WordPress Under Fire for Search-Engine Spamming

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2005-03-31

WordPress Under Fire for Search-Engine Spamming

One of the most popular Weblog-publishing tools, WordPress, is stirring a controversy over search-engine gaming because it included thousands of articles related to popular search terms on its Web site while largely hiding them from site visitors.

Bloggers and search-engine marketers are accusing the open-source WordPress project of spamming the major search engines, while at the same time being one of the advocates in an effort to combat comment spam in blog postings.

The discovery emerged late Wednesday when the blog Waxy.org revealed that thousands of articles about such popular search terms as asbestos, mortgages and debt consolidation appear on sections of the WordPress.org site while being hidden from visitors to the sites home page.

News of the search-engine gaming technique spread quickly on the Web. As of Wednesday evening, search results to WordPress.org pages with the articles began disappearing from Googles Web index. Yahoo Inc. followed suit Thursday, removing the WordPress.org pages from its index because of what a spokesman confirmed was "noncompliance to our content guidelines."

Google officials declined to comment on why WordPress.org pages had dropped from the companys index, but its Webmaster policies bar techniques that display different content to its crawler than to site visitors.

The article pages were still appearing in results on MSNs search engine as of Thursday afternoon, though WordPress appeared to have removed them from its site. Links to the articles returned a "page not found" error, though a cached version still showed the articles.

WordPress is one of the blog-publishing tools supporting "no follow," an HTML tag that Google, Yahoo and MSN are beginning to recognize in order to ignore hyperlinks included in the comment sections of blogs. Search spammers often insert such links into blogs in an attempt to gain higher search rankings for their sites since search engines consider link popularity in determining a sites ranking.

"This is a big deal given the fact that theyre supposed to be combating search spam, and [instead] they are generating it," said Danny Sullivan, a search-engine expert and editor of Search Engine Watch.

Search-engine ranking tricks are nothing new. Click here to read more about the shifts in search-optimization techniques.

Matthew Mullenweg, the lead developer of WordPress who oversees the Web site, was unavailable for comment on the controversy. According to his blog, he is on vacation. But in a support forum on WordPress.org, he previously acknowledged that the site was hosting articles and Google AdSense ads from a third party in exchange for a flat fee.

AdSense is the name of Googles program for syndicating ads to content partners. In the ad model, advertisers bid on keywords in an auction and pay based on the number of clicks on their sponsored listings.

"Im not sure if were going to continue it much longer, but were committed to this month at least," Mullenweg wrote in a posting dated March 24.

"It was basically an experiment. However, around the beginning of February, donations were going down as expenses were ramping up, so it seemed like a good way to cover everything."

Next Page: Is it fair to call the technique "spam"?


?"> As an open-source blog-publishing tool, WordPress is supported largely through donations from users and supporters. The project, which celebrated 100,000 downloads of WordPress 1.5 earlier this month, also has begun researching the creation of a foundation to support and operate it.

Jonas Luster, a WordPress user who is leading the foundation effort, said he agrees that Mullenweg made a mistake in using the articles as a way of generating revenue for the project.

"Matt [Mullenweg] was and is trying to do right by the community," Luster said. "Has he chosen the right way? Im not happy about it either. [But] were all entitled to make one or two mistakes."

Luster said he expects to discuss the search-engine gaming issue with Mullenweg and to try to rectify any ill will in the WordPress community about it. He also cautioned against calling the technique "spam," saying that while he opposes the attempt to game search engines, it is not the same as filling e-mail inboxes or blog comment sections with unwanted messages.

While the articles on WordPress.org discussed legitimate topics, they appeared to have little to do with blogging or with WordPress as an open-source project, Sullivan said. More troubling, he said, is the fact that the home page of WordPress.org contains links to the articles that are viewable to the search-engine crawler but do not display in modern Web browsers.

"The articles may be perfectly fine, but why are you carrying them?" Sullivan asked of WordPress. "You do not intend for people to find them from the home page, and thats the thing that makes this stand out."

At least in Google, WordPress.org carries a high rank because it is a site widely linked to by bloggers using the tool, search-engine experts said. By showing search crawlers links to content for terms such as "mortgages," "asbestos" and "debt consolidation," WordPress also can help boost the relevancy of its article pages for those terms.

For instance, in one example viewed by eWEEK.com, WordPress article pages appeared as the 26th and 29th top results in a Yahoo search for "pet insurance" before Yahoo stopped displaying WordPress article results.

Some of the targeted terms also are associated with Google AdSense ads that carry high prices for clicks.

Click here to read more about the expansion of sponsored listings.

"It is documented that [WordPress.org] was targeting keywords like asbestos, mesothelioma, insurance, debt consolidation, diabetes and mortgages," said Barry Schwartz, president of RustyBrick Inc., a Web development and search optimization company. "Those keywords are known to cost up to $100 per click."

Schwartz, who wrote about the issue in his Search Engine Roundtable blog, said he considers the tactics used on the WordPress site to be search spam. Sites fighting for top search-engine positions in areas such as online gambling and pornography often use similar techniques, though most would hide home-page links using less obvious approaches, he said.

As for the impact of the search-gaming controversy on the larger WordPress community, Luster made a distinction between the WordPress.org Web site and the project developer and blogs using the WordPress software.

"WordPress.org is a site that is maintained by Matt [Mullenweg] and not the WordPress community," he said. "Just because one thing happened [there] doesnt mean the tool or developers or the community has lost credibility."

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