Is WordPress the fabled Blog Police after all?

The more I think about it, the more that I’m bothered by what Matt Mullenweg and his team at WordPress.com are imposing upon the thousands of bloggers using this hosted version of the splendid WordPress software. As came to light through a posting from blogger Colleen on her weblog, they’ve sent out a letter to their customers warning that any sponsored or paid blog entries are grounds for immediately deletion of their blog and a permanent ban from using the service in the future. [to clarify, Colleen didn’t receive one of these letters, it was forwarded to her by someone who did receive the C&D] Did I miss the memo that said WordPress was promoted to blog police?
The problem I have with their heavy-handed approach isn’t its intent, which is to avoid having the service overrun by spam blogs (so-called “splogs”) but the fact that the actual implementation is naive, dangerous and doomed to failure.


Before I explain my reasoning and concerns, let me quote the note Colleen published:

“It has come to our attention that you may be involved with PayPerPost. This breaches our Terms of Service.

Either:
– every post that has any connection with PayPerPost is removed immediately
or
– the blog is removed with no chance of it’s return

If you choose to remove the posts your blog will be checked and if there remains any doubt then we will remove it.

Do not ignore this email.
Action will be taken in 7 hours from the time this email is sent.”

(Seven hours. Sheesh, what if you actually have a life and don’t check your email every three hours of every day? Then your blog vanishes in a puff of smoke and you can’t even get a backup?)
The critical issue here is that monetizing your blog entries is a continuum, not a black and white world, and that rather than try to address the nuances, WordPress is just arbitrarily dropping the axe and likely hurting a lot of bloggers in the process.
Consider: if I have an affiliate link to a product on Amazon’s Associates program, is that legit? What about if I actually dig around in the Associates program, identify the items with the best payout, and consciously blog about those items to try and pull a sale or two?
Some of the programs are overtly dangerous for a “pure” blogging vision (but who decided what that was and what if they’re wrong?) like the much maligned PayPerPost.com, but even there, what if I am blogging about my favorite fast food restaurants and someone emails me that since I’m already blogging about, say, McDonalds (NYSE: MCD), I should go ahead and add a PayPerPost link and make a few bucks off the page.
Why not?
Because WordPress now deems that bloggers cannot earn money from blog entries on their sites. Period. No question, and if you ask, you’ll be given the boot with just a few hours warning, if any.
I think that this is a splendid reason why anyone who wants to blog, even if you have no plans to do anything to monetize your content, should be hosting their blog on their own server. Do you really want your efforts to be held hostage to the whim of a service manager?
Let me pull that point out:

Don’t let someone else host your business blog. Ever.

Today it’s about “sponsored postings” but what if tomorrow they decide that they’ve grown to truly hate a particular religion and are going to shut down any blog that mentions anything to do with that religion, positive or negative, or that they don’t want people linking to SixApart, makers of competitive product Typepad?
“They would never do that!” I can hear you say, dear reader, but are you sure? Are you willing to really bet your online business presence on Matt and his team of idealistic developers?
In a confusing way, Robert Scoble agrees with Matt. On his WordPress-hosted blog, Robert says: “This is a good thing for WordPress to do. Why? It protects its reputation. PayPerPost is a way to game search engines. If you want to do that, take your blog somewhere else and protect those of us who aren’t willing to do that.” But here’s what’s baffling: Robert has Amazon affiliate links on his page to monetize his blog traffic, and that’s apparently not any sort of problem.
I can hear his argument already: “The difference, Dave, is because my blog entries don’t have affiliate links within. The Amazon link’s in the template.” Go and read the WordPress Terms of Service, though. They don’t differentiate, and in fact you can’t use AdSense on your WordPress site either, even if it is in the “template” area, not the individual entries.
Here’s what the ToS specifies, to save you some click time: Acceptable content on your WordPress blog is defined as content that is “… not spam, and does not contain unethical or unwanted commercial content designed to drive traffic to third party sites or boost the search engine rankings of third party sites.” (Unwanted? According to whom??)
Ultimately, WordPress can create whatever random and confusing terms of service it wants. It’s their company, they can proceed as they like. But am I going to recommend that anyone use their hosted service for blogging?
Would you?
Updated to clarify that Colleen isn’t a WordPress.com blogger and that the email message wasn’t sent to her directly, she just reposted the message when it was forwarded along.

