Low quality advertisements are damaging WordPress.com

A shiny WordPress logo, ruined by obnoxious ads. It’s been nearly two months since I switched halfblog.net from Posterous over to WordPress, and I’ve been generally very positive about the change, with some reservations. The truth is, I don’t think I will be recommending it so strongly to potential new bloggers any longer (as I have done at Social Media Surgeries).

The various reasons probably justify a separate blog post, but one concern is looming particularly large right now…

The low-quality on-site advertising WordPress uses to support free blogs.

This blog post may get a bit long-winded because I want to cover all aspects of this problem, so here is a handy tl;dr / table of contents:

  1. WordPress.com are candid about how and why they run advertising.
  2. It’s not the quantity of the ads, it’s the quality.
  3. They don’t make it sufficiently clear where content ends and ads begin.
  4. How the situation needs to be improved.

Four adverts found on my WordPress.com blog

WordPress.com are candid about how and why they run advertising.

I do understand the need for WP.com to make money, and appreciate how open they are about the adverts.1 Even on their sales-pitch page, WP mention advertising. Their ‘No Ads‘ support page clarifies:

At WordPress.com, we sometimes display advertisements on your blog to help pay the bills. This keeps free features free!

The ad code tries very hard to not intrude or show ads to logged-in readers, which means only a very small percentage of your page views will actually contain ads.

To eliminate ads on your blog entirely, you can purchase the No-Ads Upgrade. The upgrade is especially attractive and useful to business blogs in order to eliminate any possibility of competitors’ ads displaying on their domains.

No Ads is a paid upgrade that costs $29.97 per blog, per year.

The No-Ads Upgrade is per blog. […]

Though I think a recurring fee of $30pa (per blog) is a bit steep (especially when I pay less for Flickr Pro, to get no ads plus extra features), it’s ultimately not my price to set. The choice between ad-supported and free or paid is clear and fair.

Ads are pretty rare, even for logged out visitors

In addition, not showing ads to logged-in readers means WP.com users will have a better experience and it has been my observation that advertising is pretty rare, even for logged out visitors.2 I think the idea is to monetise search engine traffic to older posts, but let regular readers see the fresher content in a nice clean state.

Finally, there are no ads on the homepage, in the header, crammed in the sidebar or any place else — it just seems to be below the content (but before the comments) on individual post pages. This is all very good, and exactly how I would want to place ads to be highly visible, but out of the way.

It’s not the quantity of the ads, it’s the quality.

I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. I posted a message to the support forums, and quickly found the support of a few others.

WordPress.COM is undoing major good will with the porno spam download a virus click here or die ads – and no amount of better notices will help the bad will – someone needs to bash a few heads in the advertising department – maybe even bash a few out the door – this has been an ongoing issue for some time now with no visible change in the feedback we see in the forum.

Some people think that you are putting on the porno – click here or die ads as a way of driving people to the no ads upgrade – it sure looks like they might be right

Forum reply from auxclass

I have the no-ads upgrade, but even so I am thinking of moving my site merely because of the complaints I see here and the damage I perceive will flow to me from the damage to the WP name if this continues.

Forum reply from teamoyeniyi

Complaining about individual ads and getting them removed after the fact is just playing whack-a-mole. It doesn’t do anything to stop similar ads popping up again. Sooner or later you’re going to get malware slipping through (it’s happened a couple of times on livejournal) and the fallout from that is going to be exponentially worse than what you’re getting now.

Forum reply from wank

Credit is due to macmanx the ‘Happiness Engineer’, who despite overlooking the thrust of my concern did address one of the points made.

Forcing people into No Ads is definitely not, has never been, and will never be the plan.

Rather, the head-bashing that you described is the plan. The ads are some-what geo-targeted, and at this time, most of the bad ads seem to be shown to folks visiting from outside of the US. I’m not sure if it’s because there aren’t enough fish in the sea for our ad provider in this case, or if they just aren’t vetting their foreign ads well enough.

That’s certainly a bug worth filing.

If overseas visitors are being shown less targeted ads, then that’s certainly a bug worth filing. WordPress.com has a massive number of non-US users, and they’re leaving a lot of money on the table by not serving them interesting ads.

The worst offender on my blog I didn’t actually see myself — a reader made me aware of the problem.3 This is what he saw.

