Dougal Campbell's geek ramblings

WordPress, web development, and world domination.

The WordPress/HotNacho SEO Debacle

Debate is raging over the “WordPress SEO Spam” issue. Please pay special attention to the disclaimer at the beginning of Andrew‘s post (emphasis mine):

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.

I originally started this as a comment over on Jonas Luster‘s site. But as it grew longer, I figured it warranted a posting on my own site. Basically, if you ask me, this is much ado about nothing (well, okay, not ‘nothing’ — perhaps ‘mountain out of a molehill’ would be a better analogy). But it’s too late to put out the fire now. We’ll just have to wait for it to burn out on its own.

As far as I can tell, this was just a case of Matt making one bad judgement call. I haven’t met him in person yet, but we’ve had many phone and net conversations, and I feel like I know what his level of dedication is to projects like WordPress. Matt has said time and time again that what makes a project great is its community, and the project’s responsiveness to that community. The perception that he has done anything to harm this community will cut him to the quick.

A project like WP (and his collaboration with me on Ping-O-Matic) has enormous resource needs. Enormous. This is not your average 1000-hits-per-day blog with pictures of kittens and rants about high school homework. This is a project that garnered over 100,000 downloads in just a few weeks. This is a project with around 150,000 posts in its support forums. And that doesn’t even include the 3500+ pages in the Codex, with over a million page views. And don’t even get me started on the storage requirements for all the data that Ping-O-Matic has accumulated across the 79,000,000+ pings that it has served.

You can’t support those kinds of loads out of a $20/month shared web hosting account. And it’s hard to pay the kind of money that it does take out of your own pocket to support something which is, essentially, a hobby (at least in the sense that it’s not a paying job). Personally, I would love to be able to spend more time working on WordPress and adding whizbang new features to Ping-O-Matic. But I can’t. Why not? Because I can’t afford it.

My money is almost completely monopolized by my mortgage, food for my family, car payments, gas for the cars, and all the other usual things. And my time is almost completely monopolized by my day job (which provides the aforementioned money), and my family. WordPress has never bought me lunch. Ping-O-Matic has never paid for my family to go to a Saturday matinee. Not one user of WordPress, Ping-O-Matic, or any other open project that I’ve participated in has ever utilized my Donation Page to send me money or a wishlist item.

I’ve gotten a few “thank you” notes here and there. I’ve seen a few “attaboys”. And those are great, and well appreciated. They make my paltry efforts worthwhile. But they don’t put bread on the table. So I can understand why Matt felt motivated to try an “experiment” which brought in a little revenue without being highly visible. Unforunately, the source of this financing walks the shady edge of what is and is not acceptible to our community. Personally, until Matt returns from his vacation and gives his side of the story, I’m not assuming anything.

But if you’re in the camp of people crying “foul”, consider this: Matt could have put out announcements asking for donations. He could have plastered flashing advertisements all over the WordPress sites. He could have used every available opportunity to “pass the cup”. Instead he chose an avenue which was out-of-sight. And instead of perceiving this as “polite”, people have chosen to view it as “sneaky”. “Et tu, Brutè?”

Update: There are now responses from Matt and HotNacho, the hidden links and content are gone, and Google has restored the PageRank for wordpress.org.

About Dougal Campbell

Dougal is a web developer, and a "Developer Emeritus" for the WordPress platform. When he's not coding PHP, Perl, CSS, JavaScript, or whatnot, he spends time with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat in their Atlanta area home.
This entry was posted in Community, SEO, Spam, WordPress and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to The WordPress/HotNacho SEO Debacle

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  2. Blah says:

    The guy’s a scumbag, and he got what he deserved. End of story.

  3. a1learner says:

    After reading all about this and seeing how the style sheet was used I think what you have lost is the trust of the commnity. Trust is what makes it work. When people trust each other they freely exchange ideas and work. It’s broken for now. Only time can repair it.

  4. Somebaudy says:

    I feel the whole WP community is waiting for Matt to express himslef about his issue. Who exactly was hurt by this ?

