Free WordPress Themes – With a Catch

Yesterday, I was browsing the web for some new WordPress themes, and I found a site that had a lot of great premium like themes for free. I was quite impressed with them, ran a demo of a few of the themes, downloaded some, and added them to a new site that I am working on. After installing the theme, I went to adding my content and doing my usual customization. Everything was going great, until I hit the footer of my new theme.

In the theme’s demo, the footer looks like this:

WordPress Theme Demo Footer

I have no problems with keeping the credits for a theme. I have no issues whatsoever giving credit to the designers of the theme and sending some traffic back to the site so others can find and download these themes as well. Sometimes I rearrange the credits to suit the way I want to lay out my footer, or I may link directly to the theme’s page instead of the homepage of the theme site, but the credit will be there.

Now, take a look at the footer that comes with the downloaded theme:

WordPress Theme Actual Footer

The “Copyright © Blogging Ethics – Just another WordPress weblog” is taken from the site’s title and description. But the bottom line now includes four links to random sites. This bothers me for a multitude of reasons, the top ones being:

  • On the demo, it obviously does not show these links to free cellphones, banks, etc.
  • Nowhere on the theme download site is there a disclaimer about having to include these links in return for using a free theme.
  • The links are very obviously not giving credit to the theme creator – they are for link building.
  • Unless my blog happens to be about cellphones or financial institutions, they are not relative to my site and certainly nothing I want to add throughout my site in the footer.
  • Considering their lack of relevancy, the links could get my site dinged by Google because they look somewhat like paid links.

The obvious solutions to this problem would be to (1) not use the theme or (2) remove the links. As I had already decided this theme was perfect for my site, and had already invested a bit of time customizing it, I was somewhat determined to use the theme. So, I did what anyone else would do and tried to delete the links from my footer. When I reloaded my site, I was greeted by this message:

WordPress Theme Creative Commons Message

At this point, I was saddened that I had to go and get another theme. At the same time, however, I want to figure out how to get rid of those links, because I was perturbed that these people created a great theme just to corrupt it with links I don’t want on my site (nor would a lot of other people, I would assume). I might actually pay for this theme, if that were an option, but the only option available is to take it for free and unwillingly do link building for these sites.

So how does the theme know I have changed the links in the footer? Further digging around in the theme revealed several pages with chunks of encoded PHP script. I’ve never really seen encoded PHP in my themes before, with exception to the time my site was hacked, which makes me further not like what they are doing because it reminds me of malicious coding.

WordPress Theme Encoded PHP

One cool thing I found, thanks to this theme maker and their sneaky link building scheme is an online PHP decoder and encoder. You can drop in any encoded PHP (the parts between the single quotes) and see the actual PHP functions being used.

One chunk of the encoded PHP script in the theme’s functions.php contained the same linking text that is in the footer, checking to see if the footer links match the intended linking text. If it does not, it results in your entire sites turning into the “these links are family friendly” message. So you cannot reword, remove or rearrange this text unless it is rearranged in the encoded PHP script.

In the end, I messed with a few things. I did a simple CSS code (display:none;) to hide the div section of the footer with the link text, which hides it visibly from the site, but still leaves the links in your HTML, which I’m pretty sure is a Google no no. I tried to delete all of the encoded PHP script throughout the theme which just caused other random errors that I didn’t feel like debugging. Finally, I decoded the PHP script, changed the linking text, re-encoding the script to place back in the functions.php file and changed the link text in the footer to match. And once they matched, they no longer triggered the license message that devoured the site.

So do I feel a little guilty about solving the problem? Yes and no.

  • Yes, because I do feel that credit should be given when using a free theme, but only to the theme makers or the site I downloaded it from. Two links tops. Including four “sponsored” links kind of reminds me of getting spyware with freeware.
  • No, because I feel like I should be given the option to pay to have the credits removed if I like the theme.
  • No, because I feel think they should either include some sort of disclaimer about the fact that those links will be in the theme you download, contrary to the demo version which doesn’t show them. Or just show the four links in the demo version so you know what you are going to get prior to downloading, installing, customizing and then realizing what has happened.
  • No, because if I have to include the links, I should be able to do it in any manner I see fit, including moving it to a links page, sidebar, or other location on my site. Or at least being able to reformat the text without blowing up my site.
  • No, because of their use of malicious looking encoded PHP script that could include goodness only knows what.
  • Yes, because one of the provisions of Creative Commons licensing is that you can use products so long as you give credit the way it was requested, which I guess could be by including four links not related to the theme developer’s site (?).

The moral of this story? Beware when you download free WordPress themes. You could be getting more than just the theme.





