Interview of Matt Mullenweg of Wordpress and Automattic Fame

Sep 9th
posted in

I recently asked Matt Mullenweg if he would be up for doing an interview via email. He said sure, and here are his answers to the best questions I could come up with. Thanks again for doing the interview Matt!

How did you get into web programming? What made you decide to start working on WordPress?
I had started off pretty badly with Frontpage and Dreamweaver. Later I started to use things like guestbooks and forum scripts and light modifications of those for sites I was working on. The breakthrough for me personally, though, was a book called Mastering Regular Expressions from O'Reilly which inspired me to start writing my first code from scratch.

I think my first code contribution to any Open Source project was a set of regular expressions that would "curl" quotes to make them typographically correct, and it was accepted into the b2 system.

Did any early setbacks make you want to quit the WordPress project? If so, how did you work through them?
Since I was just doing it for fun and my own personal usage there were never any problems that were *that* big a deal. There were plenty of times that were tough around security problems, spam links, or community splits, but most ended up being learning opportunities.

When did you know that WordPress was going to work out?
When Zeldman switched.

How did you get beyond wanting to do everything yourself?
That's a tough one - I'm a perfectionist. I think it was that I eventually met folks who were as passionate as I was about the product and were clearly more competent. I think you have to know someone is better than you at something before you can truly let go.

One of the things that blew me away at Elite Retreat was how deeply you grasped the web. Who were some of the major influences in shaping how you perceive the web? What are some key articles and books that you think programmers and marketers should read?
Books:

Links:

Do you think the strategy of "I'm happy to ship a crude version 1.0 and iterate. I find my time is more effective post-launch than pre-launch." applies to bloggers and content producers as well as software producers?
Not as much - for an individual atom of content you don't have ongoing usage, you have a single chance to make an impression on someone. For a site as a whole the iterate approach is good, but for a given post or article give it your all.

At Elite Retreat you mentioned the concept of a "personal newspaper." What does that phrase mean to you, and do you see that concept spreading far and wide as the web ages?
I think Google Reader has the best chance of doing this. Basically there is a ton of interaction data I produce every day about what I read, how long I spend on different types of content, what I buy and gadgets I own, what topics I'm actually interested in, what topics I aspire to be interested in... There's no reason all of this couldn't be used as a filter on the torrent of news and information available every single day.

Blogging has become perhaps the leading information distribution format online. Have you been surprised by the growth of blogging? Do you envision blogs leading onling publishing for a long time? What other formats could gain significant traction?
I was pretty surprised by the growth of blogging, so I'm not going to attempt to make predictions about other formats I know even less about. :)

During past interviews you mentioned that you liked to "stay small while creating a lot of value." With powerful open source software tools & large community sites that may be possible, but what lessons should traditional niche service based business models and publishers take from successful open source software programs like Wordpress.org and communities like Wordpress.com and apply to their businesses?
I think one of the most important lessons is that you have to let go and let the community or your customers guide your direction, bet it around development, pricing, or direction. The extent WordPress has been successful thus far is directly correlated to our responsiveness to our users.

At Elite Retreat you mentioned a meta tag change that dipped the traffic to Wordpress.com. What happened and how long did it take to figure out what happened? How long did it take traffic to recover?
We had changed the meta description on permalink pages to basically be an excerpt from the post. This was less effective in SERPs than Google's auto-generated excerpt and so traffic dipped as a result. It probably took a month or so to figure it out, but traffic came back pretty quickly after we reverted the change.

Wordpress.com is one of the leading user generated content sites on the web. What are some of the leading strategies you have used to entice quality content creation? What strategies are key to detering the creation of spam?
Well one thing that has certainly helped is the lack of user ads, which removes people's direct financial incentive to create content purely for Adsense. Second I would say we take a very proactive in watching out for people trying to take advantage of the system to spam or drive traffic back to other sites inorganically.

Akismet says that 89% of comments are spam. Have you been surpised by the growth of comment spam? What seems to be driving the logarithmic growth of comment spam?
I think comment spam growth has mirrored what happened in the email world, and will probably continue to. The growth seems to be related to the low cost to spammers of just flooding everyone.

Someone used an automated bot to register an account on my site and post a contextually relevant comment about splogs being a problem. They then referenced a post on their blog, which was stolen as their blog was a splog. That splog had 60 subscribers on Feedburner! I have also caught a comment bot sequence that conversed with itself on one of my blogs. As spam gets more sophisticated will central systems like Askimet become more powerful?
I sure hope so. :)

I imagine that comment spamming on MA.TT is a quick way to get into Askimet. As online marketing gets harder some people are willing to do negative marketing for competitors. What steps can brands take to help prevent being listed as a spammer if someone else tries to ruin their reputation?
Akismet is pretty sophisticated and can usually detect that type of bowling, but of course if there is ever a persistent problem you can contact Akismet support 24/7 on the site.

At points in time I think many bloggers hated SEOs (probably for associating the field of SEO with all the comment spam they got every day). What do you think of the field of SEO? Does Wordpress employ key SEO strategies by default, and what modifications, if any, do you recommend?
I'm conflicted - on one hand there are certain things you can do to make your site more accessible to search engines that should be a baseline that everyone does but on the other hand search engines are just trying to deliver the best results to their users, so if you just focus on users and their experience the search engine should be able to figure out you're the canonical resource for a given topic over time.

WordPress' SEO I think is largely the result of focusing on other goals that also happen to have SEO benefits, like well-structured semantic markup, sane URL structures, meaningful title tags, and such. That said, people far more experienced with SEO than me have lots of suggestions of things we could do better and we listen to those closely. Ideally I think it's something WordPress users should never need to think about.

I imagine that many of the comment spammers have to be targeting high value keywords and niches. Have you ever thought about opening up some of the Askimet spam data to create a great keyword research tool? Doing that adds some opportunity cost and might dis-incentivize some of the comment spamming.
Nope.

You probably would be disappointed in me for this, but I had a number of Wordpress blogs where I have not updated the CMS in years. About a week ago one of my blogs got hacked where someone added spammy credit card links to it. I was surprised with how easy it was to upgrade Wordpress. Do you forsee Wordpress.org ever doing automated updates? If someone gets hacked and temporarily removed from Google what are the quickest ways they can find out what went wrong and where the spam is?
We're working on making updated easier than it is today, and a number of web hosts have already integrated tools that make upgrading a one-click procedure just like installs are.

I've heard from people that were removed from Google that contacting their support or webmaster tools describing what happened is a pretty good way to get re-included in the index. They understand that this new wave of SEO hackers is pretty malicious and it's not your fault.

If there was no Wordpress and you were starting from scratch on the web today what areas would you focus on? Where would you start?
An email client or a cloud-synced desktop text editor.

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Thanks Matt! Check out Ma.tt to read more of Matt's stories, see his photo galleries, and keep up with Matt's latest travels.

Published: September 9, 2008

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Comments

September 9, 2008 - 11:19am

I am a strong advocate of Wordpress for the built in SEO benefits that it offers, the pinging, the semantic markup, the easy to install widgets and easy updates.

I can see blogging as the publisher tool that will stay around for a long time to come, i have tried quite a few blogging platforms including Blogger, Wordpress and even flat file driven cms`s but the most functionality and ease of use has come from Wordpress.

Once we can squish the commenting spam and filter he good blogs from he bad, we should get back to a level playing field but i suspect new techniques will have reared their ugly head by he tme that day comes along.

September 9, 2008 - 2:34pm

Awesome interview Aaron!

September 10, 2008 - 1:35pm

I love WordPress more and more every day. Thanks for the interview.

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