A community of hobbyists drove WordPress for a long time, but eventually, the hobbyists wanted to support their hobby. Developers charged for customizations; Automattic was building a blog network along with related products like Akismet. Theme designers, too, wanted to make money for the time and effort they put into developing themes for the project.
It isn’t immediately obvious how someone can make money and still uphold the ethos of a free software project. How can the two goals co-exist? In the early days of the WordPress economy, the distinction between freedom and free beer was blurry. Community members fumbled for answers: is it acceptable to make money with a GPL project? Who has the right to make money out of a project that belongs to its volunteers? How can one run a theme business when the core product is free?
The period between 2006 and 2009 was one of experimentation and discovery for businesses in the WordPress ecosystem. During these tumultuous years, the community wrestled with commercialization while the theme marketplace grew. WordPress users — web users — have always been concerned with their websites’ look. As WordPress became more popular, many bloggers built their own themes and realized that they could generate income from them.
Themes lagged behind plugins for an official repository. For a long time, themes were hosted on themes.wordpress.net, an unofficial theme directory. Theme developers could simply upload their theme and users could browse the directory.
The system was susceptible to spam and duplicate themes. Some theme developers abused the system by downloading their theme multiple times, to boost their ranking and appear among the most popular search results. The Theme Viewer was at the center of the first big debate about themes.
Theme designers tried theme sponsorship as a way to make money from their designs. Designers often use a link to their website in their theme as a credit. Kubrick, for example, links to Michael Heilemann’s website. Every site that installs the theme links to the designer’s website. The number of incoming links to a website is a variable in Google’s PageRank algorithm: the more incoming links, the higher the PageRank, the further up in Google’s search engine results. If thousands (or even hundreds) of people install a theme, the designer can watch herself soar up Google’s search results. If that link comes from a high-authority website, even better.
Designers soon realized the link doesn’t have to be to their own website. Links have an intrinsic value, particularly to internet marketers. With a link in a WordPress theme, marketers don’t have to approach individual sites to ask them for a link. All they have to do is pay a web designer to include it in their theme, release the theme for free, and soon hundreds of sites are linking back to their desired URL.
Theme sponsorship approaches varied. Sometimes, companies contacted well-known theme authors to sell links in their themes. Theme authors could also be proactive. Authors advertised and sold their themes on websites, others auctioned themes at Digital Point, or they simply offered links for sale. In those early days, once the sale was made, designers would promote the theme on different WordPress theme sites, including official sites such as the WordPress Codex, community resources like the WordPress Theme Viewer, and reputable blogs such as Weblog Tools Collection. These themes were often distributed with a Creative Commons 3.0 license, which permits free sharing and theme adaptation, provided the credit link remains.
Websites focused on making money online became aware of theme sponsorship. Tutorials and articles about theme sponsorship proliferated, and sponsorship became part of an acceptable link-building strategy.
Some theme creators published themes with visible text links but didn’t tell their users about the link, others used PHP or CSS to hide the links, while others still made it very clear that the theme had been sponsored.
For those in favor of theme sponsorship, the matter was simply about being paid for their work. Why should they work for free? Selling sponsored links ensured they could create and distribute free themes, which benefited the whole community. They argued that designing a good theme takes time and that non-sponsored themes were inevitably of poorer quality than sponsored ones.
Sponsored themes quickly became prevalent, with even respected authors selling links in their themes. Many considered it a “great business model”; finally, a way to make money from WordPress! Besides, those who supported the model argued that the default WordPress blogroll contained links to all of the original developers of WordPress — Alex, Donncha, Dougal, Michel, Matt, Mike, and Ryan — all of whom were benefiting in Google’s search results.
Others felt that themes.wordpress.net was becoming a spam repository. More than 50% of themes on the WordPress Theme Viewer were sponsored themes. These contained links to everything from iPhone repair services to gambling websites, and from web hosting to flower delivery. Some themes were uploaded multiple times with only minor changes, thereby increasing the number of links on the Theme Viewer. Critics of theme sponsorship — many of whom were designers themselves — said that the themes polluted the community. They weren’t against theme designers making money, but they didn’t want to see the WordPress community become a hive of spam and SEO tricks. Theme sponsorship had opened the floodgates to SEO and internet marketers.
Buying and selling links went beyond the WordPress community. A few years earlier, Matt Cutts, the head of web spam at Google, had explained how link-selling affected PageRank. Google’s algorithm detected paid links, and while it wasn’t foolproof, it worked pretty well. Paid links made it harder for Google to gauge a website’s trustworthiness. As a result, Google took away that site’s ability to affect search results:
Reputable sites that sell links won’t have their search engine rankings or PageRank penalized – a search for [daily cal] would still return dailycal.org. However, link-selling sites can lose their ability to give reputation (e.g. PageRank and anchortext).
WordPress users who installed sponsored themes could be penalized for links that they weren’t even aware they were hosting. And, hidden links could further reduce a user’s PageRank. In a post in April 2007, Matt Cutts condemned hiding links in a website and asked web masters to disclose paid links.
