My Two WordPress Cents

Published 18 years, 11 months past

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, 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.

Comments (31)

  1. I can’t help but think you are giving some special treatment here. Had this been someone else, I could easily see you bashing them for such practices.

  2. You’re free to believe what you like, of course. Still, it’s interesting that you can easily see me bashing someone else for such practices when, so far as I’m aware, I’ve never publicly reacted to a situation like this one.

  3. I was specifically targeting the issue of “cloaking” links and being part of a link farm network whose purpose is spamming search engines. You have publicly reacted to that.

    In an article about the SES Chicago Conference you discuss cloaking and how search engines react to cloaking. You first explain that hiding text for image-replacement and other “valid” reason will probably not get you booted from an engine’s index. You then go on to say:

    But it”s still a bit dismaying to realize that the very same tools we use to make the Web better are much more often used to pollute it. I don”t suppose it”s surprising, though.

    This is precisely what was done on the WordPress site. So why aren’t you more upset that they are “polluting the web?”

    When you were discussing cloaking among faceless individuals it was a pretty bad thing. You spoke about it in the same breath as link farms and comment spamming. You now say:

    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 psuedo-socialist about the Web that I don”t have retailer affiliate accounts, and never did.

    Now that a “a very good acquaintance” has done it, you are almost suggesting that it might be ok as long as you have a financial incentive.

  4. The motives are key here. There was no desire to profit. With the explosive growth of and no revenue, I supposed Matt found himself dealing with 100’s of gigs in terms of traffic. The action taken was an innocent mistake. No gray hat. No dark hat.

  5. Roy, you’re a bit off there… WordPress (and Ping O’ Matic for that matter) do not pay for bandwidth… TextDrive hosts, and Matt is a developer partner there. Also, there is definately revenue (for example, a good portion of TextDrive’s hostees choose for half their monthly costs to be donated to WP).

    However, that’s not to say Matt was trying to make a profit either. I’m sure he had his reasons, although it came back and bit him in the ass (articles removed from google’s index). That’s what it comes down to: efforts like these are futile, because they have no long-term stability.

  6. Eric,

    Didn’t you bash the boys over at ses about the put 1/2 you page in an h1 and the other in an h2 comment?

    Cloaking like matt has done could hurt the css communities image replacement techniques drastically.

    What Matt has done is bad period and totally unethical!

    If I recall correctly he has cnet business cards, well if I was in charge at cent he would be one unemployed fellow.

    I hear everyone saying oh let”s hear from Matt, what”s to hear? The code tells it all. I wonder what other techniques Matt will use to support his habit (wordpress).

    Matt obviously can post form Florence, and is ignoring his situation you know he is googles most #1 Matt!

  7. Well said Eric..

    Its a poorly implemented way of getting money – if he’d just SAID that he was doing it before then it would have been a lot lot easier.

    As of now the articles have been removed from the WP site, he’s said before when asked about it that he’d remove them if the community didn’t like them, and they were only temporary anyhow. So far, aside from a slight lack of transparency, hes dealt with it fine.

    Lets see from here on out :)

  8. Now, what paid Matt that trip to Europe then?

    j/k. Good intentions, not so great implementation.

  9. Matt obviously can post form Florence, and is ignoring his situation you know he is googles most #1 Matt!

    While I’m not quite sure what to think about this whole thing Matt’ obviously not ignoring it:

  10. Rob (#4) –

    The links back from the WordPress installs to the contributors pages are one thing. That’s not bad, probably just a left-over from when the project got start. No harm, no foul in my opinion.

    However, the cloaked links on the WordPress site are purely for profit. So your argument about motive goes right out the window. The only reason for those links is money and that was the motive.

  11. Well, Matt’s explained the situation; I added a link to that effect at the end of the article. It’s worth a read, although only if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. If not, don’t bother.

