Our Dream, Their Profit - 2: The Blog Hosts

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 22 May 2012 |

In Part 1 of this article I likened us, the creators of Web content, to gold diggers in a gold rush. We’re the hopefuls with a dream of striking it lucky, but little realistic chance of doing so. As such, we’re vulnerable. Businesses know we have a dream, and they know how powerful that dream is. They know that if they can convince us our dream is realistic, they’ll be in a position to sell us the means to achieve it. These businesses are the ‘shovel sellers’ – the people who really do strike it rich in a gold rush, by selling the necessary tools to enormous numbers of success-hungry hopefuls.

Here in Part 2, I’m going to look at the way blog hosts turn our desire for creative success into profit for themselves, so often leaving us with little but an impoverished realm of fake praise and a deluded sense of our own importance.

WordPress.com, the blog host, has made this into an art form. Largely, the company makes its profit from hardworking, highly conscientious content creators, who work unpaid in pursuit of recognition and success – normally as writers or photographers. I’m one such content creator.

WordPress.com makes its revenue by placing adverts on blogs, and by charging any users prepared to pay, for service upgrades. The blogger does all the work, and in most cases, WordPress makes all the money. Exactly how much money WordPress makes is the subject of great speculation, but with well over a hundred million unique visits per month, service upgrades, advertising on blogs, expensive ‘VIP’ packages, and just 113 members of staff to pay, it’s obviously generating a very significant profit.

Does that make WordPress a ‘shovel-seller’? Well, not definitively, because WordPress doesn’t sell its core service by telling us we’re going to get rich. And don't get me wrong - WordPress.com provides a fantastic way for writers, photographers and other creatives to publish their work in a professional manner without any worry or commitment. The service can be used completely free of charge, albeit at the expense of some functionality and on the basis that WordPress can by default monetise the blogger's content with its own adverts. WordPress isn't a charity - that's fine. Indeed, I use and recommend the free service, and I certainly wouldn't complain about it.

But paying to blog (via services upgrades), with little or no prospect of recouping the outlay, is another matter, and that I definitely wouldn't recommend. That's precisely what I'm campaigning against with these Our Dream, Their Profit articles. In my opinion, WordPress does net a lot of revenue by playing very strongly on our desire for creative fulfilment. More specifically, it operates a setup expressly designed to give us an inflated sense of our work’s importance. If we think people are massively interested in our content, we’re more likely to pay for upgrades than if we see a more realistic picture, in which no one really cares about what we’re saying. So the blog host operates a system which gives, encourages and perpetuates artificial praise.

How does it do that? Well, for example, it engineers the ‘Like’ button system so that there’s mutual benefit. The ‘liker’ stands to gain a free promo for his/her blog with each click of the ‘Like’ button, so inevitably he/she is going to keep clicking that button even when the content really isn’t that interesting. In many cases, indeed, WordPress bloggers are indiscriminately 'liking' posts without even reading them. This is not speculation on my part, but a fact I have good evidence to support...

I truncate my RSS feeds, which means that anyone who finds my posts off-site (displayed in the WordPress Reader, for example) will only be able to see the first couple of lines. Therefore, to actually read my posts, the people 'liking' them need to visit the blog. But I've been able to establish that many are 'liking' the posts off-site, which of course means they can't possibly be reading them.

And I know from other evidence I've seen that some WordPress users are indeed completely indiscriminate 'likers' who appear to do nothing but 'like' large quantities of posts in quick succession. They scroll through the WordPress Reader, 'liking' post after post, paying no attention whatsoever to the content. It's simply a means for them to send out tons of free promos for their own blog. Let's use the correct terminology: this is not 'liking' posts; it's spamming - an abuse of the system. WordPress knows it's rife, and allows it, because there are literally millions of naive bloggers who regard it as genuine interest in their work. And if they think people are interested, they're more likely to keep blogging, and pay for upgrades.

This is just one of a number of WordPress.com elements which make bloggers feel appreciated and emotionally compensated, without the need for any genuine appreciation to exist. In the end, you have a huge but insular roundabout of bloggers pretending to read each others’ work, mutually “following” each other, issuing gushing praise in each others’ comment boxes, etc… Some of it’s valid, but much of it’s a sham, which in real terms benefits only the blog host.

