WordPress.org and the Google Adsense Debacle

Saw Nick_W's post at Threadwatch.org (also covered by Barry Schwartz at SearchEngineRoundtable) about WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg hosting some HotNacho.com articles bearing Google Adsense ads in the /articles subdirectory of WordPress.org in exchange for a flat fee. The issue was posted at the WordPress forums and answered by Matt himself two weeks ago, and posted on March 30 (by Andrew Baio?) on waxy.org, where it was commented upon by what appears to be the real GoogleGuy, who explained Google's problems with both the links and the articles:

There definitely appear to be hidden links on the root page of wordpress.org using CSS, e.g. "text-indent: -9000px; overflow: hidden". That's clearly against our quality guidelines at http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html#quality

What's more, it looks like the company responsible for doing this (hotnacho.com) is also responsible for creating duplicate content in the form of posting the articles in multiple places, as you can see with this url: [link deleted – dev-t] (these duplicate pages probably won't last long)

Google's guidelines are quite clear on things like hidden text and hidden links to duplicate content. People should have a skeptical reaction when someone comes trying to buy links to spammy/duplicate pages, esp. if they want control of a subdomain or a subdirectory on your own site — linking to content like that can trigger effects to a whole site's reputation, as this person notes:

I particularly liked Danny Sullivan's comment at TW. Amusing as it is, it reveals where Danny stands on the search engine spam issue.

Alright. Plenty can be and has been said about this — the responses are all across the spectrum. Myself, understanding the issues, I feel kind of bad for Matt.

Matt wouldn't have been the first person to make a hidden text/hidden links mistake. For years, people have arrived in search engine optimization forums to say that they'd found (really old) material somewhere that instructed them to rank their pages well by hiding text and/or links … and now their pages either don't rank well or are out of the search engines altogether. Very common but, after all, SEO is not particularly intuitive.

The public relations flap, some of it quite vituperative, brings to mind comments I've seen from bloggers who don't bother to learn the basics of safe search engine optimization, shrilly generalize all SEOs into the category of "spammers" — and then jump on the bandwagon when a colleague asks them to link en masse to his page (see nigritude ultramarine SEO contest). Apparently not having read any search engine guidelines, they fail to realize that search engines consider this, too, to be a spam technique.

Thing is, while Matt's comments in the WP forums thread indicate that he was at least somewhat aware of the issues, they indicate that he wasn't that aware of what effects hosting those pages could have, nor the backlash it could bring. Thing is, you can't easily be on both sides of the fence, not when you're a public figure.

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Update 4/1/05: As of yesterday, it appears that wordpress.org's PageRank 8 home page has been devalued to PR0 — making wordpress.org a "bad neighborhood" per Google; a link to such a site can damage one's own site's rankings. As of April 1, it looks like wordpress.org's PageRank has been restored. It may have something to do with the /articles directory being removed, but a word from the wise: the PR0 penalty is not usually removed so quickly.

Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

Oh, and for all those people posting elsewhere that the HotNacho pages are not spam: this is precisely what these types of duplicate pages have been called for the past seven years (that I know of). Also called spamdexing (for "spamming" the search engine index). Yes, it's not email spam. But the fact that one hasn't heard the terminology doesn't mean that isn't what it's called. See above quote from Google.

AND for those who think Matt's hidden links were "cloaking" — that's not correct either. Cloaking is the practice of detecting who/what is requesting a page, and serving different pages to search engines than to regular visitors. Matt was just hiding links. This isn't the same thing.

So. What to take away from all this? Simply that there are ways to optimize websites that help search engines identify what's on the pages, and to help them rank well. Think: long term, stable business, branding. Then there are all the other short-term, high risk methods. Even some of the admitted "Black Hat" SEOs have admitted that these sites don't last long in the search engines; last numbers I read were between four weeks to a few months. Just a word to the wise.

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AND Matt responds

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Lastly, I should say that I am neither against nor upset with Matt in any way. Sure, the choice to host these pages was ill-advised, particularly in light of Matt's and WordPress' stature on the Web. But I can't help but guess that Matt would not have been driven to seek outside sources of funding had what is probably the bulk of the WP community been a little more forthcoming with donations rather than feeling that WordPress just had to be available to them for free. Time to stop asking if you can donate or even where you can donate; it's right there on the WP top menu where it says DONATE. Matt donates to you; it's time to donate back. If you know what I mean. ;-)

6 Comments to "WordPress.org and the Google Adsense Debacle"

  1. teli says:

    Hi Diane,
    Did you mean Matt per chance in that last paragraph? :)

  2. DianeV says:

    … so edited. <Thanks>

  3. Unfortunate says:

    I'm sorry… donate to him? After he has made me and other wordpress users complicit in his scam?

    I do not reward bad behavior. Open your own wallet if you do.

  4. DianeV says:

    I can see your point, Unfortunate. This debacle has a lot of facets, does it not?

    I have to say that I've donated for every copy of WordPress that I've installed, though I haven't messed with 1.5 yet. I've always felt I should give for what I get, just to be fair.

    That said, I've also made sure that I "avoid links to web spammers or 'bad neighborhoods' on the web as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links". The definition is not mine; the determination was made by Google, and though I may be supportive of a particular piece of
    software and feel (a little) sorry for yet someone else foolish enough to allow himself to be swayed by spammer arguments, I don't agree that I must sacrifice my site to penalization risks in order to promote that software by linking to it.

    I've heard those same types of justifications (or "arguments") for spam since about 1998, and don't go for any of it. <edited> But I'll say that the justifications can be dizzying and the promised results enthralling.</edited>

  5. DianeV says:

    Sadly, the WP crew seems to be having a difficult time in dealing with the community's comments. Sad, because the answer to a "hot potato" issue should not be "you can't even mention that here". There are far more smooth and sophisticated ways of dealing with such that do not, in the same breath, alienate people.

    Moderating is not always easy, and I'm far from suggesting a chaotic free-for-all, but it's vital to be able to distinguish between issues that concern the community and hysterical flaming. Not so good when the moderators flame the community. But, then, moderating is just another thing to be learned. From what I've seen of the WP moderator team, they're good people wanting to help. I count this as just a stumble.

  6. DianeV says:

    By the way, on the "but is it rally spam issue", here's
    Tim Mayer's response on the Yahoo! blog.

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