Matt, WordPress, and Search Engine Gaming

Update:
Everyone, Please understand that this not about WordPress the software, or WordPress developers, or even WordPress Inc. It is about Matt Mullenweg allowing someone else to game Google’s search engine on the WordPress.org site.


I feel I have to comment on the current WordPress story building over the ‘discovery’ that Matt has been using the wordpress.org domain to host thousands of specially-written articles designed to attract high paying Google Adsense adverts, and their outgoing links gaining high page rank from WordPress.org’s own page rank.
Dougal Campbell has written a reasoned response to the story breaking. It is most unfortunate that Matt is currently on vacation in Europe, but Jonas has replied quite reasonable. Jonas is also saying he will answer anyone’s questions 24×7 which is most generous of him.
I will also quote Andrew’s opening disclaimer:

Disclaimer. I’m hesitant to even write about this, knowing the web’s fondness for angry mob justice, but I feel like it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed. My one request: please be calm and rational. WordPress is a great project, and Matt is a good guy. Think before piling on the hatemail and flames.

I suspect that Matt is now aware of the situation as the pages seemed to have disappeared, or else someone trusted has taken them down.

It’s worth noting that Matt already responded to a query on the support forums about this in February saying:

The content in /articles is essentially advertising by a third party that we host for a flat fee. I’m not sure if we’re going to continue it much longer, but we’re committed to this month at least, it was basically an experiment. However around the beginning of February donations were going down as expenses were ramping up, so it seemed like a good way to cover everything. The Adsense on those pages is not ours and I have no idea what they get on it, we just get a flat fee. The money is used just like donations but more specifically it’s been going to the business/trademark expenses so it’s not entirely out of my pocket anymore.

My opinion? I say, let’s not make a mountain out of a mole hill till we have all the facts. It sounds very much like Matt has made dubious decision for all the right reasons. But I believe the only thing one can consider Matt may have done wrong here is hosting these articles on wordpress.org. Hosting them at all I don’t have a problem with: It is one way that could be used to help pay for the enormous hosting costs he must have. There are articles out there explaining exactly how to do this on your own site.

Matt has my support, he has done a huge amount for this project. Far, far more than I have. I hope he can sort this one without to much fallout. The fact that he has already been open about it stands in his favour.

update:As Dr Dave pointed out in the comments, Matt didn’t respond to the forum post until Andy said he was going public with the story. I will still support Matt, but I think he really has been very silly to get involved in this and to tie it in to wordpress.org

19 thoughts on “Matt, WordPress, and Search Engine Gaming

  1. If Matt wants to make a little cash, who are we to question how he does it? He creates a great product and has a community that supports that product. As long as it isn’t in our face, let him do what he wants, he deserves it.

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  3. To me this is an obvious attempt by Google/Blogger to threaten the competition (WordPress). I haven’t seen the WordPress articles in question, that’s not really important–Google never had to spider these pages in the first place–nobody forced Google to spider anything–and remember there are dozens of search engines out there, thousands of indexing robots, and just as many sites selling adwords. Using keywords to feed ads has been common practice way before Google was buying ads on TV. WordPress is clearly a beautiful program–and as an artist, that’s why I use it–and will continue to use it.

    Because of this I will not be using Google in the future–I’ll be switching to Hotbot.com. Browsers and search engines come and go like the wind–Google has clearly lost touch with reality–maybe the money is going to their heads.

  4. PJ,
    Google have no such agenda in mind.
    I think you are missing the real point of the controversy. Matt used hidden links on the homepage of wordpress.org. That’s the bit that is underhand, explicitly against Google’s rules, and, I believe, an error of judgement.

    Mike

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  6. You are blind if you think so. What do you think a meta tag is? It’s a “hidden” keyword. Look at any affiliate program–use Zappos.com for example. Do a search for the pair of shoes that you are wearing right now and you’ll see dozens, if not hundreds of domains using keywords and links to attract Google traffic–all of them auto-generated by some script with the intent of garnering the attention of SE index robots. Is that spamming Google? No! Ebay does the same thing!

    WordPress can serve whatever it wants to that’s legal–who died and made Google lord of the internet? I can’t believe that anyone is supporting Google on this. Isn’t it obvious to you that WordPress is a target because of Blogger?! Maybe you don’t realize how important Blogger is to Google. What Google didn’t anticipate–Wordpress users are smarter than Blogger users 😉

    If you think that Google should have the power to tell you what ads to use, where and how many, you have just lost your mind.

    Information wants to be free–goodbye Google.

  7. This is directed primarily at the haters:

    PJ has this right. This is *not* Google’s internet. What people do on their own webpage is their own damn business. Who gives a flying flip if it’s “against Google’s rules”? I believe the site is hosted in the United States, and last I checked, in most of those states, the 1st Amendment still applies.

