I was going to ignore the whole WordPress search engine gaming situation, especially with Matt on vacation and so unable to speak for himself at the moment. Dougal and Jonas have weighed in with their bits, and that seemed good enough. But as a high-profile WordPress user and supporter, I’ve had some readers ask me about my opinion. So okay, here it is.
I’m not going to call Matt any names, or declare his actions to have been evil. Matt and I, along with Tantek, founded GMPG and worked together on XFN. I would consider Matt a very good acquaintance. (Don’t read too much into that: I’m unusually choosy about using the term “friend”.) He’s young, enthusiastic, and very smart. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make mistakes, but it might mean he’s more willing to try things out just to see how they go.
From a technical point of view, though, this isn’t much of a change from past practices. Anyone who’s installed WordPress has probably noticed that, by default, the system contains links to all of the big WordPress contributors. If you just set up the default template and don’t fiddle with anything, those links show up in your blog.
And what effect do those links have? They can pump enormous amounts of Google juice into the sites of those people, for one. Remember when Matt reached the #1 result on Google for “Matt”? The pre-installed links can seriously skew blog-networking systems, for another. If Technorati didn’t exclude those people from the ranking lists, they’d dominate the Technorati Top 100. As of this writing, photomatt.net has more links from more sources than does Boing Boing. So do most, if not all, of the other blogs that come with your WordPress install.
Adding hidden article links seems to me to be another step along the same path. Is it a good path? All I can say is that it isn’t a path I would have followed. Then again, I’m such an old-school hippie-Utopian pseudo-socialist about the Web that I don’t have retailer affiliate accounts, and never did.
Based on what I’ve been picking up from conversations and sessions at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, what Matt did with these hidden links is at best a gray-hat SEO tactic, and probably a black-hat move. There will be (and already have been) reprecussions, and Matt will have to deal with them. How he deals with them will, I think, be far more important than what he did. We’ll just have to wait to see how that unfolds.
Meanwhile, I fully intend to keep using, hacking on, and contributing to WordPress, because it’s a good system at a great price with an even better license.
Update: Matt has explained his side of the story.