    Some people here seem to think that I was upset over SEO black-hattery a few months back. I went back and re-read those posts, and they confirmed for me that I was more resigned to and disappointed in human nature than anything else. And I’m disappointed in this situation too– although in this case, I’m disappointed with a lot of people. It takes quite a bit to get me genuinely angry, as any of my friends can tell you. (In fact, only a few of them have ever seen me more than deeply annoyed.)

    Furthermore, I’m not suggesting it’s okay to spam search engines. Just because I haven’t demanded heads on a platter and a burning at the stake, which seems to be what some people want to have happen, doesn’t mean I’m lending support. Show me the part where I said it was okay to spam if you were poor, or a friend of mine, or both, and I’ll recant it.

    And yes, of course my reaction is influenced by knowing Matt personally. That’s why I explained my relationship to Matt up front. In this case, there was likely some extra tempering of my feelings by the fact that, knowing Matt, I was pretty confident that this was either an unintentional mistake, or else an experiment that he hadn’t thought through. Or maybe both. Of course, if he’d said, “Yeah, I was spamming and I knew it, but that’s tough beans and anyone who doesn’t like it can go jump”, then that would’ve been different, and I’d have made a followup post. Since he said quite the opposite, I don’t have to make that post, I’m glad to say.

    Until hearing his explanation, though, there wasn’t much point in getting worked up about things. As I discovered in the very same incident some of you mentioned, going off on a rant without waiting for the facts usually leads to massive foot-in-mouth problems. I don’t know about you, but I dislike the taste of dirty shoes and used socks, so I try to avoid it.

    Oh, and I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between collecting money and making a profit.

  12. no bad taste of shoes in my mouth, he knew what he was doing and has now expressed he is sorry for it. If Matt was to say, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know cloaking was bad”. Then Matt would be a bad guy. He knew exactly what he was doing just as he did to become, googles #1 Matt.

    Sorry Eric, if you thought I was impling you were taking favortisim with Matt, It was not my intention. I still dont have the flavor of shoes or socks though :)

    Eric is to nice and too cool of a guyand I hope he stays that way!

  13. Eric, good post — especially considering that you probably know Matt pretty good. As strange as might it sound but it somehow helped me to cool down a little bit ;-)

    What I find really upsetting about this whole issue is that many people don’t seem to be able to judge the spamming separately from Matt personally and from WP. Matt being “nice” or WP being “great” doesn’t justify spamming. To me this only shows that the so called “WordPress community” isn’t able to deal with critique. I’m also getting the impressions that for some people WP is what a family (or something like that) is for others (like me) — and that can’t be good.

    This whole thing isn’t about money, it’s about ethics. If it was about money and the spamming was to compensate for the lack of donations then I would say that WP should introduce a licensing system or that the developers should work less on WP.

    Funny you should mention those pre-installed links, I’m a bit unsure about those, too. However my WP theme ‘Blix’ comes with a link to my website per default, too, so no difference here.

  14. First off, what matt did was NOT cloaking. Hidden links? Yes, but most certainly not cloaking. Cloaking would have involved him serving a different page to googlebot. This did not happen. It’s quite apparent this isn’t something matt does often. Btw, alot of high profile ecommerce sites cloak their product pages. Especially those using a large amount of graphics. Is it really bad though? I guess it depends on how they go about doing it. If you’re looking to buy a blue widget, and you search for one you don’t want to find an article about a blue widget. If your a webmaster and all your page has is a picture of a blue widet, the product name and a brief snippet, if that, in addition to the order form it is difficult to rank for that term. Which is why many company cloak their product pages.

    Anywayz, what Matt did was NOT cloaking. It was really much more amature than that. He simply hid the text. There are a ton of ways to do this. How do you think most of not all image replacements are done? Did those links really disturb your user experience at all? Of course not. If Matt could make a few extra dollars off of some of his hard earned pagerank, I say good for him. I must say though I was shocked at how blatently obvious it was. I mean where the style for the hidden links really inline?