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Comments

  1. says

    that’s is another reason i never download a free theme from unreliable sources, if you really looking to get into to pro blogging spend some bucks and get a premium theme, or else my preferred method to find the free theme is WordPress.org theme directory.
    .-= imran´s last blog ..Adsense Guide and Tips for Beginners ! =-.

  2. says

    Glad you figured out how to remove those links! Links to free cell phones and stuff like that would tend to make your site look like junky, and like you said, might make Google think it was a kinda bad neighborhood.
    .-= Christie´s last blog ..Holidays and the introvert =-.

  3. says

    That’s awful. Don’t feel bad about removing anything like that. If something like that caught on it could ruin free theming. Credit should always be given, but it’s not a theme author’s right to infect your site with spammy links.

  4. says

    I have seen this on many blogs we use. A simpler method has worked for us. We just comment out the footer information we don’t want. Nothing is triggered and the links go away. By commenting out, I mean adding a <!– before and a –> at the end of what you don’t want shown. Works like a charm for us, Kikolani. Let me know the blog theme and I’ll try it myself.

  5. says

    That’s terrible. I know there is a lot of malicious stuff out there from unknown sources, but I never in a million years would have thought of something like this.

    It makes me glad that I paid for Thesis, even though I’m not the best coder to take advantage of its customization. At least I don’t have to worry about junky code that will make Google hate me. My content and niche does that well enough already. *ba dum ching*
    .-= Professor Beej´s last blog ..Nashville Opera’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” at TPAC =-.

  6. says

    I came across the same thing last week. We were building a website for a non-profit group. (a Yoga group does not need to advertise Free Credit report.com)
    When we tried to remove the offending code, it turned off all of the other features of the theme.

    It makes one wonder what other ‘hidden’ code is stashed in the bowels of the code
    .-= Bryan ´s last blog ..Deep Brain Diary =-.

  7. says

    lol, this is the main reason why I will not sponsor a theme. Theme creators work hard to make these themes to giveaway and make their money from selling sponsored links in the footer. People always removing them.

    I think you could have took another route like contacting the theme creator and pay him/her so you can remove the links. You got to remember, there is always a catch with free. Now you gave everybody the tool to remove the links people paid for with their hard earn money.

    P.S. I am not mad. I am just speaking my mind on the business side of things.
    .-= Deneil Merritt´s last blog ..Breakups And Movies =-.

    • says

      @Deneil

      Thanks for the comment. I do feel a bit guilty, but at the same time, I think if they were up front about (like showing the links you would be getting in the demo), allowed you to modify the links, and didn’t include all of the encoded PHP, I might have felt a little differently.

      Especially the encoding… I think that’s what made me so determined to figure it out. I realize they are just trying to make it not so easy for people to remove the links, but at the same time, they could have also included goodness only knows what else in that code.

      I think everyone should at least know what is coded in their theme (hence the link to the decoder). All of my sites were hacked several months ago because of a one small encoded PHP script that came in a file in one of the image folders of something I downloaded.

      More than just wanting to help people remove sponsored links (which others have found simpler solutions around anyway) I just wanted to let people be aware that some free themes come with a catch, whether it be something seemingly innocent as sponsored links to something more malicious.

      ~ Kristi

  8. says

    I am no pro at this and certainly what I know has come from my husband.
    The designer coded in these ads thinking someone more like myself then someone with your intelligence on coding would use it and they can sit back and collect some money.
    (black hat comes to mind here)
    I may be off base on this but I would say from learning from my husband, is remove the code and give the designer credit.
    .-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Child Of The Cold War =-.

  9. says

    As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a free theme, especially if you put a value on your time.
    Here’s a case in point. Last week a friend called and wants to build a blog to help another friend in crisis. So I volunteered WordPress. I spent about two hours loading and activating themes. None of them quite suited her needs.
    Those of you who know me, know I am a big proponent of Thesis, which is a paid for theme. (kikolani uses Thesis) The money you spend on it will be made up by never having to waste hours and hours searching for a suitable theme.
    So back to my friend, after burning two hours doing the ‘free theme boogie’, I finally loaded up Thesis and used one of the many free skins available for Thesis and she was up and running with a robust, no bug, versatile theme so she could do what she wanted.
    > buying a car. If you are absolutely squeezed for cash, I would investigate one of the free themes originally published by Chris Pearson (he wrote Thesis) Check out Cutline and/or Copyblogger. (I think cutline is one of the all time favorite themes in use over at wordpress.com … and here comes some shameless promotion, you can pick up Thesis for a one time fee of $79. diythemes.net
    .-= Bryan´s last blog ..Deep Brain Diary =-.

