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February 18th, 2016

‘Opinion Stage’ Plugin Sneaks Ads onto WordPress Sites

Publishers of WordPress sites using the ‘Poll, Quiz & List by OpinionStage’ plugin, might want to check for unexpected advertisements.

FOSS Force has learned that the popular WordPress plugin “Poll, Quiz & List by OpinionStage” has been placing advertisements within photographs included in online quizzes that have been created using the plugin. The plugin is used by over 10,000 WordPress sites to create quizzes, polls and list articles.

Publishers using the plugin are not being made aware that ads are being placed on their sites unless, perhaps, they visit the plugin developers’ website and go to the “Pricing” page, where the developers say information about the policy is available. I say “perhaps” because we have been unable to find any such notice on this page. We discovered the issue on Sunday when considering whether to manually migrate the single FOSS Force Quiz created using the plugin to another quiz app we’ve since adopted as our default.

Advertisement from "opinion stage" in graphic.

Screenshot of a poll question using Opinion Stage’s plugin with advertisement at bottom of the graphic associated with the question.

We’d initially looked at Opinion Stage’s plugin and used it for one poll after the polling app we’ve used for several years quit working well on our site following a recent upgrade. After the tryout, we decided to find another solution as the plugin utilizes an off-site server, which posed a problem for us as we wouldn’t be able to easily archive our polls or their results, and because the poll couldn’t be seen by visitors who are blocking ads. This offsite component also wasn’t made clear on the plugin’s WordPress page.

While we had it installed, however, we decided to give it’s quizmaking feature a try. We’d never run a quiz on FOSS Force before and thought it might be fun to give one a try. The quiz was such a success, however, that we decided to continue offering the occasional quiz, and found another solution for creating quizzes that runs entirely on our site.

Other than the off-site aspect, we had no problems with the plugin, it just didn’t suit our purposes. The people at Opinion Stage quickly, politely and thoroughly answered the single technical support issue we had when we were giving the plugin a try — which isn’t always the case in the world of WordPress plugins. We also found the creation of both polls and quizzes to be reasonably straightforward. Also, no ads appeared in the graphics we used for the quiz, either when we were creating the quiz nor during the first week or two that the quiz was online.

Last Sunday, we returned to the quiz we’d created using Opinion Stage’s app, seeking to determine whether to go about the tedious task of manually migrating it to our new quiz app or just let it be for the time being. We were surprised to find advertisements appearing at the bottom of every graphic in the quiz.

Opinion Stage advertisement in plugin graphic.

A screen shot of the opening page of a quiz created using a WordPress plugin from Opinion Stage, with an advertisement appearing at he bottom of the graphic.

At this point, the first thing I did was to check the plugin’s description on WordPress, to see if we’d missed the fact that the plugin would be “ad supported,” because if we’d initially seen such a notice, we wouldn’t have considered the plugin from the get-go. There was no such notice. The next thing I did was spend an hour or so copying and pasting, to move the quiz from Opinion Stage and onto our local quiz app. Next, I went to the Opinion Stage website and fired off a response using the site’s support chat function.

conversation with Opinion Stage“So you’re running ads on our site,” I wrote. “Nowhere on your WordPress plugin page do you mention that you’re going to monetize your plugin by running advertising.”

As already mentioned, Opinion Stages customer service is good and I received an answer within eight minutes.

“Hi, what plan are you on?” The answer came from Assaf Parag, one of the two founders of Opinion Stage. “Ads shouldn’t be running on your polls, can you send a link so we can check? BTW, the issue with links you reported about should have been resolved, best, Assaf.”

That last was a reference to the support question we’d had when we were first testing the plugin. Again, good customer support.

However, his answer about the ads didn’t set well with me, mainly because I didn’t believe him. I knew that Opinion Stage has a revenue sharing plan to which sites can opt-in to display ads in exchange for a share of the income, but that requires approval and is reserved for sites with much more traffic than FOSS Force, meaning it probably wasn’t activated by a switch that was likely to be accidentally thrown. His request for a link was impossible. We’d already deleted the quiz, as well as we could, from the Opinion Stage server.

“All afternoon ads have been running at the bottom of the graphics on the one poll we were running using your plugin. Because of this we have manually migrated the poll to another quiz plugin and have taken the poll hosted by you offline.” I was quite peeved, enough to dash off “poll” instead of “quiz,” but I’m sure he understood. It is, after all, primarily a polling plugin. I also didn’t bite back on my anger. I wanted him to know that such actions come with consequences. “One of our writers will be writing an article on your practices on Monday.”

Seven minutes later I pinged him again: “I can show you screen shots we took, if you like.”

conversation with Opinion StageHe replied eight minutes after that, this time singing a different tune. Now it wasn’t a repeat of “ads shouldn’t be running” or the expected “it was an accident.” This time he told the truth.

“We are only running subtle ads inside images in a pilot and not very frequently to support the free account, we mention that in the pricing,” he wrote. “In any case, if you do consider using us again and it bothers you I can verify you’re not part of the pilot. Of course, premium ads have no ads unless you ask to join a Rev sharing plan to generate revenue from them, which we recommend if you have a lot of traffic.”

There are a lot of problems with this “pilot” program which places ads on a site without notice. Forget that it’s stealing — it can also jeopardize a site’s revenue. In this case, the ads appeared to be Google Adsense ads, and their inclusion could bring sites using Adsense out of compliance with their agreement with Google, which only allows three Adsense ads per page and has been known to cancel agreements with sites that break this rule.

The free version of Opinion Stage’s plugin are meant as a way to upsell to paid premium versions of the plugin that offer added features and other benefits. The premium versions aren’t cheap, with prices starting at $19 monthly for the Pro plan if paid a year in advance ($29 if paid monthly) to $99 monthly for a Business plan. The free version is important to plugin developers because to be included in the WordPress hosted plugin directory, a necessity to market a plugin, a completely free version must be offered.

On Tuesday, I received an email from Assaf Parag: “Hi – could you also please send me a screenshot if you see any ads again, I just checked with our dev, and we shouldn’t be running any ads – thanks and sorry for the inconvenience! Assaf”

We’re not likely to be seeing ads from Opinion Stage again, as the plugin is long gone from FOSS Force. And even though I find myself, in spite of it all, liking Mr. Parag, I find that I can’t in any way recommend the plugin from the company he co-founded. My trust has been lost.

We’re currently in the midst of our 2016 Indiegogo fundraising drive. Your support is crucial. Won’t you please visit our fundraising page and make a contribution to support FOSS Force?

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

3 comments to ‘Opinion Stage’ Plugin Sneaks Ads onto WordPress Sites

  • tracyanne

    It is probably because of the ads that my adblocker stopped me from being able to access that quizz.

  • @tracyanne I remember that you commented on that. The ads weren’t on it at that time. The problem you experienced is that the entire quiz appeared to your adblocker to be an ad, as the quiz was delivered to our site for Opinion Stage’s server by way of a script. That was one of our original reasons for not going with the plugin.

  • tracyanne

    @Christine, yes that makes sense.I’m glad you decided against it.