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The Ethics of WordPress Automatic Content Aggregration (Autoblogs vs Splogs)

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to automate everything. I’m sure it’s a common trait with programmers – in fact it’s the reason I started programming online. My first online application was a very simple cms – that allowed me to easily edit the content on my website. I wanted to save time doing repetitive things so that I have more time for the important things.

So recently I have become really interested in automating content creation on my WordPress sites.

It all began a few months ago because I wanted to turn bengillbanks.co.uk into an automatically updating directory of all the stuff I create online. It’s not finished yet but I think I am making some good progress.

The system I had used to pull in the content was written as a plugin – and I soon realised I could add the plugin to wpvote.com – allowing me to update the site more regularly from sites that create good content.

An Ethical Conundrum

Ethics

Often autoblogs are seen as bad. They are often called splogs (Spam Blogs) because they copy content wholesale from other sites – remove attribution (steal the credit) and then hope to get extra traffic through Google. This is bad because unethical users can create many sites in a short amount of time essentially by stealing content.

However I like to think I do things ethically. I am sure I’m not perfect but I try my hardest to be an upstanding internet citizen.

For example, on bengillbanks.co.uk, I am loading only my content, and most of the time I am loading excerpts and then pointing to the original content. This creates a link to my content and allows anyone interested to see what I am doing – it doesn’t steal content (not even my content), and it attributes the original source.

WPVote.com on the other hand acts as a demo for my commercial WordPress theme – Nominate. The reason I think what I am doing is ethical on WordPress Vote is because I am only pulling interesting content from sites that are entirely focused on WordPress (ie – the content is related to a single niche). In addition I only post an excerpt – and then I link back to the source. All of which means the original website should benefit from a strong link on a Page Rank 6 website. From a personal point of view the site has been more active and so more people are posting content that isn’t automatically generated which in turn is creating more interest in the site and creating more traffic. So I think this is good for everyone involved.

An Ethical Conundrum

So my problem is that I have this awesome plugin that I would like to release. I know it will be used by genuine people who just want to simplify their lives – but I am also concerned about the less ethical users of these types of products. I don’t like the idea of releasing something that could be used in a bad way – and so I don’t know what to do.

I know people are interested in the plugin – I’ve had at least half a dozen emails from users asking for it since I published the post about the Aggregator theme late last year. If it wasn’t for this nagging doubt in the back of my head then I would have released the plugin already.

Help me Obi Wan Kenobi – you’re my only hope!

At the moment I am not sure what to do – but I am going to continue pressing ahead with the plugin development. I will be using it on another of my websites to create more (hopefully worthwhile) content – and I’d love to get some feedback from the wider WordPress community to see what you think?

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10 Comments »

  1. I say go ahead and release it as-is, meaning with only post excerpts and proper attribution. There are already other plugins that do this, like FeedWordPress, so there is no reason not to.

    I’d love the plugin to be able to add an author for the name of each content source as well as put that content source in the post tile. For example “Mashable: Ten Great WordPress Plugins” or whatever. Then it will be obvious where the article came from and people can even go to the author page to see all the posts from that news source.

    • That’s an interesting thought. So what you’re suggesting is to make it really really obvious what the source of each post is, including attribution fully and clearly. I quite like that – and it should be easy to do as well.

  2. I had a news aggregation site which failed because google wouldn’t index it.
    I feel like I made every effort to expose and link back to the original content.
    Most sites viewed this favorably. Only one site complained.

    It was necessary for the site to be in google because it was more efficient for a potential reader to find a post on a topic there than on my site.
    Ironically google is under pressure in the EU for doing the same thing en masse.
    I got the feeling the reason google killed the site was because it was potential competition.

    One day I will revive the site as soon as I can figure out how to do it without google.
    Beware of google!

  3. If people want to act unethically they will do it with or without your product. Just release it. What if Bentley halted production on their cars because they were worried someone might intentionally drive too fast and cause a wreck? :)

  4. I definitely understand your situation, and why you’re second guessing yourself. For the most part, I think, there isn’t such a thing as a “bad” plugin. Just bad use of the plugin. The eternally (over?) optimistic side of myself says that a developer can’t be blamed for the nefarious ways someone might use their work.

    At the same time, I’m not sure any creative person can completely separate themselves from what their work allows others to do. It’s worth recognizing that people will — absolutely will — use the plugin in ways you didn’t intend or don’t want to defend or support.

    Ultimately, it will come down to which of your convictions is stronger: providing utility people want, or making sure you can’t possibly be contributing to some of the nastier habits of the internet. I think both positions can be argued, and as long as you’re comfortable with what you’ve done, I think either option can be the right way to go.

  5. Hi Ben

    I enjoy this article and chain of your thoughts. I am with Dan on this one – people will do it, with you or without you. So better publish it and make life easier for people who will use it properly. For the example my sister is ballet dancer now in 40tis and I always tell her she should start website for young girls wanting to be dancers. And she could offer some resources and make special Q&A section for direct chat with girls. but this plugin could add directory of posts related to ballet. What would be nice addition.

    Still it would be good to have very prominent source and also flexibility how much to show – featured image (or first image as fallback) and number of words that could be defined. with something like ‘Read more at ….” at the end. Is that idea, right?

    As per my knowledge of SEO, Google will anyway penalize website that just ‘steals’ full content, so they would not get traffic anyway.

    By the way nicely designed website. I landed here looking for some WP query (posts form last 30 days in random order).

    Cheers,
    Dean

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