  10. says

    Thank you for blogging this! It’s an issue I was unaware of and I definitely was going to go theme-hunting soon.

    I think your reasoning re: what you did was sound – the developers were less than upfront with you and there was a lot of shadiness involved. It’s great to have someone investigate these sorts of things, and at the very least, that’s what you were doing.
    .-= ashok´s last blog ..The Weakerthans, “Utilities” =-.

  11. mikhil says

    Who knows, even so called paid premium themes also carry malicious code. You simply will never come to know unless you are a genius programmer like the author of this post. And how many people read disclaimer before buying a premium theme. I am not favoring that free theme creator, who this author got theme from, all I want to say is that there is heaps of free, genuine and premium wordpress themes out there. You should not hold all of them guilty.

  12. says

    Kristi, I’ve a note for the base64 encoding; you can do it offline too by ‘Notepad ++’ editor from Plugins —> MIME Tools —>Base64 Encode / Base64Decode. On the other hand, I love to credit theme author by leaving a link for the site because they deserve it. Furthermore, in the example you provided, if the links are not relative, I do like you’ve done.
    .-= Hicham´s last blog ..Egypt under Cambyses II =-.

  13. says

    Thesis and Headway both force users of their “personal” paid options to leave the links back to them on every single page of their site. That’ like the “kiddy developer linking schemes” from 10 years ago with php scripts and “free website templates”. They are manipulating and taking advantage of people who don’t understand what is happening. Instead of paying newbie users for a link back they are making it illegal by law for them not to provide link backs. That’s unethical and immoral.
    .-= Mal Milligan´s last blog ..Trying Headway Themes – Not! =-.

  14. says

    @Mal Milligan — I disagree that the footer links from Thesis and Headway are “unethical and immoral.” First, they make it clear up front that this is the case and that for the personal or single user version you cannot remove the link. Nothing hidden or immoral there. If you don’t like having the link then don’t buy the personal version of the theme.

    Second if you really don’t like having the link to DIYThemes or to Headway but still really want to use one of these themes you can buy the Developers version where you can legally and easily remove the link. All very open, above board, clearly stated in advance and ethical.

    If a person does not take the time to fully explore the details provided by the Theme developer or educate themselves about what they are purchasing it isn’t the Theme developer’s fault.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Windows 7 – Eight Reasons You Will Want It =-.

  15. says

    I’ve got to agree with Mike regarding Mal’s contention of Thesis and Headway being unethical and immoral (very strong harsh words and used incorrectly and out of context, I might add).
    Whereas you may not agree with Headway/Thesis policies for usage, there is nothing immoral or unethical about it. It is a plainly stated condition of use which you may or may not agree with. I also fail to see how a plainly stated condition of use is considered manipulative behavior that takes unfair advantage of newbies.

    Brian Gardner develops very nice and popular premium themes as well, and he does not allow you to remove his attributions even after you pay for his theme. Still, he is upfront about it and you are free to choose whether to use his product or not.

    All three of these above mentioned themes are very popular and each of the developers is held in high esteem in the WordPress community. So to call what they are doing linking schemes and to accuse them of manipulation, taking advantage of newbies, or immoral is disingenuous at best.

    In the case of the theme that started this thread and discussion, they have employed very deceptive tactics by hiding extraneous code in their footer. If it is not removed correctly, the theme breaks. I’m rather handy with php and still, I could not figure out how to remove the footer, (kudos to kikolani for her adeptness).

    This theme is what I would call unethical and full of manipulation for unsuspecting users. When you agree to their terms, you have no control or knowledge whatsoever over what link they may choose to display. I can just imagine some church group using this, and wouldn’t it be an embarrassment when they see advertisements for Male enhancement formulas on their blog. (btw, this is a real life example that happened to me just last week, only it was for Free Credit Report and something about working moms)

    I would be very apprehensive using this theme because of if they will do this, what other hidden code is lurking that hasn’t been found yet.
    .-= Bryan´s last blog ..Blogussion =-.

  16. says

    I think “sponsoring themes” in this manner is relatively new; past year or two? And yes, it would make a lot more sense if they could niche it – make a theme perfect for someone with a credit card sie and have credit card links for example.

    You’re quite right, “:invisible links” as hey are called, are a HUGE no no to Google. This is an old fashioned black hatters trick.

    Thanks for the decoder. ;)
    .-= Dennis Edell´s last blog ..IS An Advertising Page Really A Good Idea? An Interesting Opposing View… =-.

  17. Mrinmay Bhattacharjee (mrintech) says

    Yes! You are absolutely correct. Now a days many sites gives Free Premium Themes only under one condition: “Don’t remove the Credits present in the Blog Footer/Sidebar, as it’s released under GPL”

    The best way is:

    1. Not to use such themes at all
    2. Using rel=”nofollow” attribute

    Thanks!

