you bring up, but I’ve gotten several emails and comments asking me when Akismet is going to fix their “bug” based upon this article. This is not a bug. We live in an imperfect world where humans run things. Humans ain’t perfect by a long shot. But Akismet does an amazing job learning, if you take the time to teach it.

    Akismet will improve and there will be competitors which will eventually be better. I long for the day. Until then, and until we can find a way to penalize comment spamming at the root, I will continue, as I have done now since comment spam tool conception, to ask people to check their comment spam for false positives, and to be receptive to those who advise them of a comment lost to the spam catcher, and to promote tools like Akismet Auntie Spam Firefox Greasemonkey Script which makes the job easier and faster.

    Matt has always been open, as has his team, but let’s first train Akismet before taking up human time and resources. It works. Give that a try first.

    I do hope that Akismet or someone comes up with a form for easy whitelisting of commenters, but that’s not an easy task and can be abused. It’s a complex issue. I say nail comment spam at the source and let’s put all this programming and blog time wasting to better use. Unfortunately, no one’s come up with an idea for that.

  7. Again, Lorelle, please accept my apologies if I’m reading too much into your comment, but it still sounds as if you’re in defense-mode. Plus, you’re missing the point when you talk about “training” it.

    It learns well. I’ve had this problem with my own comments, and it does learn.

    I’m glad to hear that Akismet learns well for you, but in my experience, it can be hit or miss. My opinion was formed based on my experience across various blogs.

    Some spam comments I mark as spam which are obviously spam are constantly finding their way into moderation and, as I mentioned previously, a regular commenter who I regularly unspam continues to be marked as spam by Akismet. This has been happening for months and Akismet doesn’t appear to learn in those instances.

    You’re right, it’s not a perfect world and I don’t expect it to be. However, that’s the whole point of this article — to remind people to check their queues and actually rescue their false positives so Akismet can learn.

    Akismet does an amazing job learning, if you take the time to teach it.

    I do teach it. At least, I try.

    Akismet cannot learn without its users actively going through the comments and verifying that Akismet is doing a good job.

    As it stands, most blog owners just go in and delete everything without a second thought because Akismet does not yet display comment spam in an intuitive way; finding false positives in a vast sea of spam is difficult — this is only compounded when you must weed through hundreds or thousands of potential spam comments. Which blog owner do you think is going to go through that kind of trouble?

    You can preach all you want, but when people just blindly use the system without full thought of the potential consequences, it does no one any good, especially those who don’t use Akismet or even realize they’ve been trapped by it.

    …I’ve gotten several emails and comments asking me when Akismet is going to fix their “bug” based upon this article.

    And in case you didn’t catch it the first time around: I’ve in no way suggested that people contact you directly or that you were a direct conduit to Akismet. If people took it upon themselves to bombard you with references to this post, please accept my apologies. I have no control over the actions of others; only my own.

    Frankly, what Automattic should do (and this may be considered a bug by some) is overhaul the Akismet interface to provide the spam results in a far more intuitive way — separating the definitely spam from the might be spam so that “training it” is much easier for the end users to do and then we wouldn’t need to have such discussions at all.

    ~ Teli

  8. Akismet blows. Sorry Lorelle, but we all know it.

  9. The thing is not all bloggers give you a way to contact them so that you can request they go dumpster diving to fish your comments out. I guess you could leave your request in another comment. Every time Akismet is updated, I know a couple of my regular visitors are going to end up caught. They always are, every time. Same ones. Every time I despam them multiple times over several weeks it seems (depending on how many times they comment) before their comments get past Akismet.

    Sadly, not all bloggers even look in their spam folders. As was mentioned in the above comments, they didn’t realize Akismet could make a mistake. It does. In the overall scheme of things, given the amount of spams puked out on us daily, I would assume the percentage of false positives is low, but tell that to the blogger who keeps getting caught.

    I’ve switched to Defensio to give it a try and so that hopefully I won’t have to despam the same couple commenters each time there is an update. Time will tell how well it does and it’s nice to have the stats showing how many false positives and false negatives it has as well as the accuracy. So far I’ve had one false positive, and it took only one time for Defensio to learn. That’s the way it should be. Not three, not five, not fifteen, one.

    With Akismet, I almost thought sometimes it believed II was lying.

  10. Sorry, I should also mention to anyone out there reading this that if you have a gmail account, Akismet considers you guilty until proven innocent. A full 80% of my recent false positives with Akismet (before switching to Defensio) were gmail. I deleted my gmail account for that very reason. Akismet also seems to be very suspicious of yahoo.ca and yahoo.com as well, and whenever there is an update, I’ll have a lot of those as well.

