Vanishing money from WordPress and how their “happiness engineers” didn’t care.

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Op-Ed by Stan Morris | NEA Report

Imagine putting in one of your best months at work. You’ve delivered major results, your boss is proud of you, and you feel good for working hard because you’re going to get paid extra. Then, when you look at your paystub, you gasp: it’s two-percent of your last check.

If you’re planning on using WordPress to create original content and want to use the WordAds system, you should be prepared for this experience.

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NEA Report is a local news outlet in Jonesboro, Arkansas with over 28,000 followers on Facebook alone in less than three years. It is a small business that relies on every source of income to operate and one of those sources is WordAds – the automated advertising program by the parent company of WordPress (Automattic). WordPress is the platform we use to write news stories on (NEAReport.com is a WordPress site).

Since last June, we’ve used WordAds to assist in generating revenue, especially following concentrated effort by a number of detractors to target our advertisers. We immediately noticed our site was plagued with advertising redirects – the annoying issues which cause you to leave the story, end up on another website entirely, and tell you that you’ve won a gift card. We tried to work with WordPress to fix these issues as much as we could but we still receive complaints about this problem, present day.

Although these inconveniences were annoying, WordAds generated several hundred dollars a month. It wasn’t much on most months when you see how many impressions we delivered but at least it helped by paying the electric bill, if we were lucky.

Then, December’s numbers came in. It was a big month for NEA Report. Over 450,000 impressions were delivered to our readers, representing hundreds of hours of work creating local news content. And what did we get paid for it?

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$5.32

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We don’t make a lot for doing this but even our breadcrumbs have been taken.

With no explanation, we found our ad revenue reduced to a single-digit percentage point of what it was the prior month. What should have been close to $275 was $5.

NEA Report contacted WordPress on Friday morning to inquire why.

At about 5 AM, we chatted with Paul J. He said he would inquire why this happened specifically but couldn’t tell us a reason. Even after we showed him the above example, he sent us a list of possible reasons in the email which cited how many people visited the website and how many were served ads. He said he was still looking into it but we never heard from Paul again.

The second “happiness engineer” we were contacted by was Eric M. At 3:34 PM, he emailed stating that ads served don’t always mean the ad was actually served and that traffic numbers alone aren’t an indicator. I began to notice a trend which was to explain, in the vaguest terms, why the revenue drop happened.

Eric writes that, “For example, a post with a title like this, while not violent in and of itself, may still cause advertisers to be less inclined to bid on ad space.”

His link was to the story NEA Report published which was a press release from JPD about an armed robbery of a family. The headline was that, “Masked suspects “held a gun to a child’s head.” However, Eric stated this was merely an example. He never provided any answers and concluded his correspondance with this.

“I can understand that this might not have been the answer you were looking for, but hopefully it sheds a bit more light on the issue. You’re welcome to let us know if you have further lingering questions. All the best with your site and advertising efforts!”

We replied and stated that we appreciated the help but we needed specific answers and not examples.

I’m waiting for the explanation as to why my website was paid a tiny fraction for ads. I don’t want you to tell me what may have happened. I want to know why.

At 6:31 PM, Jordan, the third “happiness engineer,” replied.

I can definitely understand your concern surrounding that change.

The reason Eric was only able to tell you what might have happened comes down to the fact that Advertisers choose to bid on the advertising spaces based on their own set of decision making. We have no control over that bidding process and what might be affecting their decisions.

We are also 100% confident in the ad system and in the reporting of those figures. They come directly from the Ad servers themselves – it’s the reason we endeavor to be so transparent with our figures and reporting.

Yet again, another response from a customer service agent neglected to answer our simple question. Why? Once again, we wrote back.

I understand and I appreciate your reply and your work. Right now, I only want to know what happened on my case.

Are you guys still looking for the answer?

The fourth staff member we exchanged emails with was Edwin.

Eric has put up a well-elaborated response from earlier. To emphasize on the description, post titles like Masked suspects “held a gun to a child’s head” (#) can trigger unnecessary attention as it appears as “shocking” content, and can be flagged for advertisers to deny serving ads that require sites to be on “family-friendly” content.

I hope this sufficient!

Clearly, it was not sufficient. It was very important to know the root cause of this issue so that we didn’t lose out on revenue again in the future. Why was this so difficult to understand for these employees?

I replied, losing patience, and asked Edwin if he had a reading comprehension issue. I once again stated the question.

A fifth staff member, Chris D., responded. He warned me to remain civil or they would end the email exchanges. He also said that Eric and Edwin were both correct.

I have reviewed the case in full and can confirm that the information provided by Eric and Edwin is all correct.

After investigating the issue with our ads team, it was brought to our attention that the “shocking” nature of the post title, as noted by Edwin, has consequently resulted in a lower income for the month.

This is where things become confusing. What Eric had provided as an example is now what Chris D. states is the EXACT CAUSE of the “lower income for the month” of December. Logically, this must have been an incredibly lucky guess for Eric to give the example that turned out to be WordAds reason for blocking the money we earned in December. Right? Wrong.

Because the article was published on January 17.

I wrote back explaining this.

“You’re aware the penalty you’ve referenced applied to a payout from the month before. Right?” I asked.

We soon received a reply from the sixth “happiness engineer,” who was also the second: Eric M.

“Thanks for pointing that out. However, a post from a previous month can still cause a flag that affects future months,” Eric M. replied, ignoring my statement completely which pointed out that somehow, my content in the future was affecting my payouts in the past. 

As noted in our FAQ – https://wordads.co/faq/

Do not post content that is not “Family Safe” – Chris D. 

No where in the FAQ document does it say that earnings may be arbitrarily withheld because of content produced either in that calendar month or sometime at a later date, as in this case. Not only that, but this content was a press release from Jonesboro Police Department about a family being robbed with the intent and effort being to help catch a criminal that made a family unsafe!

Eric explained that this was not a penalty from WordPress.com. Rather, this was because in December third-party advertisers had somehow been able to see into the future and know that on January 17, we would publish a shocking headline.

Really.

“But again, this isn’t a penalty imposed on you by WordPress.com,” Eric M. wrote. “Third party advertisers have the full say in what they’re gong to bid on your site, so that can fluctuate over time, and possibly in a positive direction down the line.”

WordPress is not providing clear answers and it is obvious here how frustrating customer support can be, as many often find in a 2019 tech-dependent society. While only about $275 of estimated money was lost for December, our traffic for January was 400% higher than December. It would have been over $1,000.

With the way it looks now, we will be lucky to get paid $10.

It isn’t the end of the world or the end of NEAReport.com. At this rate, it will only be the end of our relationship with WordPress and those annoying ads. We’re very fortunate to be sponsored by a number of wonderful local businesses who enjoy getting hundreds of thousands of impressions each month from local readers on their brand.

In the meantime, I’ve forwarded the details of Wednesday’s bizarre exchange to legal counsel. If we learn anything new, I’ll also update this story.

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1 Comment

  1. I read you local coverage and appreciate what you are doing, If word press doesn’t care about what you do , loose them.
    Bruce Smith

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