Advertisement disguised as a video player on my WordPress.com blog

Lies, damn lies and dark pattern web techniques.4

This videoplayer embed is actually a GIF, and according to my visitor clicking on it automatically triggered a download of a file called Babylon9_setup.exe. However they vet these adverts, it’s not good enough.

They don’t make it sufficiently clear where content ends and ads begin.

Look at that screenshot again. I wouldn’t blame anyone for clicking on that thinking it’s an embedded video. There are lots of different types of player, and that could well be one. But worse, it is not separated from my content in any way. Just having the word ‘Advertisement’ above the image would be a bare minimum.

Ads like this may be effective, but they are deeply unethical. WordPress is a great platform, built on some strong guiding principles and a responsive support team. Presenting unethical horrors like these on bloggers pages is tarnishing those greater qualities.

Some thoughts on how the situation could be improved.

Ads may be a necessary evil, but the ads themselves don’t necessarily have to be evil

Having ads may be a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean that the adverts themselves necessarily have to be evil. I’m not privy to WordPress.com’s financials, or any data regarding the effectiveness of their current ad partner, but as a user I can see many areas for improvement:

  • Firstly, display better ads.
  • Second, and just as critically, clearly identify adverts as such.
  • Some kind of fair tiered approach, where lower-trafficked blogs don’t have to pay so much to remove ads.
  • I would prefer more people see more relevant text ads more often, than have just a few see these unethical horrors.
  • And finally, just for extra awesomeness and transparency, put user ad settings in the dashboard and give bloggers some choices over the kind of advertising that will appear on their blog, for example:
    • Graphical display ads, as they are now.
    • Text ads only, but they will appear much more often.
    • Extra charity ads – use free space on your blog to promote good causes.
    • Pay to remove ads, tiered by traffic, perhaps with options to use Amazon referral ads, etc.
    • Revenue sharing deals with high-trafficked blogs.
  • Consider a unique partnership with the folks like Etsy or Big Cartel, where adverts on WP blogs would help independent creators.

UPDATE 2011.11.16: Two more ideas from comments on wptavern.com:

  • The removal of advertising should be a bonus perk when a blogger buys any WP.com product.
  • WordPress should start its own ad network.

In conclusion

This overlong blog rant doesn’t come from a sense of entitlement, but from a community-minded concern that these spammy adverts are damaging to WordPress.com’s reputation, and its bloggers, and by extension the positive brand of WordPress itself.

If you agree, please join in the discussion, leave a comment here with your thoughts and experiences, write a blog post, or send an email to support@wordpress.com expressing your concern.

I’m confident that given a little solid evidence, the enlightened principles of Automattic will lead the company to a better solution.

Update 2011.11.18

I wasn’t aware when I wrote this post, but it seems that WordPress.com switched ad providers to Federated Media, exclisively, just this October. According to anecdotal evidence from the forums, that’s when the quality of the ads took a dive.

See also:


  1. A couple of relevant blog posts by Matt Mullenweg in the subject of advertising: ‘On Ads‘ (2006) and ‘Go (Even More) Ad-Free‘ (2008).
  2. While it is my impression that advertisements are pretty rare for logged out users, this may not be the experience of all users. It seems like WordPress have some pretty granular control over when they show ads on a blog. For example, after my forum thread got a bit of traction, I and another user were unable to find any ads on my blog. Perhaps we had hit an algorithmic limit, or perhaps ads had been temporarily turned off. I have no idea.
  3. Embarrassingly, this lying clickbait was sitting below a post called ‘How to gracefully promote yourself online‘, wherein I basically explained how someone was doing something poorly and I knew better.
  4. Disguised Ads – wiki.darkpatterns.org
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15 thoughts on “Low quality advertisements are damaging WordPress.com

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  6. Very balanced and detailed post. But the bottom line is surely that there’s no place for what is effectively virus type inserts rather than ads – shouldn’t they be “automatically” blocked?

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  13. I would like to ask the author that it’s been 18 months now since you made this post, have you seen any improvement to the quality of ads overall? Because if my blog is getting such low quality and potentially harmful ads then it is a serious concern! I already know that WordPress serves ads on my blog but I would never have imagined a neat and clean company like wordpress.com to be indulged in such practices.

    • Truthfully, I spend most of my time signed into WP.com, so I don’t see the ads. I’ve also paid for Ad Free, so this blog isn’t soiled with any shitty ads.

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