With that said, this article will address the issues with sponsored links in WordPress themes and give a technique to remove the encrypted code in the footer without messing up the theme. A few months ago, a visitor left a comment on one of the WordPress themes called "Kindergarten" in relation to the license and encrypted footer links contained in the theme. It was mentioned that the encrypted code presents a security concern, because malicious code could be included with the theme and there is no way to audit for it.
Themebot has been aware for a long time that WordPress theme designers often encrypt the sponsored links at the bottom of the WordPress themes they add. This wasn't the first time somebody complained about this, and it brought to mind the possibility of disallowing themes that contain encryption. Some sites that provide directories for free WordPress themes do not allow themes to be listed if they use encryption, and the free themes directory on WordPress.org doesn't even allow themes with sponsored links at all. However, this is not the best solution, because there are a lot of high quality themes that have sponsored / encrypted links. Instead of prohibiting members from uploading such themes and removing all of the existing themes with encryption, Themebot decided it would be better to write an article explaining why it is a bad idea to use these themes along with a tutorial outlining an easy method to remove the encrypted code. This way your selection of themes is not limited and it is up to you to decide whether or not to use such a theme. You will also have the tools to take care of the encrypted code if so desired.
First, it is important to understand why sponsored links are harmful and you should keep reading if you are considering using a WordPress theme that has encrypted links. If you would like to just skip ahead to the method for removing encrypted links, click here.
If you are starting a new blog or already maintain a blog you obviously want people to visit the website. One of the best ways to gain traffic is through organic search results. When you write quality content, you should be rewarded with good search engine performance, whether or not you even know anything about SEO. The problem is that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is not something that everyone has taken the time to learn, and you could be harming your search engine results performance (SERPS) by using a WordPress Theme that includes sponsored links.
Since Google is by far the dominant search engine, they will used as the example in this article. Google uses links to determine the relevancy of websites and pages in relation to the content and keywords used. If you link to another website from your blog, Google inteprets this as a vote of confidence and will adjust the search results so that the page that was linked to performs better in searches when somebody does a related search. Obviously, this can be manipulated. If Google detects artificial manipulation of pagerank, it can be damaging to the SERPS for both the website which contains the innappropriate links, as well as the websites that are being linked to.
When you use a WordPress theme that contains unrelated, low quality links to other websites in the footer you are putting your SEO at risk. First of all, the links are at the bottom of every single page of your blog. This could be interpreted as spam and will most likely result in a performance penalty or even having your website banned completely from search results.
If you take a look at the WordPress theme previously mentioned, there are a total of four sponsored links at the bottom:
Two of the links are completely irrelevant to the topic of the theme. The other two links are relevant, but only one of the links actually leads to a decent quality website. So, there are three junk links in the footer. And, the "Designed by" link doesn't even go to the actual web designer's website, it is a sponsored link and thus a lie.
There is nothing wrong with a legitimate link back to the web designer's website. One link in the footer giving credit to the web designer who actually created the theme is completely appropriate and will not cause a penalty for either the blog owner or the web designer. But, when there are four global footer links (three of which are poor quality links) it is likely to raise a red flag with Google et al. Therefore, these links should either be removed or the theme should not be used.
This is very clear cut issue. Sponsored WordPress footer links are paid text links. If you are using paid links to artificially boost the Pagerank of your website, you are violating Google's quality guidelines for webmasters / site owners. Google and other search engines strive to deliver quality search results. Anyone can pay for a link and thus paid links are not a good indicator of quality. Websites that buy text links for this purpose are likely to be penalized or banned. It is only a matter of time before Google finds out and it is not worth the risk. I can't believe people are still sponsoring footer links in WordPress themes, because they are shooting their SEO in the foot.
Several months ago, I was contacted by a theme designer who's website had been completely banned because of the links they put in their theme. She had contacted Google through webmaster tools to find out why and then contacted Themebot to request that the theme be replaced with a clean version. Whether you are the theme designer or you are purchasing footer links, if your website gets banned just imagine how difficult it would be to track down all of the websites hosting the problematic theme(s) for download, all of the the blogs that are using the theme(s) and then requesting that the links be removed. It is probably easier to just start over with a new domain, definitely not worth the risk. And, if you paid money to have your links sponsored, it is a double loss.
Obviously, if you are including a link to your own website along with the sponsored links, you are at risk of having your website flagged. As mentioned earlier, it is perfectly legitimate to link to your own website for design credit and this will help your pagerank. Perhaps two quality footer links are not going to raise any flags, but nobody knows the magic Google formula and the more links there are in the footer, the more it increases the chances of invoking an SEO penalty. Really, the best strategy is to just link to your own website and provide quality web design for clients or have another way to monetize the traffic. Selling sponsored links is bound to become obsolete in the future as more people wise-up to the fact that they are actually damaging their SEO by sponsoring themes. If you are depending on selling links for income, it would be a smart move to actually have a website with a web design portfolio and start building pagerank to that.