There were plenty of themes that contained links that weren’t sponsored. Designers would include a credit link to their website in the theme’s footer. Designing and releasing a WordPress theme allowed designers to increase their profile on the web. Like internet marketers, their websites benefited from higher search engine results, and website visitors might click on the link, generating more business for the designer.
It was common at that time for a designer to release their themes under a Creative Commons license, which asks users to leave the credit link intact. In the middle of the sponsored link furor, one designer took the next step. Tung Do (tungdo) authored the popular WordPress resource WPDesigner.com, along with a number of WordPress themes. In April 2007, he announced he would release his themes under the GPL. “Despite that I’m just ONE theme designer and despite that I don’t contribute directly the WordPress code (sic),” he wrote, “I believe that switching to GPL is a step in the direction to support the WordPress team and to help the WordPress theme community grow (positively).”
Weblog Tools Collection (WLTC) was the first website to take direct action against sponsored themes. At WLTC, designers submitted themes and Mark Ghosh, who ran the site, regularly wrote about theme releases. In April, Mark weighed in on sponsored themes. While he didn’t condemn them outright, he did institute a new policy:
All themes with sponsorship links will be labelled as such when they are published, non-sponsored themes will be published first, and we require sponsorship disclosure to be made to us when authors make us aware of their new themes. If this disclosure is not provided and the theme has sponsored links, the author will be barred from being able to post their new themes on weblogtoolscollection.com until further notice.
The 166 comments Ghosh received highlighted just how divisive the issue was. Viewpoints ran to both extremes. Many users were unhappy about links being placed in their websites — this was particularly concerning to people whose websites had a moral or religious bent. While users supported linking to theme authors, they weren’t happy that links for credit cards or flower delivery were being displayed on their website. Theme developers said that it was a way for them to fund themselves and the creation of free themes, and that they were sad to see it being abused.
A few days later, Matt followed Mark’s lead and posted on WLTC about sponsored themes. He had become aware of the trend back in September 2006, when he had downloaded the Barthelme theme from plaintxt.org and discovered a link to a New York flower delivery service. For him, there were three main issues:
- that sponsored links negatively impact a user’s Trustrank and that the user hadn’t made this decision themselves;
- that sponsored themes are adware;
- that theme authors who sell links and release their work under a creative commons license contravene the GPL.
All of these factors meant a negative experience for WordPress users. While the project allowed people to make money from WordPress-related products and services, it didn’t support methods detrimental to users. Whatever the original intentions of sponsored links, themes had become so polluted that they undermined the trust that a user had in the software and in the community. As a user-focused community, the project needed to regain that trust.
The argument that theme authors deserved to be compensated for their work held little weight when WordPress itself had been built by volunteers. There was no opposition to people making money from WordPress, but official project resources should only promote companies and individuals in line with the core project ethos.
Matt closed the post, linking to a vote on a proposal to remove sponsored themes from WordPress.org. The discussion on the thread has arguments for and against theme sponsorship; some voted for a complete ban, others for sponsored theme disclosure, while others felt theme designers should be allowed to include any links they want in their theme.
Whatever the results of the vote, the tide turned against sponsored themes. These were not looked upon favorably at WordPress.org, with sites and people who had promoted sponsored themes already banned from the forums. Even Matt Cutts weighed in, saying that he agreed 100 percent with Matt’s position on sponsored themes.
In July, Mark announced on WLTC that he would no longer promote sponsored themes, and shortly after, Matt announced that all sponsored themes would be removed from themes.WordPress.net. Despite a positive reaction from much of the community, there was a backlash, primarily directed at Mark and Matt.
Some theme developers saw theme sponsorship as a valid way of making money, and were angry about being branded as “unethical.” This was particularly the case when they saw other theme developers behaving unethically, from downvoting other developers’ themes and using sock puppetry to upvote their own, to stuffing themes with copious links to their website.
Despite the sponsored theme ban on official WordPress resources, link sales continue today. The Digital Point forums, for example, are filled with themes available for sponsorship. Theme sponsorship is not without its dangers. In 2012, a former theme sponsor posted on the Webmaster world forums about Google penalization for “inorganic” incoming links:
Some 2+ years ago in throws (sic) of questionable wisdom I sponsored about five or six WordPress themes where the “Designed by” link in the footer gets replaced by a link to your site. They were nice looking and “relevant” themes, at least as far as the name and pictures used in design suggest. They were not used much initially and I did not think much of them until these “unnatural links” notices started flying a month ago. Google confirmed that these links were the issue, but with the themes in the wild there wasn’t a whole lot that the sponsor could do about it other than contact the websites using the theme and asking them to remove the link.
Sponsored themes were the first large-scale attempt at making money from WordPress themes. Custom design and development existed too, but link sales appeared to be a valid way of making money, particularly at a period when the web teemed with SEO experts and internet marketers on an unremitting search for ways to climb Google’s search results. Sponsored themes brought WordPress, not for the first time, into proximity with SEO, both white hat and black hat. Selling links in a theme slipped easily into questionable SEO practices; it also turned out to be an unsustainable business model. With Google as the rule-maker, a simple policy change could wipe out an entire market. And as sponsored themes started to disappear from the community, theme designers and developers looked for new ways to support their hobby.