  11. Lorelle is behaving like a perfect example of one of Matt’s fanboys. They don’t listen or read fully what’s in front of them and just sprout off the party line.

    As someone who gets akismet’ed on a regular basis, and have seen it happen to others, I find it annoying as well. My Akismet key stopped working back in June when I had a run in with Matt’s wonderful customer service skills that has now developed into racism and bigotry directed towards me.

    Best solution is just to use something else. Me? I went to Movable Type.

    As an aside, I like how in your comment policy statement you describe how to nofollow a link. That’s a plus.

  12. Thinking out loud, before you can comment here you have to answer a question, I haven’t tried saying no, if I did would I atill be able to post?

    I didn’t even realize that Akismet had any problems till I showed up as I do from time to time at the Optiniche site. Even then I was sure that a email to Lorelle VanFossen would get quick action and it sure did, but hardly the kind I sought.

    Now I’m aware that no matter what it is somebody will have problems with it. An example is a video I watched recently who’s author is convinced that WordPress sucks, the sad part is he had better keep his day job as he won’t have a future singing. It is becoming fashionable to dump on WordPress alleging sloppy coding, javascript, & css(which could be, I’n no expert in such matters). All I know is that a WordPress blog is easier to do than any of the others I’ve so far come across. Joomla does run a close second.

    I hope Teli will either do some more on the subject or let me try.

  13. Copied and Pasted from Lorelle’s Blog

    There is no “problem” that I have found, as in bug. Akismet is doing what it is supposed to do. The fact that it ocassionally catches legit comments is no different from any comment spam tool out there. Akismet actually catches less. This is a non-issue, no matter who makes it one. There is no problem to overcome. You can read my comment on that post for more information.

    I also highly recommend Akismet Auntie Spam Firefox Greasemonkey Script to help you speed up the time you spent handling Akismet caught comment spam. I love it.

  14. I’m going to pop in to offer what I hope to be a final comment on the matter.

    I find it mildly amusing that my original post, which was intended to remind people that Akismet does ocassionally trap legitimate comments in its filter and it’s prudent to comb through the list of spam comments before actually deleting it, has turned into “you’re stirring up trouble for no reason.”

    The reason why legit commenters find themselves in Akismet in the first place and end up staying there is simply because bloggers don’t always take the time to comb through their spam queue and “train” Akismet that those comments are legit. They just blindly hit the Delete all button, which is a no-no.

    Spam sucks. We all know it. But using a service like Akismet (or even Defensio) does come with responsibilities on the part of the blog owner. That’s basically what I was driving at with this post.

    While I do appreciate Lorelle taking the time to visit my modest blog and leaving a comment, her comment seemed ill-placed. In fact, she seemed to be missing the point completely — made me wonder if she actually took the time to properly read the post.

    1) At no time did I suggest that Akismet has a “bug” and at no time did I recommend anyone contact her to complain about said “bug.”

    2) I provided users with a way to get themselves removed from the Akismet hell should they find themselves there which is exactly what she repeated in the comments with a link to a far more verbose version.

    3) I pointed out the shortcomings of the Akismet GUI which could negatively impact on whether or not blog authors take the time to weed through the comments in order to find the legit ones and fish them out. Even provided some tips for the blog owner to decrease the number of those comments which actually make it to the moderation queue.

    4) And since I don’t like pointing out shortcomings without also pointing out possible solutions, I suggested that Automattic overhaul the GUI to make this task much simpler, especially for the bloggers who get thousands of spam comments per day.

    Frankly, a blog owner shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to see at a glance comments which may potentially be legitimate. And by jump through hoops, I’m speaking of putting up first lines of defense just to keep the numbers in the mod queue low enough to quickly scan, though it is generally good practice, and install some Greasemonkey script.

    It may not be believable, but I’m glad that there’s no problem that she’s found with the plugin (in fact, I’ll even admit that my problems were few), but it doesn’t mean that others aren’t experiencing problems with the plugin.

    ~ Teli

  15. Now I’m aware that no matter what it is somebody will have problems with it. An example is a video I watched recently who’s author is convinced that WordPress sucks…

    Well, Robert, I’m not saying WordPress or Akismet suck. The opposite. WordPress makes my life a lot easier and more productive and so did Akismet.

    But, right now, I’m finding that I appreciate Defensio’s interface for viewing spam comments (expect a full review of it to come) over Akismet’s because it will ultimately save me more time by being able to hide obviously spam comments and being able to scan the remaining comments which are color coded according to their “spamminess”.

    In an ideal world, Automattic would have hired the brains behind Defensio to create one great spam fighting plugin which makes it easy for even novice bloggers to quickly scan their spam moderation queues.