28 comments on “Is WordPress the fabled Blog Police after all?

  1. Dave,
    Great post.
    There’s something I keep reminding myself everytime I see this kind of stuff happening:
    Blog purists, or blog police, or the blog Gestapo, want to maintain the “sanctity of the blogosphere,” the purity of Web 2.0, and the unbiased (that’s perceived unbiased) nature of blogs.
    For what? They call it “to defend freedom of speech.” But by clamping down on monetized blogs (that is, monetized in a way different than what in their view, is right, whether it’s right or not), are they not stifling freedom of speech themselves?
    The bottom line is, what is a blog anyway?
    It’s software. That’s all it is.
    It’s a CMS. A content-management system, period. Does FrontPage or Dreamweaver dictate what you can use it for?

  2. I hate PayPerPost and all paid opinion blogging. It destroys the web of trust and credibility. But I am also rather doubtful of this extreme approach by WordPress.
    I agree totally with the ban on compensated communications and blog whoring. The peer to peer, user to user recommendation system of the blogosphere really must be kept as pure as possible.
    Why? Because I don’t want to hear from paid enthusiasts, nor from gang-posters who are sent to attack, for example, AdSense, or any other person, product, or organization. See, there is the negative, hostile act that must be considered, beyond just the rave reviews of paid enthusiasts.
    If your wife was ramping up her expressions of love and devotion, then you learned that she was part of, say, a university experiment, that paid her $20 each time she said, “I love you so much honey”? Wouldn’t you be annoyed?
    We want spontaneous, uncoached, unrehearsed, uncompensated comments from fellow bloggers regarding whatever they love or hate. Not paid opinions.
    Sincerity and transparent disclosure are not the main issue here. It’s the covert deception, sure, but even more it’s the agenda, the ulterior, crass commercial nature of the opinion that is the real negative here.
    Still, a 7 hour warning, and automatic deletion of a blog does seem a bit ham-fisted. I cannot support such an extreme tactic, but I will inspect this more closely.
    Thank you Dave for posting this!

  3. Dave – silliness – pure silliness. We have hundreds of business blog clients and we also establish a baseline terms of service. However, our philosophy is that our service is like a hired gun – our customers decide how best to use their “software service” because, well – they probably know best.
    “Don’t let someone else host your business blog. Ever.”
    And this comment is equally irrational. Just because one company has instituted a foolish idea, it doesn’t mean all blogs everywhere shouldn’t be hosted or outsorced. We actually provide off-site and client-side backup services; we educate our clients on ways to keep and reuse their content. We also provide extensive content redirect services for clients that may want to move to a different platform. Lastly, we offer clients the ability to recover their content even long after they may cancel their service.
    To suggest that all business blogging services should be avoided is an unfair characterization of an industry whose members are predominantly reasonable and believe that services are provided at the pleasure of the customer.
    bf

  4. “But here’s what’s baffling: Robert has Amazon affiliate links on his page to monetize his blog traffic, and that’s apparently not any sort of problem.”
    Are you suggesting that Amazon affiliate links are the same as undisclosed pay per post entries? Baffling.
    Deceptive business practices are bad for consumers and business period. Hoaray for WordPress for taking a stance! And no, it is not a free speech issue, because if people don’t like the terms of service, they can pickup and move to another provider. And if it was a free speech issue, fortunately there are courts to deal with that issue.
    With respect to having someone else host your blog, here is a simple solution: Use software that collects and posts your entries to any one of thousands of blog hosting services, so you can always republish to any of them within minutes. You are going to need it when you decide to move (or self host) when some other problem or issue crops up.

