Gaming search engines with WordPress

It’s always something. Apparently WordPress.org has been dabbling in black-hat SEO, hosting thousands of keyword-based articles on their high–page-ranked site and placing hidden links to them on their home page. Way to go, guys. This makes the paranoia over remote images almost look reasonable. What’s next, putting ads in the next default template?

The free/open source software world is based primarily on trust. Based on comments I’ve read over the last couple of days, WordPress has lost a lot of it. They’ve even been (mostly) dropped from Google. A sensible precaution while things are sorted out, but it unfortunately means the first top-level listing on a Google search for “wordpress” is wordpress.com, which looks like a cybersquatter. Not exactly an improvement.

In a support thread Matt answered last week, he referred to it as an “experiment.” He’s on vacation right now, but someone has taken it upon themselves to remove the bogus articles from the site.

My thoughts:

The particular technique used here, using CSS to move text off the page where people can’t see it, but computers still can, has two main uses: replacing content (such as replacing headlines with images while keeping the text “visible” to screen readers) and outright concealing it. Even concealment has its legit uses, like hiding links to spamtraps and honeypots so that normal users won’t be distracted by the spam bait. It also gets abused. The challenge, as always, is trying to separate the legit uses from the abuse.

Even if Matt technically owns WordPress.org, he has some responsibility to the WordPress community. His comments — “If it turns a lot of people off I definitely don’t want it” — seem to reflect this, and I suspect he’ll chalk it up to experience as a bad idea. Had he done this on Photomatt.net—which has almost as high a PageRank as WordPress.org (much higher right now!)—I doubt there would have been as much of an outcry.

As I said above, trust is critical. Remember the panic over MovableType buying LiveJournal? The mass exodus from MovableType to WordPress when they changed their license terms? Heck, remember the mass GeoCities exodus when Yahoo bought them? I refused to buy a Belkin router because I didn’t trust them. The fact that someone quickly removed the articles even with Matt out of the country should help rebuild that trust. A detailed statement from Matt when he gets back will probably be necessary for many people.

My main problem with this is the deception. If they’d hosted the articles in the open instead of hiding them, I’d think it was a bit fishy, but that’s all. Instead it puts the “experiment” squarely in the black-hat camp.

Edit: One more perspective on the mess that’s worth reading.

Edit: See also my follow-up post.

(via War on Spam and Geek Ramblings)