    ~ Teli

  16. I’m a new blogger and didn’t know you were supposed to check the spam folder for real comments. Thank you for bringing this to my attention because I don’t want to accidentally mark someone as spam when they shouldn’t be.

    Lorelle, you’ve written a lot of great stuff about WordPress and I held you in such a wonderful light until I read your comments here. You were actually very rude and condescending when you really shouldn’t have been. You say that people read too much into your words, but you should have chosen better words in the first place.

  17. Thank you Emily, I too thought what she wrote was at the very least condescending and sent her an email to that effect. Her response follows

    I’m sorry that you think things got out of hand. My comment on the optiniche blog was not inflammatory and I’m sorry the blogger continues to think so. It’s the facts.

    1. Bloggers must check caught spam for false-positives, no matter what program they are using. If they are using Akismet, Aunt Akismet Greasemonkey makes this process streamlined, faster, and easier.
    2. The best way to get good comments out of Akismet is to train it.
    3. Emailing Akismet puts your request in a queue of hundreds of emails a day. Yes, they need a better way, like a form, to handle such requests, but right now, this mostly free service has only a couple people working long hours to handle the requests, and their response is to first work to train Akismet because it learns. If you continue to have problems, then they might be able to help.
    4. I do not have “clout” with WordPress. I’m listened to as much as anyone, including strangers. I do not work for nor with those handling Akismet and report only on what I learn from others and experience myself. Please don’t believe otherwise. I do not work for WordPress. Trust me, if I had sway, there is a lot that would have been changed about WordPress a LONG time ago for the better. I wish I had clout.

    Those are the facts. You reported to me initially that the article claimed this was a bug. I told you it isn’t a bug. Akismet learns, so we have to improve how we teach it. Yes, it could be better, and I’m all for a whitelisting system, as I mentioned in the comments. I would love to see it developed as a reward system. If your comment clears X times as positive, then it is on the whitelist. I’ve recommended this, over two years ago when Akismet was in its infancy, and to the developers of Bad Behavior and Spam Karma two years before that. There is no whitelist. See, I have no clout. 😀

    I’m sorry that the blogger wrote about the issue the way he did as if it were new. This isn’t new news, though it probably is to some. This is the way it has been since Akismet was introduced almost two years ago. I’m glad his audience is getting the information but it isn’t anything special. You got from the article – well, you reported to me – that this was a bug. I felt a little clarity was needed so people would know it isn’t a bug. And replied to the commenter that I wasn’t the one to come to with Akismet problems. I’m not.

    It’s always interesting when people take things so out of context in blog comments. And it’s also interesting when people make assumptions about me and WordPress. Please, don’t be one of those who assume. I think what you are doing is brilliant on your blog and you do really good work. I appreciate you bringing the issue of the “bug” to me, and I hope that those without an agenda will read my comments and not judge but assume information that can help them.

    It is my purpose to help people, and if any “emotion” can be used against me, it’s trying to help too much. If that sounds defensive, then I can’t do anything about it. I just want to help people to understand and blog better.

    I’m sorry.

    Lorelle

  18. I use Akismet on one of my blogs and sometimes it traps legitimate comments. I guess that’s the price you pay.

  19. Wow Robert. I’m astonished and a little appalled at that response from Lorelle. It’s plain as day that she didn’t even bother to read the actual post before she chipped her 2 cents in. She’s clearly directing her “clarification” to the wrong person. If anyone is to learn anything from this, it should be her. Read and think before leaving comments.

  20. It’s a you say tomatoe, I say tomato cliche which nobody can win and Lorelle VanFossen whom I’ve meet (Word Camp San Francisco 2007) is now a lesser person than she was. But think on reflection that both are right. Akismet needs a better system for controlling actual well thought comments. And she has proved she must not have any clout at WordPress as she clearly has either a vision problem or even worse an understanding problem. But it is all water under the bridge now as far as I’m concerned. Assuming I even continue to use Akismet I will directly contact Akismet.com if I feel there is a problem.

  21. This is my final comment before closing up comments on this post because, quite frankly, it’s going to a place I never intended.

    I harbor no ill-will towards Lorelle. I still, however, feel her comment was ill-placed. I never wrote about this topic as if it were “new news”, it was a reminder.

    I believe my article was clear enough as a reminder to blog owners to actually check their Akismet queue before deleting it (and a notice to those bloggers who didn’t even know to check the queue in the first place).

    Sorry she couldn’t see that, sorry people took it upon themselves to read “bug” when I didn’t even mention the word in the entry, and sorry that they e-mailed her in response. All things I have no control over, but sorry nonetheless.

    Second, I’m a she, not a he.

    If you have any questions or comments about this entry, you’re welcome to e-mail me directly.

    ~ Teli