  15. I have been suspecting that he was ethically challenged ever since seeing how he had firefox images appear from the wordpress on blog installs, and I criticized it in the newsforge review two weeks ago. He would not explain why they were there, but now I’m pretty confident that they are somehow involved in this whole scam.

    I just have no respect from the guy, since he wouldn’t respect my freedom of speech and deleted every question I asked him about it. Now I know why. If you can’t respect honestly inquisitive people’s freedom of speech, then I can’t honestly have much respect for you. Hopefully this kid hangs his head in shame. I really can’t accept his explanation because he actively deleted me when I was questioning him on the ethics of the wordpress site.

  16. Sebastian (#13),

    Open Source developers, let us face it, work with the aim of promoting themselves. if not financially, then socially. I’d be foolish to suggest that people work towards achieving something without a motive. Take Matt, for example. He has a decent job in CNET owing to his dedication to voluntary projects and he has become like a brother to many WP users.

    Many readers of Thoughts from Eric, I assume, are self-employed (or partially independent) and equate their job to a hobby. The majority of people out there work in code or design ‘sweatshops’ and their only reward is financial. So who are we to say that Alex King or Matt Mullenweg do not deserve the links and the PageRank that follows?

  17. To free speech, you’re so typical of the mentality of alot of foolish internet hooligans that love to go on other people’s sites to stir the pot. On the wordpress forum, or any other online forum for that matter, you have no right to free speech. You can, however, spend your own money and build your own site, gather your own readers and then post whatever you want.

  18. I was talking about respect for others, which he did not show me or promote by not answering questions about the ethical implications of what he was doing, and instead deleting them.

    By deleting it, I was clearly shown that he was ethically challenged, and that was my point.

    I didn’t say anyone had to accept my free speech on their site. Just that those who don’t respect free speech aren’t worth much, and are typically corrupt. It is the truest stamp of their character.

    Of course we don’t find that out until the truth comes out in the wash.

    And it has.

  19. Free speech != Must listen. WP-Firefox payola scandal? Pardon me whilst I LMFAO.

    Anyway, I’ve always valued your opinions and insights, Eric. Your reaction to this latest brouhaha has given me no reason to alter this value-judgement.

    “[O]ld-school hippie-Utopian pseudo-socialist” (OSHUPS), now there’s a peculiar ideological orientation I can fully identify with! Must be why I think you’re cool ;D.

  20. Mr. “Speech”,
    You should know that not everything in life is an epic battle between good and evil. Consequently, just because someone does something you don’t like or disagrees with you, that doesn’t make them evil.

    Also, not every issue is about constitutionally protected speech. Additionally, free speech is not the same thing as saying you have a right to be published, but merely that the government can’t keep you from publishing.

    So, post whatever you had to say to your own site, and stop complaining about having comments deleted from other peoples’ sites.

  21. I know that most people were struck by (and have commented about) your feelings on the WP issue. Oddly enough, what I found most intriguing in this post was the fact that you founded XFN and have reservations about application of the word “friend”. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few words on my own that I’m especially careful about their usage – it just struck me as funny. :)

  22. Again, Tony. I didn’t say he was evil, I said that he was ethically challenged, and he proved that to me when he wouldn’t answer the questions forthrightly and tried to cover them up.

    Really, if you don’t understand what the real issues are here, then read this.

    This issue has nothing to do with me demanding to have comments posted on his blog, the fact that he deleted my comments to cover his tracks told me about his character. And from that, I’m not surprised that the truth caught up with him.

    So honestly, your attacks on me are incorrect and completely out of context.

  23. Mr. Speech,
    I did not attack you. Unless your name truly IS “Free Speech” and I simply misunderstood, you are in fact whining about somebody not publishing your comments, and trying to frame it as constitutionally protected speech. I’m not sure someone deleting comments from their web site says as much about their character, but going around crying (anonymously) about your constitutional right to free speech being inpeded does provide a window into one’s character.

    Please note that I have never met Mr. Mullenweg, I have never used WordPress, I don’t visit Mr. Mullenweg’s web sites regularly, and I have no vested interest in this entire matter. However, I do understand the issues — and I do know it has nothing to do with free speech.

