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Sometimes in life things that seem sensible in theory don’t always work out in practice.

Communism and Captcha images are two obvious examples, and it’s the latter that I wish to focus on in this post.

Captcha is designed to be an effective way of validating things like applications, purchases and comments. Basically any online form that a crook or spammer might try to trick for personal gain.

Unfortunately it can also harm the user experience by causing untold frustration for people trying to decipher the random jumble of letters and symbols.

So here are six different alternatives to the dreaded Captcha images.

And by the way, I’m fully aware that I’m on shaky ground here bearing in mind our own process for posting blog comments, and this is something we're looking to improve. 

Sadly, some form of comment protection is necessary given the volume of spam targeted at this blog. 

I am, however, interested in hearing from people with other suggestions or case studies on how they reduced spam comments....

Use a checkbox

One method of beating spammers without annoying users is to replace the Captcha with a simple checkbox.

This can be created using client-side JavaScript, meaning spambots won’t be able to tick the box as it’s only displayed to users on the client-side.

Example taken from UX Movement

This is clearly easier for users to complete, thereby improving the UX.

There is obviously an issue if users have disabled JavaScript, but you potentially can get around this by asking users to turn on JS before they fill in the form.

The honeypot

This solution is far from perfect, but it is a potential alternative to Captcha nonetheless. A honeypot involves creating a field that needs to be left blank in order for the form to be successfully submitted.

The form is hidden from genuine users through CSS, however spambots should still see it and fill it in.

Unfortunately users that browse the web with CSS disabled will also see the form and fill it in. This will obviously cause confusion as it’s unusual to be asked to leave a field blank when filling in a form.

Furthermore, some spambots are able to avoid honeypots by identifying common names for the text field. This means that the form has to have an unusual or misleading name, which will also dupe some genuine users.

A simple maths question

As an alternative to random words and numbers you could ask users to solve a simple maths problem, such as “what’s 1 + 1?”

It’s safe to assume that most people will be able to get the answer correct, however spammers are also wise to this tactic and can get around it.

Set time limits

Real users take a few moments to read all the information and fill in the blanks, however robots can fill it all in almost instantaneously.

By setting a low minimum time limit for page submissions sites can catch out spambots without any impact on genuine users. 

Unfortunately some spammers will be wise to this trick and find a way around it, but it will at least catch out some unwanted visitors.

Run checks for spammy content

Many of the spammers trying to get their comments published on the Econsultancy blog follow the same pattern.

In general the comments will either include a link to some random website - in fact they often include tens of links – or they’re trying to flog drugs such as tramadol or zanex.

By working out common trends and features of spam comments we’re able to blacklist certain words and phrases so they don’t make it past the spam filter.

This obviously isn’t going to catch all spambots, but it’s a useful tool in the war on spammers.

Interactive games

Are You A Human is an interesting service that requires the user to complete an interactive game before they are able to submit a form.

It works just by clicking and dragging objects, which is certainly more fun than asking people to identify a Captcha image.

David Moth

Published 30 July, 2013 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

1684 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

Hi David, great post. I like the alternatives you've mentioned. I've also seen brands actually take advantage of Captcha Codes to increase awareness of their own brand. I think it's a pretty old idea, but i do really like it a lot. There's a great post showing a good example and how effective it is here: http://thenextweb.com/media/2011/10/06/solve-medias-smart-captcha-ads-improve-brand-recall-by-67/

about 3 years ago

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Ali Moghadam

Nice post David,

I wrote a similar article earlier in the month with spam fighting methods for bloggers and site owners, which includes some of the CAPTCHA alternatives you mention above and a couple of others that you and other readers might be interested in:

http://www.koozai.com/blog/social-media/comment-spam-why-i-hate-it-and-how-to-stop-it/

Comment spam is not fun. CAPTCHA isn't fun either, but it beats spam. A few people commented on their experiences using some of the alternative spam fighting methods in the post I mentioned.

