Thanks to posts here on WLTC and around the blogosphere, the topic of “sponsored themes” is at the top of everyone’s minds. I thought this would be a good time to share my thoughts on the ramifications of sponsored themes, and what it means for our community.
For those who are new to the topic, in the past yew years a market has developed around advertisers that pay money to websites to have plain-text links back to their properties so they can rank better in search engines like Google for the text in those links. At some point the people gaming Google realized instead of buying links from dozens of individual sites, they could pay theme authors to bundle their links with their download and get hundreds or thousands of sites with their link for a small fraction of the cost. This is politely referred to as “theme sponsorship.”
Sometimes theme authors do this without telling their users it’s a sponsored theme before download, or use CSS or PHP tricks to hide the links or other ads in the template so most people will either never notice or not know how to remove the ads. I’m not going to talk about these folks, because they’re obviously unethical and should be banned in every way possible.
However there is another class of themes that disclose up front they’re sponsored, and generally appear on the up and up — what about those? I think there are three main issues we need to keep in mind:
- Google penalizes sites that promote things Google considers spam. Because of the trend of paid links, even on respected sites, Google has publicly stated that they have taken measures to diminish the effect of these links by lessening the value of where they’re coming from. I don’t claim to know their internal rankings, but I believe this is related in some way to Trustrank — if you link to untrustworthy places your Trustrank goes down. (Just like if you kept recommending crappy movies to your friends they’d stop taking your advice.) I’d be the last to recommend any of us should tailor what we do to please Google or any other search engine, but at least on my blog it accounts for 60% or more of my traffic, so I’d rather stay on their good side. Once someone understands the ramifications they are welcome to make a link ad decision for their own site, but it bothers me when theme authors are making the decision for others.
- Many users of WordPress probably don’t understand the above point or are not able to properly modify their templates to remove the bundled ad if they did. In fact, the economics of theme “sponsorship” depends on most site owners not touching the link. When advertising or something else unwanted is bundled with a desktop application and relies on most users not removing it we have a word for it — adware. (Sometimes malware.) It’s not illegal, and it’s certainly one way for software authors to get paid for their work, but it’s ultimately disrespectful toward the user and reputable download directories like Download.com ban it.
- Finally many of these themes try to legally disallow you from removing the advertising link by claiming it’s part of the Creative Commons attribution to leave it. This is almost funny, because these themes are on shaky legal ground themselves. WordPress is Free, meaning you’re free to do pretty much anything you like with it. It’s under a license that encourages user freedom called the GPL, which says if you distribute something that links internal functions and data structures of a GPL program (like themes do with WordPress) that also needs to be Free. At best, theme authors claiming you can’t remove the link are ignoring or ignorant of the license issues, at worst they’re actively exploiting the work of thousands of volunteers that have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into WordPress.
There are other issues, such as a proclivity of some ad-bundled theme designers to value quantity over quality, but I don’t think those are as important.
Themes with bundled and embedded advertising will always exist, and it’s perfectly within the rights of the GPL for people to create them and even sell them. I also bear no ill-will toward theme authors who’ve succumbed to the attraction of the money, I disagree with their decision but people make mistakes and it’s not a personal thing. However as a community we should decide whether the slippery slope of bundled advertising is a behaviour we want to encourage and promote on our official resources such as WordPress.org and the Codex, and even on community hubs like Weblog Tools Collection.
I’ve seen some designers claim if we discourage bundled advertising with themes we’re taking away their livelihood and saying they should work for free. (Conveniently ignoring the fact that WordPress was built “for free.”) However just because you can make money from something doesn’t mean you should. Something doesn’t have to be illegal for it to be wrong. There are more important things in life. At every conference I go to I meet dozens of people who make their living with WordPress and manage to do so in a way that doesn’t exploit users or cross ethical lines, so I find it hard to believe that the lack of sponsored themes will hurt the WordPress ecosystem. Authors could also monetize their own sites with ads, instead of putting them on yours.
Finally, no one is forcing these people to make themes. In fact I would posit that it’s better not to release anything at all than to release a sponsored theme. Our design and theme community thrived before themes with embedded ads came along, and it will continue to thrive long after their gone. Embedding ads in themes is disrespectful to users, and creates confusion and uncertainty about which themes people can trust.
Two years ago I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life when I made a decision to accept a “sponsorship” on WordPress.org without considering the ramifications it would have for its users, our community, and the web as a whole. It pains me to see others going down a similar path. We should think about how these people are trying to exploit the WordPress community and good name instead of looking the other way because they’re paying.
Once you’ve had time to mull over the social and ethical issues of ad-bundled themes, I encourage you to vote on this WordPress Idea to remove sponsored themes from WordPress.org, rating it 5 if you agree and 1 if you don’t. Thanks for your time, and happy blogging.