  5. Bill, I can agree with you that it’s unreasonable for me to tar all blog hosting services with the same brush: Services like Blogsite.com are definitely in a different category as you approach your clients as customers who get to decide what to do, you don’t tell them what are and aren’t acceptable or legitimate uses of the tool.
    Gerry, I’m unclear how someone who participates in PayPerPost and *discloses* that they’re writing a sponsored blog entry is a “deceptive business practice”, and yes, I do find it interesting that affiliate links like an Amazon link are okay not to disclose (did I really review that book, or did I just want people to click on the link and earn me a quarter?)
    Oh, I never invoked the much-abused “free speech” clause either. I don’t criticize WordPress for the decision they made. I just think it’s critical to recognize the it is no longer a viable option for hosting a business or marketing weblog.

  6. Dave, I would be grateful if you allow me to state my position as I believe you have been given false information.
    On November 11 I was given a link to a wordpress.com blog that listed 4 of our users who were using PayPerPost. I checked the links and they did seem to be doing so. I wrote the email you have above and sent it to them.
    Colleen was not one of them. Our email records will support this.
    The reason I chose 7 hours was that I wanted to grab their attention quickly. I did not want them to think I was not serious which either a long or no time span might have given. In fact the first blog was suspended some 15 hours later. Of the 4 bloggers that I sent it to, 1 left within minutes, 3 were suspended and of those 2 were also UNsuspended so they could retrieve their content.
    PayPerPost has been the subject of discussion since it’s launch and we have taken a stance against that. It is detailed on our site and if the question had been asked it would have been answered.
    Prior to November 11 a blog had been suspended. On that day they emailed and asked for a reason. I checked out their blog as every appeal is checked. They had ads and content that was keyword rich – it was also not written by the blog owner. The author styles were different, the formatting was different and the whole blog reeked of splog. We have a zero tolerance of splogs. I told the person that their blog would not be returned. Please be aware that sometimes we make a mistake but if we have any doubts we always return a blog. But in checking that blog I googled some author names – which lead me to a site that sold content. Keyword content. Content that was written with search engines in mind not people. I started googling our domain.
    That turned up many blogs that were using authors from this site. I checked every blog. I suspend every blog that was not only using that bought content but that was also a haven for affiliate links, ads and that existed purely for search engines. Real blogs – and I’ve seen thousands – just do not have this style. So I did suspend these blogs. Colleen WAS one of these.
    So, to recap:
    Was Colleen involved in PayPerPost? No.
    Did Colleen get an email from me? No.
    Was Colleen given the 7 hours she complains about? No.
    Was she buying in content? Yes
    Was she looking for search engines to index those keywords? Yes
    Was she running a splog? Yes
    Do I have screenshots that will support my case? Yes.
    Blog Police? Far from it. Terms of Service police? Yes – and isn’t that why it is there?

  7. To make a further point:
    Colleen is now stating she has never had a blog on wordpress.com
    One of her blogs there was:
    http://naturalhorse.wordpress.com/
    This domain exists
    http://www.naturalhorsenetwork.com/About-Us_ep_7.html
    It has her name on it (Screengrabbed)
    Her email address that she used to send emails in was from that domain. That email address has a common factor with the one she says is on her blog.
    Another blog she had with wordpress.com also links to the others and the horse network directly.
    So what are the chances of two ‘colleens’ being involved?

  8. Thanks for your clarification, Mark, but whether or not Colleen herself was involved as a WordPress blogger, the point remains that once you start screening and censoring specific blogs based on their content or what you believe is their linking strategy, I believe you open up a huge can of worms.
    Again, if I have a WordPress.com blog and write about my business, is that a violation of the TOS? If I write about my products, is that a violation of the TOS? If I write about my customers and occasionally link to a specific product, is that cool? What about if I slip in a “click here to buy” button that leads directly to a checkout page?
    Now, what if I invite some customer evangelists to write about my products and they add those same links? What if I pay them in product credit for their reviews, positive or negative, and they get to choose if they disclose or not?
    Lots of questions, I admit, but I think it’s very important to nail down exactly what is and isn’t acceptable use of WordPress.com now that you’ve opened up this Pandora’s Box.
    And I will remain with my recommendation that anyone building a business blog *avoid* using WordPress.com because we now have no way to know what your group will or won’t find acceptable content.

  9. The point must not be lost that this incident was based on false information. That needs to distinct from other issues here. I supplied additional information in a comment which backs up my point.
    If you have issues you want clarifying then please get in touch by email and that can be taken forward from there. I don’t think it’s fair that a discussion on wordpress.com starts from a base like this – I would hope you can see that?