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  6. Matt Burris says:

    You make it seem like Matt did this out of a favor of the community to not have to ask for donations, i.e. being polite. However, using CSS to hide articles, and game Google means that he, or somebody (I’m not assuming Matt is responsible for all of this, since I don’t know the whole story), knew it wouldn’t get a favorable response if people knew. I think that’s the big issue here. Using a known tactic to fool Google, and earn money, without the common public knowing.

    I think you would find that if you did ask for donations, you’d be surprised how people would love to step up and help out. Even if you have to ask monthly, people would be willing to help out, because WordPress is such an excellent software. I know what it is like to run a big site that requires monstrous bandwidth. At one point, my site consumed over 350GB a month, and at the time, it was not cheap at all. I wish bandwidth was as cheap as it is today.

    I was able to get enough donations to sustain the site for a year, and people appreciated the service. I always made sure I asked the community for their thoughts before doing anything drastic, to ensure the very people that visit the site, and keep it alive, given me their approval.

    I agree, noone should attack Matt, or WordPress, until the whole story is known. People got upset when Google wanted to put ads in Gmail and said it was for a sinister purpose, and I was one of them, until I realized that Google hasn’t done anything to earn my distrust. However, there are, or was at one point, 168,000(!) articles on WordPress.org, that had no purpose but to fool Google for the sake of money. That is something that needs an explanation to the people to address the firestorm that rose up over this.

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  10. It takes me a lot of resources to go to school, I’ll rob a bank. That’s kind of what you’re suggesting.

    I am not mad at Matt, I really don’t care but “needing resources” doesn’t mean you have to cheat the system, and yes this is cheating. Well, last time I read the TOS on Google it was cheating.

  11. Fraser says:

    Speaking as a) an obsessed user of WordPress and b) someone whose holidays each year are actually paid for by pictures of kittens on the internet (seriously – don’t doubt the money our junior feline friends can generate), I don’t have a problem with Matt making money from the site. He deserves it, 100%. The problem arises with the method he’s chosen to do so.

    I imagine WordPress users are, on the whole, a web-savvy bunch, people who use WordPress for a variety of different reasons, among them being the warm, inclusive feeling one gets from being part of a community-driven, trustworthy, open-source project. This openness and this trust is one of the many things that makes WordPress attractive, and it’s this that Matt has endangered by using methods that many WordPress users, by their very nature, will instinctively shy away from.

    This doesn’t make Matt’s decision wrong, but I suspect that it does put him at odds with the values held dear by many of the software’s users. No-one would blink if wordpress.com was plastered with adsense ads, but this method will be perceived as being underhand (which it undeniably is), even dishonest, and that’s a problem, whichever way you look at it. It may have been one bad judgement call, but it’s one that I suspect could have been avoided.

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  13. And even if you consider Matt’s little money-making scheme as something that is okay, because it is for a good cause, after all, in implementing it he has run afoul of Google’s rules and now he caused WordPress.org to be banned from Google’s index. Nice going…

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  15. This is all about trust and transparency – Matt should have plainly stated what he was going to do before doing it. Not because he needed to but because the community trusts him to.

    Imagine if WordPress.org sold out links to link farms instead – Google could then ban every single site that links back to WordPress.org (the majority of installs).

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  21. Gareth says:

    Dougal, I completely agree with you dude ;-)

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  23. Lee says:

    Dougal

    I think we can all appreciate that WordPress is a huge venture to organise and run, but raising finances in this way comes across as deceptive. And the method was, let’s face it, morally (web morally) dubious. If money was a problem, stick your hand out to the community, we can’t help if we don’t know there’s a problem and the community usually comes through.

    I, like many, await Matt’s response.

  24. Larry Ayers says:

    This whole affair is just silly. Who cares what Matt does to generate revenue? I tdoesn’t affect me in the least. The WP software isn’t compromised; it works better than ever. That’s all i’m concerned about. Get a life, people!

  25. Dougal says:

    I’m not saying that the HotNacho deal was a good thing to do. But as everyone knows, “hindsight is 20/20″. Matt made a bad decision. Show me one person (well, one mortal person) who never made a bad decision in their life.

    Got any examples?

    Me neither.

    Let’s give Matt a chance to respond, make his apologies, and then let’s all move on with our lives.

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