Tempest in a Teacup or Baby Momma Drama over Sponsored Templates

There is a storm brewing in the WordPress community over the practice of selling ad space on WordPress themes. More specifically, theme designers are selling text links to advertisers in the footers of the themes that they distribute for free to the community. Now to hear some people tell it this “new” development is akin to running naked down the center aisle of your church wearing only a thin layer of whipped cream to keep you warm.

In no uncertain terms those opposed to the idea label it as a form of spam and anyone who participates in it, a spammer. While I understand where they are coming from, I feel that this point of view is way off base. I say this because, in my opinion, the act of spamming is a form of internet rape. These jerks use automated programs to troll through blogs, websites and email programs and deposit their filth in places unprotected by spam killing software.

Selling text link ads in the footer of a theme design differs from this because at anytime during the relationship between the end user and the theme designer, the end user can call it quits by removing the theme from their website or blog.

The general consensus seems to be that as long as there is a disclaimer made about the links then having sponsored themes is okay. The main concern is that the end user be made aware of what exactly they are signing up for when they choose to use the template. This I absolutely agree with and below I offer some suggestions on what you can do to make your sponsored templates end user friendly.

However there are a few dissenting voices that have made their opposition to the idea loud and clear. One of these is a Gary Cohn, I will not link directly to his site because I find the way he has chosen to go about voicing his opinion on the subject by trying to publicly humiliate a WordPress theme designer rather reprehensible.

What Mr. Cohn and others like him seem to not understand is that there really is no barrier to entry in the theme design business. Anyone can learn CSS and HTML and create a theme. Including spammers. Even easier to do is to commission a web designer to create a theme for them and for them (the spammers) to distribute it with their links in the footer. How is a spammer creating (or purchasing) a web theme and putting their links in the footer any different from purchasing ad space in the footer of a web designer’s giveaway themes?

Even Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, has weighed in against this idea. In the comments section of the WPDesigner blog he wrote:

The important thing to note isn’t just that it’s shady and many people don’t realize it’s there, but that it’s against Google’s webmaster guidelines to sell links like that and they regularly police against it. So in effect, you’re putting hundreds or thousands of innocent blogs at risk of being penalized by Google because of the links you sold in a theme. (The theme author, not you specifically.) Is the gamble worth it? For some folks, maybe. However I can speak from experience of being at the wrong end of this before that it never ends well.

The Google Webmaster Guidelines only says:

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

When you really think about it, the distribution of free themes can be considered a link scheme. As much as we may love designing and passing out web templates, one of the undeniable perks of doing so is the building of backlinks to our websites.

Matt Cutts, head of the Google Webspam team provides a more indepth explanation of Google’s dislike of this practice:

But for everyone else, let me talk about why we consider it outside our guidelines to get PageRank via buying links. Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results. When the Berkeley college newspaper has six online gambling links (three casinos, two for poker, and one bingo) on its front page, it’s harder for search engines to know which links can be trusted.

I’m going to save the whole Google hypocrisy rant for another posting but this problem is easily rectified with the use of the “no follow” attribute which all three of the major search engines support.

Now I understand that it all comes down to an issue of trust. After all, like celebrity endorsements, when you link to a website, you are implicitly stating that that website is okay in your book. Each designer has their own idea of what is acceptable as far as linking to websites go, therefore we should be focusing our efforts on educating end users about this issue and what their options are. Whether you agree with the practice or not, I foresee the demand and supply of sponsored themes as only increasing not diminishing.

Suggestions to help make your sponsored themes end user friendly:

Let people know

While promoting your templates, you should disclose the fact that the template includes text link ads and make your expectations concerning those links clear. This allows the end user to make a more informed decision as to whether or not they want to use your template. You may get some people who choose to pass your templates by because of the additional links but consider this to be a small price to pay to protect yourself against problems that may come up from not having disclosed this information.

Be discerning

Themey, a web designer and provider of sponsored themes, vets all potential links for appropriateness. This really is common sense. Whether you realize it or not, your reputation is on the line. The blogosphere can be cruel and the first person to complain of being linked to a spammer’s website could end your design career. Make it your business to know where the links are going at all times. If a link that once went to a reputable website suddenly changes to point to a splog, makes it your business to notify the users of your themes.

Consider using the no-follow attribute

Search engines frown upon paid text links even though some of them (cough *Google* cough) have made their millions off of that very thing. To avoid possible problems with the search engines either add the “no-follow” attribute to those ads or allow the end user the option of doing so.

Consider having a removal option

If someone likes your template a lot but don’t want to play host to advertising links, chances are they will either remove them or contact you to see if they can. You should be ready for this and have an appropriate plan of action in place.

Do not use malicious code

Hopefully, this is self explanatory. Use only static text links. Do not add dynamic code that lets you change what adverts appear on the template. This is just one can worms you really don’t want to open.

Keep the links to a reasonable amount

One, two, maybe even three links are reasonable. More than that and you really are treading into to spam territory.

Make it obvious the advertisement is advertisement

Be sure to use disclosure language, such as “Sponsored by” or “Link Partners” around the advertisement. Not only does this help distance the end user from the ads, search engines are now programmed to account for these types of links.

For the end user of sponsored themes:

Read the terms of service and honor it!

I see many people who are opposed to the idea telling end users to just remove the links. This is poor advice because they are encouraging end user to renege on a contract. Though unspoken, a contract is being created with the theme designer whenever you download their theme to use. You agree to bide by the terms of use in exchange for the use of the theme. If you do not agree with, or cannot abide by, any part of the designer’s terms of use then you should not use the template. Period.

Check out the links on the template and see where they lead

If you are concerned about what you may be linking to, take two seconds and visit the sites. If you don’t want to be associated with those links then either contact the theme designer about removing them or don’t use the template.

Don’t be afraid to contact the theme designer

Most designers make a point of being easy to contact. Ask if there is a non sponsored option or whether or not you can add the “no follow” attribute to avoid being penalized by Search Engines.

No matter what you do, do not remove the designer’s credit

Designing web templates is hard work. We only make it look easy. Support our cause by at least keeping our copyright information intact and in place.

If all parties concerned make an effort to be responsible when it comes to sponsored templates, then I see no reason why this couldn’t provide a theme designer with another form of income and website owners another avenue of advertisement. Cooperation is the key and with this key we don’t have to be afraid to open the door to the future.

Happy Webernetting

[tags]WordPress themes, Advertising, Text Link Ads[/tags]

8 thoughts on “Tempest in a Teacup or Baby Momma Drama over Sponsored Templates

  1. Nicely put.

    I agree with much of what you said, except the number of sponsor links.

    In any event, it just boils down to individual user choices. All we can actually hope for is that everything will work itself out in the end.


  2. Leaving spam comments on a site is fine because at anytime during the relationship between the blog author and the commenter, the blog author can call it quits by removing the comment from their website or blog.

    (Opt-out is a slippery slope.)

  3. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for stopping by my humble blog and commenting on this. I would be interested in finding out what you see at the bottom of the slippery slope. I don’t agree because as I mentioned in the blog post, there is no barrier to entry in the web design business and spammers have equal opportunity to put templates on the market with links to their sites. Those links are going to be on the template whether the template is sponsored via a theme designer or the spammers create it themselves. At the end of the day, the end user still needs to take responsibility and be aware of who/what they are linking to and to take appropriate action.

    Leaving spam on a website is not okay but that does not prevent people from attempting to do so nor does it absolve me of the responsibility of having to deal with it.

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