  10. Thanks for this info Dave.
    Splogs are evil; censorship is worse.
    (yeah, the folks can move. whatever. Matt is the one going out of business due to his dishonesty. Oh, right? Think folks forgot about your actions of a couple of years ago when you held back material info?)
    Glad I never switched from MT to WP.

  11. If someone’s “business” is half a dozen interlinking blog “borrowing” content and promoting commercial made-for-search-engine sites, then yes, their business should be taken elsewhere. We tend to discourage things that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines.
    It’s not that different from services like Flickr that say “no porn.” Yes, you could call it censorship, and think of a dozen edge cases. What if it’s artistic? What if I’m European? What if my wife is breast-feeding? In the real world when you’ve looked at thousands of examples on both sides of the track, you can call it in a blink. When it’s borderline you email the person. If we make a mistake, the person emails us and we fix it.
    Are we sacrificing growth because of it? Sure. If we weren’t blocking splogs and such we’d be closer to a million blogs rather than half a million, but I’d rather have half a million of the type of high-quality folks we have than 10 million of the stuff I come across on Blogspot or Geocities.

  12. Matt, thanks for stopping by, but I’m still trying to clarify whether your Terms of Service prevent me from writing about my commercial products and / or linking to a site through an affiliate link or similar. Are they okay? And what if I have a company, say, Yahoo, sponsor me writing a week’s worth of how-to articles about various Yahoo services? Would that be a violation? Even if I disclosed it?

  13. I would counsel a commercial entity against using any free hosting service without making a business agreement with the host. And a private individual seeking to gain from their blog is a commercial entity.
    Would you set up shop in a gratis office space without a lease? Would you then sublet the space without compensating the landlord? Would eviction be unjust?
    If I saw a link to “Small Business Credit Cards” such as the one at the bottom of this page, I would evict a free blog from WordPress.com just as fast as I would scrape a leech from my body.
    Commercial entities can make arrangements with WordPress.com or one of many other hosting providers.

  14. WordPress’ fight against splogs on their domain is commendable. Their actions, however, are not.
    If a blog’s nature is questionable, 7 hours to remove the site is hardly reasonable, especially if – as you say, Dave – the blog owner has a life. 24 hours, on the other hand, seems more professional and less overzealous.
    As for whether a person should launch their business blog on WordPress.com (or any other third party service, for that matter), it should not even be considered as an option.
    For something as important as one’s income, taking the time to establish a domain/brand is absolutely necessary. Hosted blogs should be used as satellite/supporting sites for the main, self-hosted, blog because they can – and in some cases, will – be shut down in the blink of an eye.
    ~ Teli

  15. Can we expect to see every WordPress.com blog that features commercial content that has been accepted / authorised by WordPress to contain commercial content feature things like a terms and conditions, privacy policy etc specific for that blog.
    There are hundreds of blogs of a totally legit (even in Matts eyes) nature that are undertaking commercial activity of various kinds on WordPress.com, and making a huge amount more money doing than someone earning money from the odd link.
    Surely you should have some official notification process, maybe filter commercial blogs in the same way as adult content.
    Any blog with any commercial contnet at all should of course be blocked from appearing on the front page, or in the charts.
    I honestly don’t personally like PPP from a business perspective.
    I once had a blog on WordPress.com that was shut down for some reason that was never notified, during beta testing, when there were no ToC. But that is water under the bridge.
    Here is a fun scenario, you blog on WordPress, and then take your WordPress feed over to Feedburner, and place adverts in your feed.
    Thus you have no commercial content on WordPress.com
    Is that within the ToC?
    I have seen hundreds of WordPress.com blogs do exactly that, though they might not have sufficient traffic for the Feedburner adverts, they can easily integrate their own.
    Wordpress in general operate with so many inconsistancies, it is honestly hard for the average user to understand what they are allowed to do.
    Obviously the best way to prevent any commercial influence is to do the same as some religeous sects and cut yourself off from the outside world, banning any form of external linking.
    As I mentioned in the comments on Robert Scobles post, the lines are becoming so blurred that it will soon come a time when it will be impossible to tell the difference between a commercial link and a non-commercial.
    Your definition of splog is also highly questionable. 3rd party article content and outsourced content generation is what drives a lot of the content on national news sites.
    The fact that some 3rd party is provided on a lower budget, or in the case of article directories for free, doesn’t make it splog.
    Writing content for the search engines is in my opinion more honorable than integrated linking of unrelated blogs via a tagging system.
    Technorati don’t give people who use tags backlinks proportional to how many tags they used.
    Writing content that intentionally uses LSI related keywords and focuses on the long tail is not gaming the search engines.

