WordPress and the Hidden Articles

An interesting story appeared today about the WordPress site, and several thousand articles that could be found in a http://wordpress.org/articles.

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.

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 almost 120,000 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. You can still view about 25,000 results on Yahoo. Or try this search tool, which searches multiple Google datacenters.)

(Several links within the original material.)

From comments left, it would seem that the content with the links to the articles is hidden within the WordPress main page, therefore passing on the high Google rank the site gets to the articles, themselves, while still not providing a visible indication of this on the site page.

<div style="text-indent: -9000px; overflow: hidden;">
<p>Sponsored <a href="/articles/articles.xml">Articles</a> on <a href="/articles/credit.htm">Credit*lt;/a>, <a href="/articles/health-care.htm">Health</a>, <a href="/articles/insurance.htm">Insurance</a>, <a href="/articles/home-business.htm">Home Business</a>, <a href="/articles/home-buying.htm">Home Buying</a> and <a href="/articles/web-hosting.htm">Web Hosting</a></p>

</div>

Since the words used in the pages are high ‘rate’ words within the Google AdSense program, we can assume this could be lucrative to the company that provided the articles. According to Matt’s response in a thread at the WP support forum, WordPress itself received a set fee for hosting the articles.

How much? Well, enought to hire the first employee of WordPress, Inc..

I am not one of those who believes that the only decent open source project is one where the people do the work only as a labor of love. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people making money from their art. But of course, I would say this, as I try to put together an online store with goods featuring my photos, as well as still trying to find buyers for my books and/or articles–and after I had added, and pulled, Google Ads.

It’s all very good to say, “We should do this because we love to do it”. But it’s hard to be motivated to write and create when one is worried about what the next month holds. Nobel to say, “Well, I would deliver pizza if needs be, to keep my art free of contamination.” Tell me, though: how many of you have delivered pizza? Want to try it at 50?

Still, I can also see that there’s been a dimming of the joy of this medium, as more and more people turn to these pages as a way to make a buck. What did Jonathon Delacour write, in a nice twist on Talleyrand?

Those who did not blog in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of blogging was.

Very sweet, indeed. Sweet and impossible–a castle made of spun sugar.

But to return to the story, this is about WordPress and what amounts to actions that could be considered scamming Google.

Google is now removing all of the articles from it’s databases, but one could say that the company was hoist on its own petard (following along with English usage that Tallyrand would appreciate) with this action–its own pagerank was used against the company. Perhaps if it wasn’t so easy to be gamed, events like this wouldn’t occur.

Still, this is using weblogs to play the system, and not really different than what the comment spammers do, though at least this isn’t in our space.

I learned about the WordPress article through Stavros who wrote:

I challenge you to think about the creative output of artists and artisans whose work has touched you. Think of your favorite books, your favorite paintings. That piece of handmade furniture or that gloriously handtooled little application. The music you listen to or the writers-on-the-web you read because they get into your heart and fill you with the ineffable, simple joy of being alive and having a mind. I wonder how many of them would have done their work whether or not they eventually got paid for it. My guess is ‘most’.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be paid. Hell, if I could get paid for making the things I make because there’s something inside me that impels me to do it, I’d be thrilled. It’d be a dream come true, by crikey. But I do it, regardless. And so do you, probably, if you’re reading this.

For some reason I’m reminded of Michelangelo and the Sistene Chapel. Michelangelo didn’t like to paint, he prefered sculpture. He didn’t even want to do the work, and only did so after pressure from the Pope. And then there was the fee.

There’s art, and then there’s art.

Bottom line is: do you like WordPress? Do you like using WordPress? Can you still get it for free? Is it still GPL? Then perhaps that’s what should be focused on, and however or whatever Matt does with the WordPress page is between him and Google; because what matters is the code, not the purity of actions peripherial to the code, or its release.

I am also reminded of the story of the Roman general returning in triumphant parade through the city after a great victory; and the man who stood behind him in the chariot, holding the victory wreath made of leaves over his head. “Thou art mortal”, he would whisper, over an over again into the general’s ear, as reminder that no matter how great the triumph, how beloved of the people, the general is, after all, only human.

WordPress, Inc. first employee on this issue.

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