The Good, The Bad, and the CAPTCHA (Guest Post!)

Written by Abby Nieten on October 18, 2012

Posted in Form Optimization

This a guest post from Max Nussenbaum from Are You a Human. Max is Are You a Human’s jack of all trades, dedicated to vanquishing CAPTCHA from every last corner of the internet.

We’ve all been there: you’re buying a concert ticket, or commenting on a blog post, or sharing a link on your friend’s Facebook wall, when—BAM—like a soccer ball to the face, there it is:

A CAPTCHA. We’ve all seen them. But have you ever wondered where CAPTCHAs came from and how they came to disgrace so many of your favorite web sites? Reader, wonder no more. All of your questions—and more—are about to be answered.


Not that kind.

Our story begins with a trip back in time, to a magical little year known as 2000. The presidential election was being contested, the dot-com bubble was collapsing, and bots were beginning their long, slow assault on the internet. These malicious, automated programs were spewing spam into blog comments and signing up en masse for bogus email account

It was then that Carnegie Mellon researcher Luis von Ahn had an idea. Why not force site visitors to decipher a short string of letters before completing certain tasks? Any literate human could do it—but, since computers are bad at recognizing shapes, the bots would fail the test. And thus was born the CAPTCHA. Soon CAPTCHAs were everywhere: fighting comment spam on blogs, stopping scalpers on Ticketmaster, and even blocking bots on the official White House web site.

Unfortunately, as time went by, computers got a lot better at reading, and the CAPTCHAs were forced to become correspondingly more difficult. What used to look like this…

…now looks more like this:

In their zeal to keep the bots out, CAPTCHAs have started to keep a lot of real people out as well. It now takes the average person 2.3 tries to solve a CAPTCHA, and one in four fail on the first attempt! (Source.) Indeed, entireblogs now exist to collect and share the most epic CAPTCHA fails.

Some classic CAPTCHA fails. Source:

If you’re thinking about implementing CAPTCHA on your own web site, our first piece of advice is—DON’T! There’s often a better solution out there that lets you avoid CAPTCHA entirely. For example, CAPTCHAs used to be common in blog and newspaper commenting systems, but many have since begun linking their comments with Facebook instead. (This often has the added benefit of improving the quality of the comments, as people tend to be more respectful when they can’t hide behind anonymity.)

But sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that you do need a human verification system: if your users need to be able to submit anonymous feedback, for example, or if you need to stop bots from signing up for accounts on your site.

Of course, you could use a CAPTCHA. But at Are You a Human, we think there’s a better way. Our CAPTCHA replacement is a series of fun games that serve the same verification purpose, but don’t make you want to punch puppies in the face.














PlayThru by Are You a Human. Click the game to give it a try!


So the next time you’re thinking about using a CAPTCHA, think twice. People hate them. And though CAPTCHA may be a small part of your site, no part is too small to delight your users.