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:
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:
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:
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.
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.