  16. I think WordPress.com’s actions, especially after the clarification, are completely reasonable.
    They set up a service based on certain terms, and if you’re going to host a blog with them for free, you should be prepared to live with the fact that ultimately what happens to your blog is in their hands and at their discretion.
    The same is true of all hosted services. If you want to spam and cheat and fill the internet with filth, don’t expect to get away with doing it on someone else’s dime.

  17. Good call Dave.
    WordPress.com is a business and has to cover their costs somehow. For now, they have some paid services like their $250/month VIP service — although most bloggers will leave before paying that much. WP.com is also toying with some ads internally (driving revenue to WP.com) in parallel to booting bloggers who are toying with various ad models (driving revenue to bloggers).
    The issue, as you’ve highlighted is the inconsistency that comes with unclear lines. I believe their ToS bans all commercial activities by bloggers whether that be AdSense, PayPerPost-like or other ad models. Toni said such in Scoble’s comments, including that WP.com blocking has no relation to SEO (because WP.com games SEO with some of its tactics). As they figure out what ad models to allow (and they will to survive), I’d encourage them to avoid censoring ones that involve blogger free expression and focus their efforts on content-void splog-tools like AdSense, TLA and the like. Blogger free expression is a cornerstone of the blogging experience.
    Models like PayPerPost will actually bring more people, knowledge, perspectives and opinions to the blogosphere over time. PPP’s rating system (like eBay buyer/seller feedback) will also drive blogging discipline, diversity and best practices. The end result will be good for WordPress.com, if they don’t paint themselves into a corner along the way…

  18. @ Andy Skelton
    Robert Scoble is one example of a corporate entity using wordpress.com, but here is another example
    http://plentyoffish.wordpress.com/
    I should note I am not jealous of his success, I hope to emulate him someday in another way, but he was already successful when he setup his WordPress.com blog
    If you are in business, and you have a blog that is linking through to your business activities, it is breaking the the current WordPress.com ToC
    I went through the “Hottest Posts” earlier, and more than 50% of the blogs were linking through to sister sites in which they have some kind of commercial or “something to gain” interest, such as political or religeous.
    I would class a blog setup with a prior religeous or political agenda as being the same in many ways as a commercial blog.
    At a guess, it is quite possible that a high percentage of WP.com blogs, just like any blogging service, have some kind of commercial or other motive for blogging.
    WP.com is perfectly entitled to police their service any way they like, based on whatever rules they set, and how they decide to interpret them.
    That doesn’t however make Daves post incorrect, it actually proves that his post is spot on.

  19. I don’t have any issue with WordPress’ no advertising policy on their hosted service. If you really want to pick up a few bucks a month via AdSense or affiliate links then you should be willing to pay $10 bucks a month for web hosting and install the WP software. They have no policy against that. The hosted service is free after all so why do people feel entitled to be able to profit from something that they aren’t paying for???

  20. Any company has the right to make decisions like this based on their needs and philosophies, hence the line ‘we reserve the right to update these terms at any point’.
    I am just glad I host my own blog as more and more companies become strong handed!
    Dominic

  21. I don’t see what the big deal is. They’re giving you a free service. If don’t want to play by their rules, don’t play on their site.
    You can get a domain for $7 a year, or just piggy back on someone elses domain for free. You can host your own domain for less than $3 a month. Virtually all hosting I’ve seen recently has automatic installation of WordPress and other blog software.
    Then you don’t have to worry about the blog police

  22. I recently read at some forums about the issue as well… the email sent to them was saying they were not allowed to post primarily SEO related material on the blog.
    Its absurd from a user’s standpoint…
    But then again, I must commend WordPress for being vigilent with splogs. Thank Matt and team for making the blogopshere cleaner.
    Bottom line is if you want to do anything promotional or commercial, do it with your own domain with the WordPress.org version.