If I had to pick a favourite as a user, I'd go with the simple task - a mini game, or a slider or something fun that won't take long and is immediately understood. Most people seem to agree that it's the way forward in most cases. Wavy letters cut into little bits don't bode well for user experience - I'm not looking forward to the one at the bottom of this page! ;-)

about 3 years ago

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Henri

So the obvious question is when are you going to implement one of these, hopefully the one where you just need to tick a box? You didn't point out any drawback to it.

In the meantime we are stuck with your awful captcha.

about 3 years ago

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Steven

I've seen approaches that ask users to just click on a few pictures instead of deciphering distorted text. I like those approaches better, and they also are used for online advertising, giving the website publisher an extra revenue stream on their website. Here's one example: http://confidentcaptcha.com

about 3 years ago

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David Aldred

Can you perhaps comment on the accessibility aspects of these alternatives?

I'm not at all clear how well some of these would work with screen readers, for example; how would a blind user manage a visual interactive game?

Web designers have a responsibility (and in some countries a statutory one) to make their sites accessible to those with disabilities, and this needs to be a feature of any replacement for captcha (which itself has real accessibility issues in many implementations).

about 3 years ago

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Becs Rivett

I love the pictorial ones, we use Sweetcaptcha which is like Are you a human and integrates nicely with the buddypress site registration form.

about 3 years ago

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Sarah Alder

I was slightly disappointed that you didn't write a post on communism, maybe next time.

On the captcha alternatives, pic ones are good but need to be culturally sensitive. No snowmen in China!!

about 3 years ago

Matthew Henton

Matthew Henton, Marketing Director at 31DOVER

Some good ideas on improving Captcha David. But why focus on improving the user experience? Why not just monetise the whole thing like Ryainair?
http://www.themiserablemarketer.com/2013/07/captcha-ryanair-way.html

about 3 years ago

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Lou

Another successful CAPTCHA alternative that also serves as a branding/advertising tool is minteye slide to fit CAPTCHA (http://www.minteye.com/) - instead of tracking an unreadable text, you are asked to straighten some distorted image, which could and could not bear some advertising message or a funny image.

about 3 years ago

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Tanielle Lobo

Spam is a real problem, And captcha codes can spoil the UX if you're trying to maintain a clean cut modern feel to your website.

We recently came across an issue where our website form module was resulting in thousands of spam entries, whereas on the same page, an embedded Wufoo form (advance form app) received no spam at all.
So we just ditched the website form and replaced it with Wufoo.

about 3 years ago

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Marc Prevost, personal at personal

I think the game idea to be fun but terrible since it ressembles every other spam game "to win an awsome prize", figuring out patterns would work too....until someone finds a way arround it... And do any of you even know that captchas help digitize books....why not think of idea that combine two things, captcha is a tool that millions of users do a couple times a day....what is something usefull someone can do for YOU in that couple of seconds it takes to be compleeted.... innovation is sustainability! we already have easy.... we want productivness!

almost 3 years ago

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Toor Philis, Web Developer at None

I can suggest one more solution - http://uniqpin.com
It's look like more confortable for users than dreaded captcha string.

over 2 years ago

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Danny Goncalves, Developer at Enoba Sistemas

Hi David, i didn't understand properly the checkbox thing, what do you mean bots can't click it? what does JS has to do with it?

My sites are fully working on Javascript and jQuery so disabling it will turn the site updown.

almost 2 years ago

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Drew Butler, Search Engine Marketer at Fusionbox

One simple solution we have implemented is to check if users are running javascript. Given that spammers usually do not run javascript because it weighs down their browsers, this is a simple way to eliminate many spammers without affecting usability. Here are some more details on that:
https://www.fusionbox.com/blog/detail/google-releases-an-alternative-to-captcha-adding-to-a-history-of-spam-fighting-programs/537/

almost 2 years ago

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Gaétan Boishue, director at Mediabox

Try an invisible captcha on http://www.invisible-captcha.com ;)

over 1 year ago

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