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Previously, on the internet... (July 05)

(This column appears in the July 05 issue of PC Advisor)

Even if you've built the software that powers a huge number of internet blogs, it doesn't help you much if the bloggers decide to turn on you, as Matt Mullenweg found out.

The furore started when keen-eyed internetters noticed a directory of articles on the official WordPress.org blogging software site. These covered subjects such as credit, health, insurance and home business.

WordPress is distributed under a GPL (GNU general public licence), which basically makes it free for anyone to use as they see fit. So if you wanted to set up a blog of your very own, but don't want to write your own software to handle the updates, simply download WordPress, stick it in your web space, and you're ready to go.

Free software is obviously great for the user - you get top quality apps without having to pay anything at all for them. While developers of free software work largely for the love of it and the greater good of the community, love and good aren't that useful for paying bills, such as hosting and bandwidth, to make said software available for download.

The articles that appeared on WordPress' site were apparently paid for by a company called HotNacho, "a leading company in internet-based content development". Why would HotNacho pay to put this content on the WordPress site? Search engine spamming, say the bloggers.

Search engine spamming works by exploiting Google's method of indexing the web: PageRank. PageRank rates a page out of 10 based on the number of sites that link to it. The more links a site has, the higher its PageRank, and the nearer it comes to the top of Google's search results. But all links are not equal - a link from a top PageRank site gives a higher rating than one from a low PageRank site.

If you install the WordPress software, right down the bottom is a little credit that reads "powered by WordPress". Click it, and you'll end up back at WordPress.org. Since blogs link to other blogs a lot, giving them automatically high PageRanks, and all WordPress blogs link back to the front page WordPress.org, WordPress has a PageRank of eight. The front page then linked to the articles et voila - instant Google karma.

The matter was further muddied, however, by the fact that the link from WordPress' front page to the articles was hidden. Search engines could read it, but it was invisible to the human eye. The bloggers cried foul, and rounded on Matt Mullenweg. He may have been fundamental in developing the software that allowed them to have their say, but that's no defence to the kangaroo courts of the internet wild west.

Google frowns upon such practices as hidden links, and reduced WordPress' PageRank from eight to zero - effectively removing it from Google search results. It didn't help that Mullenweg was holidaying in Italy when this all blew up, of course. He was living it up on his spam-gotten gains, if you believe the bloggers.

Mullenweg has since apologised on his own blog, removed the articles from the WordPress site, and Google has restored its PageRank. But bloggers, many given a voice through said software, seem less forgiving.

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