  23. Hello to all!
    Having just entered the blog universe and putting up my first site yesterday (ok, ‘up’ is not really correct, since I am still adding the Semiologic Pro to it..). I really just think someone at WordPress doesn’t have ‘Tact’ (?). That is, they come across as heavy-handed and dictatorial even though they may have the best of intentions.
    However, to me the idea of an ‘open development platform’ is to be well, ‘Open’ and to ‘Develop’ that is, ‘programming’ and not ‘policy’!
    The answer I think lies in the previous post from ‘Nick’…just don’t play in their space.
    That is why I chose to have independently hosted sites … my retail site (www.atlplaytime.com)is NOT on Ebay or Yahoo … neither is my new blog (www.childtherapyresources.com. I like to make my own rules and, since I always think I am right,I have so far had very few arguments with myself. I let my wife do that.

  24. Dave Taylor’s comment some posts ago about a ‘product evangelist’ and being ‘paid in product’ hit the mark for me and my plans.
    I have started giving away product for professionals to use and then having them write original articles on how they and their customers have benefited. I do not edit their copy, I only add header/footer anchor text to my retail site. My blog is meant to be a ‘win-win’ for everyone – it provides a blogging space for the profession and the exchange of professonal ideas and ‘
    funnels’ me customers. When it matures and gets PR, I can grow PR for the retail side…RELEVANT PR. I use some of the profits from the business to support the blog. Ta-Daaaaa! everyone wins. What is wrong here? Maybe I should sponsor a Golf tournament? My obligation … and also for my benefit … is not to allow the blog to turn into a ‘circus’ of meaningless splog, since this would totally defeat my purpose.
    Dave’s comment is well take … how do I KNOW what line NOT to cross? I an going to assume Mark’s good intentions and simple ask, where is my ‘line’?

  25. I find the whole thing hypocritical. I received one of the WP warning letters after adverters asked me to host their ads…I didn’t go out looking for them. I would be more than happy to pay a fee for the ability to host ads and it could be a win-win situation (especially since WP admits that they do adsense advertising themselves!!!)
    It cost money to and time to build a blog that is well read and that drives traffice to WP and exposes their brand. I understand the Splog argument but there is clearly a difference between the two as anyone can see.
    In addition, their TOS are not clear on their policy toward advertising. There is one mention of the word advertising in the entrie TOS and it doesn’t clearly spell out that no advertising is allowed.
    Its a great platform and I’d love to keep it but I think I will take everyone’s advice and move the blog to my own domain (which I already own) so that I can keep paying the bills and making the blog more interesting to read by actually being able to do some of the things I blog about.

  26. Dave,
    I can see your position and truly believe you have a point. Given fact that i am not immersed in the world of blogging, regardless, the guys at WordPress do in fact have an absolute and unarguable position: They pay the bill. That being said, Is it not generous that they provide the free code for any blogger to go out and monetize their page until their hart is content if they pay the $5-$500/per month to host the bandwidth to serve the traffic. I simply think the naive grade school tulle tale email they sent, may have triggered your post. Hopefully your true position does not really go beyond concern for the blogger’s data on their server. After all, it is the bloggers property and it is the WordPress guy’s server. The blogger has every right to do what he or she wishes with their blog, just as WordPress guy’s have every right to not want to pay the rent on the shop. Just Their (WordPress guy’s) email is evidence supporting the my opinion that they make better programmers than they do managers, executives or diplomats. In the end their only real offense would be the kidnapping of a blog. I would think if the capitalist blogger asked nicely, they would return it. It is their playground after all. I personally am a capitalist, and respect your work. The WordPress software is still free? a blogger who has the ability to monetize their site is way beyond living at home with mom and dad ( www.*wordpress.com).
    Respectfully,
    DA
    p.s. Your greatly respected and i promise not to be a green horn blogger forever.

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