    How is what was done any worse than a googlebombing, or any other “abuse” of Google’s indexing criteria? This technique is not new. This technique IS NOT the same or similar to e-mail spam. Perhaps Google needs to work on its ranking criteria. Like most tech companies, when they were small they embraced the hackers, now that they’re big they seem to be about to begin attacking them.

    Matt has spent more time working on the WordPress project than most of these whiners gaze into their navel, which is a lot. It’s sad that his work and recognition has made him a target of these leeches.

    A mistake in judgement was made. It was nothing more than a P.R. error. I wish people would just grow up and deal with it.

    Argh.

  8. Of course, I side mostly with the camp of reason and moderation on this one. I fully agree with (and know oh-so-well) Dougal’s point about the fact that running an open-source project hardly ever brings the money to even pay for themselves.

    That being said: here are the few points that bother me (admittedly nowhere near deserving the kind of crucifixion some are trying to put together here):

    1) Indeed, very bad judgement. Then how comes absolutely *nobody else* seems to have been involved in this decision. I know Matt is the “lead developer” and probably WordPress’ Public Figure, but we also both know very well that he is only one of a team, and that many other people should have at least a small say in such a decision (If Matt had consulted a few people, even if he hadn’t listened to them, we probably wouldn’t be there now). Unfortunately, this sounds rather typical of many of the project decisions I have witnessed.

    2) As you say, along with your link to his reply in the Forums, “The fact that he has already been open about it stands in his favour”…

    Except he hasn’t.

    Andy specify that this thread in the forum was originally “closed without comment by an unknown moderator”. It took Andy’s talking to Matt and basically making it clear he would disclose the details to everybody in the near future, that prompted Matt to write some sort of explanation. I am personally very annoyed by that.

    All in all, absolutely nothing to get up in arms about. However, if there’s anything to be learnt from this, it’s maybe that a little bit more transparence couldn’t hurt.

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  11. I must say I agree with Mike.

    The hidden links was the shady part. I have stumbled upon some of the articles in question and wondered about the /articles/ folder because I hadn’t seen a link on any WP pages. I didn’t take note of it at the time, nor did I know he was using hidden links to build popularity. I honestly thought it was just another part of the WP site he was developing.

    The two articles I read were on hosting and SEO – they were in no way “spammy” in my opinion, and were actually well written for a newbie looking for info.

    If only Matt had just placed a visible link (even if he added a little “sponsor” tag to it), all would have been peachy keen and good…but then there’s that pesky problem with the duplicate content…

    It’s a good idea to generate some extra cash IMO, but it just needs to be executed with a little more forethought.

  12. Is this an April Fool joke?
    If it is, I do not think it is very funny.
    If it is not, WTF? How the heck did this happen?

    Why do these problems always pop up when the big boss is on Vacation?
    PLEASE PhotoMatt – send a message to clarify this!

  13. PJ, Brandon,
    Again you are missing the point. Google’s reaction isn’t about Blogger versus WordPress, or about whether Google can dictate what anybody puts on their website, it’s about the legally binding contract the users of Google’s Adsense program agree to. Which explicitly precludes doing what Matt did. Note that these are NOT Matt’s adverts, he was merely hosting them. He did not make any money directly from Google.
    No-one should fool themselves into thinking that 168,000 articles on perhaps dozen subjects was anything innocent.

    Dr Dave,
    you missed the timestamps on those events. The forum thread and Matt’s response were more than a month ago. Andy explicitly says he IM-ed Matt last week to say he was going to run the story.

    Everyone,
    Please understand that this not about WordPress the product, or WordPress developers, or even WordPress Inc. It is about Matt Mullenweg allowing someone else to game Google’s search engine on the WordPress.org site.

  14. Mike:

    Correct me if I’m wrong (and I may be: I haven’t spent my day looking into that), but here is what you see on that forum thread:
    – last comment made by a user regarding the matter: Posted: 2005-02-21 18:18:52 #
    – reply from Matt: Posted: 2005-03-24 15:00:41 #

    Basically: one week ago, more than one month after the original inquiry, and most likely after Andy told him it would be published anyway. And Andy mentions that until that point, the thread had been closed without notice by a moderator.

    In my book, “being open” about it (in a very limited way, since we are basically talking about a small blurb at the end of a month-old support thread) because you are about to be publicly called on it, is not really being open about it…

    Don’t get me wrong: I fully understand why he would want to do that, and, to some extent, I understand the decision (if only by giving a look at the incredible blogosphere circus this thing has become). But I can’t bring myself to find that OK.

    Otherwise, I agree with you regarding what this is about and what this is not about. But it’s impossible to fully separate wordpress.org from the product: one definitely affect the other. Decisions on one affect the other.

  15. Dr Dave
    You are right. I totally mis-read the dates on those postings!
    Please accept my apologies.

    It also got mentioned in early March on one of the wp mailing lists, but again, there was no response.

    Mike

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