The chances that encrypted sections in WordPress themes contain malicious code are very slim. The reason why theme designers use encryption is because it is a selling point for potential theme sponsors. It is more difficult to remove the links when they are encrypted and most people won't bother trying to figure out how. People who sponsor themes are more willing to pay for the links since they are seemingly difficult to remove (too bad for them that there is a an easy way to get rid of the encrypted links). But, you never know what someone's intentions are and it is difficult to determine if there is malicious code present when encryption is used. If a theme contains encrypted code, it is in everyone's best interest to remove the encrypted section. If the license prohibits doing this, use another theme.
Themes that are licensed GNU/GPL or Free do not have restrictions in relation to modifying the code. You can modify the code as much as you want. However, some themes are released with the GNU/GPL license or as Free but they contain a copyright notice above the encrypted code that looks something like this:
My understanding of this issue is that the theme was released under a license which allows you to modify the code that comprises the theme. Since the license governs all of the files within the theme, this could be interpreted to mean that the code used to display the copyright notice can also be modified or removed. So, get rid of it.
For themes released with a license that requires attribution, this gets a little trickier. Going back to the example theme we looked at earlier for bad WordPress sponsored links, it was determined that all four of the links don't have anything to do with the actual author of the theme. Most likely, the author is mentioned in the style.css file under Author URI. Sure enough, the Author URI for the Kindergarten theme is http://www.wpskins.org, which is completely different from the credit links in the footer. Since none of the links provide attribution, they can all be removed. Now, if a link to the actual author's website is mixed in with the other links for the footer, the sponsored links could be removed but the author's link would have to stay intact to be in accord with the license.
WordPress is free software, licensed under GNU/GPL. Anyone can download and even modify the code for WordPress to suit their needs and they can do so without having to pay anything. Many people have volunteered countless hours to make WordPress the high-quality software it is today. It is understandable if theme designers want to receive credit for having spent time working on a WordPress theme and release it with an attribition required license, even though this is more restrictive than the GNU/GPL license. There is no problem with asking for a link in exchange for your hardwork. However, encrypting footer links for spammy sponsor websites that had nothing to do with the design of the theme and then putting a restrictive copyright warning above the encrypted code in the footer is just plain wrong. If you are doing this, profiting off of the hard work of the WordPress team and you haven't even made a donation to WordPress, you suck! Not only do you suck, you also deserve to have any legitimate links to your own website removed as well, if your website hasn't already been banned from search results.
Now that most if not all of the issues related to sponsored WordPress themes and encryption have been discussed, let's get to the method for removing the links. First, log in to the admin area for your WordPress blog. After having activated the WordPress theme you want to use, click the editor link under Appearance in the left column.
You will then see the Theme Files listed. If you click on the Footer (footer.php), you will see the encrypted code, which looks like a bunch of gibberish.
Now click on Main Index Template (index.php). This is the main file use to compile all of the separate files used in a WordPress theme. We are looking for the bit of code that calls the footer file. If you are using Firefox as your browser, this is very easy to do. Simply press Ctrl F to open the Find box at the bottom of the browser. Then, paste this into the box:
Firefox will take you right to the code. You can also use the find function in other browsers but it is not as convenient.
Now that you have located the code for calling the footer file, you need to surround this in something that will allow you to find that section of the website when viewing the source code for the live site. To do this, we add two lines above and below the footer code:
Paste those two bits of code above and below the footer code and click the Update File button. Your Main Index Template should look like this:
With that done, open the homepage for your blog in a new browser window. If you are using Firefox, the keyboard shortcut is Ctrl U to view the the source code for your blog. Again, press Ctrl F to open the Find box. Paste in "ThemebotFooterFinderTop" and Firefox will take you to the beginning of the actual code used for the footer. Now, highlight everything between <!--ThemebotFooterFinderTop--> and <!--ThemebotFooterFinderBottom--> and press Ctrl C to copy the code.
Go back to your WordPress admin window and click on the link to edit the Footer (footer.php) file.
Select all of the code in the Footer, this can be done by pressing Ctrl A. With the crappy encrypted code selected, just press Ctrl V to paste in the code you copied from the source code page. Now you can go through and remove any links that shouldn't be there without screwing up the theme. For example, you could start by removing this one from the Kindergarten theme:
Remove all inappropriate links but do not remove the link to the Author's website, if the actual author is listed. Check the Stylesheet (style.css) file for Author URI, which will list the actual author if this info was entered properly. After you have removed the lame links, press the Update File button and you are done. No more links harming your SEO and no more potentially malicious code lurking behind encryption!