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. (Important Update: Followup to this entry, with an official response from WordPress and Hot Nacho.)
The Problem. WordPress is a very popular open-source blogging software package, with a great official website maintained by Matt Mullenweg, its founding developer. I discovered last week that since early February, he’s been quietly hosting at least
120,000 168,000 articles on their website. These articles are designed specifically to game the Google Adwords program, written by a third-party about high-cost advertising keywords like asbestos, mesothelioma, insurance, debt consolidation, diabetes, and mortgages. (Update: Google is actively removing every article from their results, but here’s a saved copy of the first page of results. You can still view about 25,000 results on Yahoo. Here’s an example of some results in MSN.)
Why WordPress? The WordPress homepage has a very high Google Pagerank of 8/10, largely because every WordPress-powered blog links to the WordPress homepage by default. The high pagerank affects their ranking in Google search results, making context-sensitive Google ads very profitable. This, in turn, makes WordPress very attractive to advertisers.
I stumbled on this issue from a support topic, which was immediately closed without response by an unknown moderator. (After I pointed it out, Matt reopened the thread to add a final comment.)
So, last week, I instant-messaged Matt to ask him some of these questions. He was very helpful, giving me the full story.
The articles are given to him by Hot Nacho, a startup that pays freelance writers to generate 300-800 word articles about specific topics. All advertising revenues go directly to Hot Nacho, and he’s paid a flat fee for hosting the articles and ad banners.
Matt said he was skeptical at first, but the money is helping to cover his costs and hire their first employee. “The /articles thing isn’t something I want to do long term,” he said, “but if it can help bootstrap something nice for the community, I’m willing to let it run for a little while.”
He added that if the user community didn’t like it, he’d end the program. “Everything we do is user driven. If it turns a lot of people off I definitely don’t want it. At the same time, if you think people don’t care it provides some flexibility in setting up the foundation.”
Questions. This poses some interesting questions. First, do organizers of open-source projects need to disclose how they’re making money off the project? Matt isn’t disclosing anything about this activity to the community. I don’t think anyone would be upset about Matt trying to support WordPress with outside sources of revenue, but as an open-source project, they should be held to a higher level of transparency. Without the users and developers all working for free, it wouldn’t exist.
Second, is it ethical for open-source projects to make money gaming search engines? Unlike a blog about asbestos news, the WordPress website has nothing to do with asbestos. It capitalizes off the goodwill of the WordPress community, which links to the WordPress website because they support the project — not because they support search engine spam. But as long as there was transparency about their plans, I think this is less of an issue.
Solutions. Personally, I think there should be a very clear disclosure of their revenue sources on the website, as well as clearly disclosing their commercial plans. Am I donating money to a company? What is the money from advertising being used for?
I want to know what everyone thinks about this. I’m only a WordPress fan, not a user or developer, so really it’s up to the WordPress community to decide.
Update: In a case of terrible timing, I just found out Matt is on vacation in Italy, so will likely be unable to respond. For what it’s worth, I mentioned to him in our chat on Thursday that I was going to write an entry, so he could have taken preemptive action if he wanted to. However, had I know he was leaving the country, I would have waited to post this.
Update: Jonas Luster, the first employee of the WordPress Foundation, wrote a response. Though Jonas doesn’t condone the activity, he gives some possible justifications for Matt’s decision that are worth considering.
March 31, 2005: WordPress.org now has a pagerank of 0/10, which means they’ve been effectively removed from Google search results (for now). The article results have all been removed from Yahoo, as well.
Fortunately, someone removed all of the Hot Nacho articles from the WordPress.org site completely. It looks like the entire /articles directory was removed, so I’m sure Google will be adding WordPress.org back to its index soon.
Does anyone know if they were removed by someone at WordPress or by someone at Hot Nacho? If you know, please leave me an e-mail. WordPress is partnered with Textdrive, who also hosts the WordPress website. From what I gather, when the Textdrive folks found out about, they removed the files from the web server.
I closed comments on the thread because it was devolving into a flamewar. Please try to keep an open mind until Matt has an opportunity to respond. Jonas Luster posted another update to his site which is worth reading.
April 1, 2005: I’m continuing updates in a new entry.