Then there’s the ‘vanity filtering’. That encompasses practices such as emailing bloggers with a great fanfare when someone ‘follows’ their blog, but not actually uttering a word when they’re unfollowed. Or providing blog stat counters and ‘pep talk’ emails which try to present the number of individual page visits as the number of actual unique visitors. This makes one visitor, who loaded a total of 30 pages, look like 30 visitors, and can give some bloggers a sense that they’re reaching a much wider audience than is the case. In fact, even the detailed stats built in to WordPress.com’s blog dashboard don’t show the number of unique visitors, or other typically demoralising info like the minuscule amount of time the average visit lasts. All this info is available to WordPress, obviously – they just don’t want bloggers to see the signs of disinterest.

Of course, it’s not just WordPress who are guilty of ‘vanity filtering’. Other blog hosts, and social networking sites, use similar concepts. Indeed, WordPress is actually more realistic than Blogger in its internal stats presentations, since it doesn’t include any referrer spam or automated hits, and it can’t be set to record blog administrators’ own page visits on a public blog. Blogger’s stats are artificially inflated by these types of non-visit.

Blogger – the free-hosted blogging platform owned by Google – is different from WordPress.com in that it allows free service users to profit from their work. Google’s core ethos, as I see it, is that allowing the blogger to profit-share on ad revenue will motivate him/her to produce more lucrative and ad-compatible content. Plus, with the blogger (rather than a bot) in charge of ad management, and a willingness on the part of the blogger to accept more ads per page, the likelihood of success is enhanced further. So even though Google might be giving away some of the proceeds to the bloggers, it’s still most probably much better off.

That’s the theory, anyway, and it does seem to work. At least, it works for Google. For the individual blogger, it’s usually a lot of hard work for very little financial return. It’s also a system which can change the blogger’s output for the worse. Whereas on WordPress.com the blogger is able to completely forget about commercial gain and post ‘from the heart’, on Blogger, the financial incentive can reduce the author’s willingness to criticise commercial products. In the worst cases it can prompt the author to eulogise indifferent products and services, and essentially produce the kind of over-positive and distorted article that I linked to in Part 1.

So the Google blogging system can corrupt what starts out as a very honourable creative quest, and basically turn it into a sales campaign. Monetised Google blogs are on the whole more practical and useful than WordPress.com blogs, but they can also be more disingenuous.

Google’s blog-for-profit model might in reality promise slim-pickings for most bloggers, but it does at least give Google some credibility when they urge users of the service to ‘speculate to accumulate’. WordPress.com don’t have that same credibility, and yet they’re still very cavalier with their advice on blog promotion. From the official WordPress.com guide to getting more traffic (visitors) to a blog…

“Pay for traffic to your site”. The host wants bloggers to pay for promotion (and create all the content, obviously), with any and all of the financial return on that promotion going straight into the host’s pocket?… I think “LOL” is probably the only safe-for-work response I can offer. I suppose you can’t blame WordPress for trying it on, but it’s really quite a crass piece of advice to give someone who’s already working for free on your ultimate behalf, and possibly paying you for service upgrades too.

Equally crass, is the directive to: “Bug your real life friends”. I’m sorry, but this just comes across as tantamount to: “Yeah, go and and make a complete, annoying, nuisance of yourself, and potentially alienate your own family and friends, so we can either serve them ads or sign them up and attempt to sell them service upgrades.”

Neither “pay for traffic”, nor “bug your friends” is a constructive piece of blogging advice in my opinion. There are many recommendations WordPress could make with regard to optimising blogs for real, sustained traffic, but it chooses instead to refer users to a paid service on StumbleUpon – and I bet StumbleUpon didn’t get that recommendation for free!

Once again, it appears the content creator’s desire to strike gold is being exploited. WordPress know better than anyone how unlikely a new blogger would be to gain true benefit from paid promotion. In most cases, new bloggers would be paying to promote content that doesn't exist. New bloggers need someone to tell them that ten or twenty posts and little in the way of presentation/linking experience is almost never going to convert a paid promo into sustained traffic. What they don't need is someone telling them to put their hand in their pocket before they've built a sustainable project. It's inconsiderate greed.

Once again, I haven’t discussed the most villainous parties on the Web in this piece – I’ve looked at the type of organisations most new bloggers will trust. Neither WordPress/Automattic nor Google are Internet ‘baddies’ in my view, but the truth is they do both make a fortune out of content providers’ usually misguided hope of striking gold.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.