  24. “you are in fact whining about somebody not publishing your comments”

    There is no whining here, I’m sharing my experience. The point isn’t that he deleted the comments, as much as he avoided the questions that ultimately made a whole community implicit in his spamming scam. If that is “whining” to you, that’s your problem, but hopefully you’ll learn someday that when someone shares their side of an issue, labeling them “whiners” only shows your own lack of maturity to look at other sides of the issue rationally.

    “and trying to frame it as constitutionally protected speech.”

    I know the respect of the freedom of others doesn’t mean much to a lot of Americans today, but it is a basic tenant of any definition of freedom I’ve ever cared about.

    “I”m not sure someone deleting comments from their web site says as much about their character, but going around crying (anonymously)”

    I didn’t make this a “constitutional” issue in any of my comments. And trust me, I’m not crying, I’m laughing at your complete lack of maturity and nothing more. But if you can’t respect the free speech of others, than you can’t possibly care much for the first amendment.

    Who isn’t annonymous on the net? IF I knew your name do you honestly think it would make a difference. I’m not reknowned on the net, therefore my opinion doesn’t matter? That is far too an authoritarian viewpoint for me to ever agree with. We vote anonymously after all. It is a tenant of democracy.

    “about your constitutional right to free speech being inpeded does provide a window into one”s character.”

    “However, I do understand the issues — and I do know it has nothing to do with free speech.”

    I never said the actual issues did have something to do with free speech, and that is why your comments are so misguided. The fact that this kid tried to hide something he was doing which was damaging to the community around the project, coupled with the fact that he was shutting out inquisitive dissent when it was convenient for him says a lot about his character. Everyone letting him “off the hook” because they think they know him is certainly at odds with the lack of respect he has shown to others and their honest rights of freedom and understanding.

  25. I’m not going to bicker back and forth with you on someone else’s web site about specific semantics in your argument.

    I will leave you with this though:

    Free Speech IS Constitutionally protected expression which IS NOT the right to force other people to publish your thoughts.

  26. And I’ll leave you with this mind-blowing remark.

    I never said it was.

  27. Here’s what you don’t get. Whatever you think of your comments being deleted, deleting them was not an infringement of your free speech. And, claiming it was, is saying that the constitution requires web site owners to publish your thoughts if you wish them to.

    So, yes, you did “say it was.”

  28. I very clearly was talking about respect for free speech, not infringement of it, or constitutional infringement of it. I’m talking about honor, and respect for the freedom of others. This is wholly lost on you, so I’m not surprised you’ve become a broken record on the subject.

    I do understand what you’re saying, but it seems nearly impossible for you to grasp the nuance of what I am actually saying.

  29. I get what you are saying. You are saying he doesn’t respect a right you don’t have.

    The word I would use for that isn’t nuance. You can guess what word I would use.

  30. No reason to continue this as your commentary is way out in right field. I never, at any point in any post said I had a right to be published on his site. The fact that he couldn’t respect the free speech of others and allow it on his site is what I was discussing. Unfortunately this conversation is way over your head, so hopefully you’ll understand why I am done responding to your broken record of nonsense. The measure of an individual is in how much they respect the freedom of others. Again, if you don’t agree with the concept of freedom, then that is your problem, not mine. I am talking about respect for freedom only, not explicit rights of publication on the sites of others. But let’s hear that broken record’s tune one more time.

  31. If you’re the person I think you are, I didn’t delete your comments I just never took them out of moderation because they were false, inflammatory, anonymous, and added nothing to the conversation. I have nothing wrong with contrary viewpoints, particularly from people with the courage to put their real name on them, but if you want to act crass and ill-bred please do it on your site and not mine. If you have a problem with something in WordPress try filing a bug instead of trolling comments everywhere. Now if you excuse me I have to go back to my embedded Firefox spyware and surpressing free speech across the Interweb.

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