beware of the man in the black hat

Beware the Black Hat template developer

Recently I have taken on some new work with an awesome little graphic design/branding house. They are great people and I'm really looking forward to working with them.

Previously they used their own in house employee for web work. The employee was a good person but probably lacked some real web skills and was at times out of his depth in regards to building sites with Joomla, which he used exclusively for all sites.

I was amazed to see that all the previous work done by this cool and funky design house were all completed using commercial templates and hence starts my first little "rant".

I've had the very good fortune of being involved in Joomla since it's beginning and building websites since about 1996. As such I've got some "runs on the board".

What I learned really early on in my Joomla transition, was how to do my own templates. To me it just makes sense that if I want to be taken seriously and if I want to give my clients the best possible site I can, then I should take the time and care to design a custom template just for them and their site.

Now, this has not always been the case and I FULLY understand the need for high quality (more on that later) commercially available Joomla Templates. But for me, using stock templates with a stock Joomla install, with the stock sample content, is the definition of "cookie cutting". Joomla web developers and site builders often get a bad rap in the professional web community, for being just cookie cutters... the above demonstrates perhaps where they get that perception and probably justifiable.

So when I see seemingly professional web builders/designers using "purchased" templates I'm just staggered. Many of them will tell us that "but I customise it".
Now once again I'm all for reusing code, hell it's what open source is all about right? But to me in the vast majority of cases, this would appear to just simply be laziness and or cost cutting.

Often if I'm brought onto a site post build and if I find a commercial template I'll often find the template makers "demo content" in there... so often the categories are all jumbled, there are a bunch of modules that are never used etc etc. In these circumstances it's often better for me to just rebuild the template from scratch.

Many commercial templates are much bigger than they need to be, this is often the result of the makers trying to provide as many color/layout options as possible. This naturally results in sometimes way too many CSS and Javascript files being loaded without reason.

Again... I'm not having a dig at the template builders, they are providing a genuine service (and many times a very good one) for people who are perhaps just building their own personal site.

But for a web developer who is charging good money to go an use an "off the shelf" template puts them at the bottom of the heap in my opinion.

I would like to think I'm not alone in my quest to raise the professionalism of Joomla site builders. But sadly just like when digital SLR cameras first started coming on the market, where anyone with $2000 to spend could call themselves a photographer, so too is the case that many people can call themselves a Web design professional just because they can install Joomla and whack in a pretty template from "insert template makers name here".

Just the same way that the onslaught of offshore cheap web labour has actually allowed me to stand out from the crowd more than ever, by hopefully producing a superior product (and allowing me to charge more for my work), so too is the case that these web studios that DO NOT produce their own templates, make me look even better... so I thank them!

BUT!.... there's another hidden element to all of this, that is in my opinion capable of causing serious damage to the open source community and consequently to me also and this is what my rant is all about.

Recently I was looking through one of these new sites I was now managing and or completing for the web studio I am now building sites for.
As I will often do, I just opened up the HTML override files (to see what nice little layout items I can find) and also the index.php file.

As my eyes scanned down I could see all the normal stuff... header modules, navigation, search showcase module, system message, component output, sneaky little blackhat link back to the template maker, footer modules.... hang on a minute!

Right in the middle of the template I saw the following code immediately below the standard joomla component call
<?php echo $copy; ?>

What is that I thought? So after a bit more snooping around, I find tucked away in a php file inside a "lib" folder of the template, this piece of code "

$copy='<div style="position:absolute;top:0;left:-9999px;"><a href="http://www.joomspirit.com" title="joomla template">joomla template</a></div>';".

This is a direct back link to the template maker "JoomSpirit". They are clearly trying to get some link juice to improve their google ranking. Oh and guess who is #1 world wide on Google for the search term "joomla template". At the time of writing this the above template maker was ranking #1.

So, there it is... a hidden backlink to the template maker. This back link is not obvious, it's deliberately hidden by using a text indent of -9999px. Therefore they can only be attempting to hide it from your view but still there for search bots. They have also not given some form of easy method of removing this and further from what I can tell, they don't mention in their terms of service that they are doing this.

Now Google's rules in regards to back links are very specific, that is that you should not hide links from view, but leave them there for a googlebot. Further to this, google's definition of what LINK SPAM is, specifically refers to the above practice of hiding links as something that should be avoided.

The thing is, even if this practice can somehow be justified... it's just not right.

I get this horrible feeling inside when I see this stuff. It's just plain dodgy.

This practice is another version of Black Hat SEO practices. In my opinion it's no different to link farms and paid low quality back links. But most importantly, it shows what can and does happen within certain types of commercial and free templates.

The moral of this story is hopefully to be aware of the fact that you should know what is in your site! I remember watching an awesome presentation by a guy name Brian somethingorother and the main theme I got from it, was to only have on your site what you want to be there.

Call it what you like, but Black Hat SEO practices are doing the whole industry damage. The only true way forward for SEO is quality ORGANIC results.

Be aware of this style of template. Be aware of JoomSpirit templates of any sort, because what I've described above, is only what I've found. If they have done this, what else have they done?

I've chosen to name the maker here after repeated attempts of contact in a bid to get them to explain themselves, but to no avail.

 

This is a guest blog post by Norm Douglas of TeachingJoomla.com, Melbourne Australia

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