  18. says

    Nice catch. Seems to be the problem with many free themes, and most likely thousands of people are using these without realizing the consequences. Security can be an issue as well, a friend of mine recently ditched his free theme after realizing he was hacked, due to poor coding.
    .-= Savory Tv´s last blog ..How to Brine a Turkey =-.

  19. says

    That is a frustrating situation for sure. Normally I wouldn’t care much about what they put at the bottom of the page but as you mentioned you never know how Google may react to the outbound links. What confuses me is that the page designers are hoping to get some link juice over time from their theme but they are not thinking about who may use the theme? What if many of the users become shady sites in Google’s eyes- this ends up being counterproductive for the theme designers and their mission to get link juice.

  20. says

    I am not shocked to see the result. I have tried many free themes and later I realized that it is good to make your own theme if you have enough coding knowledge or money in the pocket.
    This is a usual case when somebody downloads illegal themes (paid theme from file sharing service like rapidshare) from file sharing service. It is best to download the theme from author’s website or trusted website only. Thank you for the insight.
    .-= Ricky ´s last blog ..Get Google Alerts Of Your Favorite Tweets According To The Keyword(s) =-.

  21. says

    I think it’s becoming more and more common place. I came across something similar the other day, having never encountered it up until then. Glad you found a way round it and gave everyone a few hints on how to solve it themselves should they need to.

  22. says

    I would not feel guilty about the modifications. There is no telling what kind of intent the author actually had with that hidden code.

    The fact that it would hijack your whole site when the links were removed or modified implies to me that the intent was not good.

    Either way there should have been disclosure about the links and the encoding.
    .-= Keith@Norman Rockwell Art´s last blog ..Nov 22, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, is home to Norman Rockwell painting =-.

  23. says

    I came across something similar to this awhile back, and I didn’t feel guilty at all about removing the links. Having said that I decided later that the theme was no longer for me, as why should I send credit to the creator, I left that link in, when he had tried something so sneaky. He should have left it on the demo site so that people knew what they were getting.
    .-= Sire´s last blog ..Why I No Longer Link To The Likes Of ProBlogger And John Chow =-.

  24. says

    Heheheheheh! I like it! Most people go for free themes because they’re newbs and don’t know too much about coding, which is the luxury a theme offers. They’ll never be able to muster the technical expertise to tweak things like this themselves, and ultimately the links will remain or they’ll try something else. This is a sneaky linkbulding technique. and is only fair that someone with greater technical acumen can delete the offending code that was misrepresented in the first instance.

  25. says

    I have only ever used the themes that come with the basic WordPress installation. They don’t appear to have any underhand tactics to promote things you don’t want to promote. Your description of what you did to overcome the problem is very comprehensive, but it might be better to steer clear of some of these sites with themes. I have used one for my freebies search engine which will quickly find what you are looking for (and some other stuff that you didn’t realise you were looking for!).
    .-= New from darren Super deal =-.

  26. says

    I know free is not always good and there is always a catch. But I love to help my readers with the free things. I am using free theme for my blog. I hope to buy a paid one soon. I can change the css if I want to. But I don’t like to play with the free themes anymore. You can get plenty of paid themes in warez sites. The thing I did is- only make smaller the footer links and make it invisible by matching its color with the background. 1px link with matching color -How could you see that? It’s easy for the newbies. Don’t think as they can’t do nothing @Jaq . Please show some respect. Free is not always bad. Someday you were newbie too. Thanks to all the comments here.
    D.J.Rony just posted Web is my second home

  27. says

    When I first started with WordPress last year, my first free theme had suspicious looking links in the footer. Even with no experience whatsoever, I was quite certain that those links were more like ads than theme credits. When I went into the footer.php file to try to delete it, I was completely puzzled when I was faced with a jumble of random characters.

    I have no problem giving credit to the theme designers as they deserve it for their hard work, but if they throw in sponsored links, I delete the theme and look for another one.

    It’s a good lesson for everyone about free themes. Some designers can get sneaky.

    Brian
    Brian just posted TechAirlines is Now DoFollow

  28. says

    Kristi, this is a great article, but it is also a really scary one for users of free themes. Many people use free themes because they do not have the skills to create or customize on their own. These are also the same people who might not be aware of the dangers that malicious coding could represent. A great cautionary tale!
    Glinda Harrison just posted Is Indiana Social Media Going to the Dogs

  29. says

    Free WP themes have come a long way. A lot of them actually do offer some great features and design. However, I think that if you want to really kick your site up a level you might need to switch to a premium theme.