A recent post on Mashable regarding a tool called WordPress Direct elicited a great deal of passion on both sides. One commenter, for example, called the service a “one stop shop spam blog engine” while another, who claims to have used the service, said it was “a simple solution to adding new posts to a blog in between longer, hand written posts”.
But what is clear is that tools like WordPress Direct are becoming more and more common. Part of the double-edged nature of open source development is that, while most will use the license to extend the product in healthy ways, a few will do so in ways that can be used for unethical purpose. Though this is not an argument against open source, more and more tools like WordPress Direct have sprung up, often charging high monthly fees for “maintenance free” blogging.
But what does WordPress Direct do and is it a spam tool? The answer is complicated and made more so by the fact that the nature of spam and even the definition of spam is a moving target. However, it is clear that WordPress Direct, along with similar products, have a lot of potentially dangerous uses and, if its marketing is any indication, those uses are very much by design.
Multiple Uses, Multiple Faces
First and foremost, WordPress Direct is a WordPress installer, making it easy to set up WordPress installations on either your own server or theirs. There is no need to setup databases, install the core files or even fix permalinks and add a theme. The system does that for you.
However, applications that install WordPress are already extremely common. Though most don’t help optimize the installation, most hosts have some variation of the WordPress “One Click” install, often using Fantastico. Furthermore, such installs are usually more up to date, with WordPress Direct saying that they still use the 2.5.x branch of WordPress.
But what has drawn the most controversy is not the installation, but rather, the tools that come with it. WordPress Direct also installs a series of tools that let you import content directly into your feed, including from Yahoo! Answers, YouTube and even other RSS feeds.
Though the WordPress Direct team is quick to tout that the owner of the created blogs is the editor, the truth is that all of the tools can be set to publish automatically, meaning that content is scraped from various sources and republished without any editing or manipulation. Combined with the easy insertion of Adsense advertisements into the blog itself, it is easy to see how one could create dozens of spam blogs very quickly with this tool.
That, in turn, is what has many bloggers very worried.
In a comment to the original Mashable article, Marty Rozmanith, a representative for the company said that:
“Those that do (repost content) realize all content requires proper attribution, and our service facilitates that. It also facilitates reviewing content before posting so that spam videos and such do not end up on your blog.
We do not host the bulk of our user’s blogs – they do. If they get themselves in trouble with spamming their own blog, we frown upon it and it usually results to their detriment anyway.”
He goes on to say that:
“For all the content creators reading this — unless you post your content to a ‘user-generated’ content site like YouTube or an ezine article service, our service will never find it. We do not scrape random sites to find content. We use APIs provided to republish content the way those sites intend us to. We automate the embedding that they provide and that bloggers do manually every day.”
However, during my very brief testing of the software, I noticed that much of this appears to be at least somewhat inaccurate.
First, the test “blog” I created pulled content from Yahoo Answers but there was no indication that the content came from there nor was a link back to the source provided. Furthermore, the original question was posted as the blog entry with the replies posted as comments, furthering the confusion. I could not find a way to turn on attribution. (Note: I have already deleted this blog as I did not wish it to be indexed by the search engines.)
Second, though they claim to only pull content from “user generated” sites, their marketing material provides information about how to pull from RSS feeds and, in my testing, it is very easy to do. Any blog, regardless of how it was licensed, can be reused by these sites should the operator decide to pull from it.
Finally, though it is possible to see how one could use this to automatically locate videos and related articles, there are other services that provide this functionality already. Furthermore, to use this tool for such a legitimate purpose would require a great deal of editing and crafting (EX: Pull quotes from articles, add links, etc.) and the automation would save little time.
All in all, most of those that wanted to use this service for non-spamming aims would likely find other tools better suited to what they want to do.
The Good News
The good news is that this is also likely a very poor spam tool. The highest level of membership, which costs nearly $150 per month, only allows users to create 100 sites. That number is fairly tame in terms of spam blog network size and, by requiring each spam blog return over $1 per month in profit, it is debatable how much revenue could be generated. Other tools allow the creation of many times this number of sites at much lower costs.
All in all, compared to other, better-known tools, I don’t think bloggers have much to fear from this service. In addition to the limited network size, adding RSS feeds is a manual process and is very time consuming compared to the other input methods.
Though WordPress Direct’s best uses are spam-related, it is hardly the hardcore spamming tool that bloggers have been taught to fear.
I always find the marketing of products like WordPress Direct to be very interesting. On its front page, the site promises you that it “scours the internet for topic-specific video, audio and article content and automatically combines it on your site to create a truly unique visitor experience,” and that all you have to do is “Simply click a few buttons and WordPress Direct will update your site as often or as rarely as you’d like.”
Most bloggers would instantly recognize this as too good to be true but it is how many spam blog applications, both admitted and not, advertise their wares.
The question is whether WordPress Direct is a legitimate tool that has significant questionable use or a questionable tool that has some limited legitimate use. Though it is always difficult to tell, the marketing clearly seems to bill it as the latter.
However, in his comment, Rozmanith said that “It’s true the sales material tries to make everything look ‘effortless.’ We should update it – it is not a true reflection apparently.” Perhaps this is an indication that he understands the message his marketing is getting and why others, including myself, feel as they do about the product.
But even without the marketing, the tool itself still has a bevy of questionable uses and controversial decisions. Whether this is by design or a mistake is a question only the creators can answer.