Hand holding a phone with Wordle game running showing ad tracking and data sharing

Wordle Remains “Free” After NYT Acquisition, but Now Comes Bundled With Tons of Ad Tracking

Wordle, the word puzzle game that became a viral sensation in late 2021, has changed hands from its original developer to the New York Times (NYT). While the paper has promised to keep the game free to play, it now comes with a bundle of ad tracking that was not present in the original incarnation.

Ad tracking added to Wordle after NYT shells out at least $1 million

The sale price for Wordle was not disclosed to the public, other than it being in the “low seven figures.” The original version of the game, hosted by creator Josh Wardle on a website, did not have any advertising or connection to ad tracking networks.

Ahead of the sale, there was speculation about how NYT planned to monetize the game. Some believed that it would become pay-to-play at some point, requiring a subscription to the paper to access; not an unreasonable theory given that nearly 1/3 of the paper’s new subscribers in late 2021 were added due to games, cooking and product reviews rather than traditional news coverage. NYT has long used online games as a selling point for its subscription service, the most popular to date being Sudoku.

Instead, NYT seems to be immediately trying to offset the sale price by plugging into ad tracking networks. Some of this is the NYT’s own internal advertising system, but the game is also sharing data with third parties such as Google and Oracle’s Bluekai.

Ads were also widely expected to be the potential cost of the NYT acquisition (and the ability to finally play Wordle in a dedicated mobile app, something NYT is still working on rolling out), but not necessarily in such an invasive way. While it is still not clear exactly what personal data is being passed to each of Wordle’s new partners, a 2020 data breach exposed the gamut of data that Bluekai collects and it can go well beyond basic contact and location information: purchase records, email subscriptions, web browsing records and more.

For its part, NYT has responded to the media uproar with a statement that Wordle does less tracking “than what is standard for the industry.” The paper might be telling the truth, with the tracking services used for analytics purposes rather than feeding player personal data back into third-party advertising systems. But it is very difficult for the end user to tell what is happening.

Wordle clones, alternatives see an uptick in business after NYT makes changes

The addition of ad tracking code is one of the most valid reasons to be upset with the game, but it is also likely something the average player is not even aware of. Despite this being something of a niche issue outside of data privacy circles, there has been a major mobilization of sentiment against the NYT-owned incarnation of Wordle.

Players are instead more upset about a perception that NYT has made the game much harder, the loss of their daily “streaks” if they do not connect from the old site in the right way, and the paper’s choice to censor certain potentially inflammatory words out of the game (along with some seemingly random choices).

The combination of ad tracking and other issues has led some to look for a new experience, while others simply want “Wordle Classic” back. For those that pine for the independent game they fell in love with in 2021, the code remains available via the original site (at least temporarily) and can be run in a web browser client-side without having to connect to the NYT for anything. Some have even leveraged this to generate their own unofficial Android and iOS mobile Wordle apps.

Of course, a secondary market has sprung up to meet this need as well. There are many straightforward clones available on the app stores, but there are also derivatives that add new features, themes and rules to the game. The only problem is that scammers have noticed this market and have jumped in with both feet. There are many legitimate Wordle knockoffs and derivatives, but there are also many that attack users and invade their privacy.

Some load up so much privacy-invading ad tracking code that it makes the new NYT version look restrained. Others are outright malware. Even Apple’s App Store, generally the gold standard for removing these sorts of apps, is struggling to keep up with the flood and pick them all off. Google has also issued a warning about malicious and scam variants that are popping up on the Play Store.

Those who are sticking with the NYT can do a number of things to protect their privacy while still enjoying the game. This includes disabling location services, using a privacy-focused browser to access the game, and turning off the use of the phone’s unique ad tracking identifier (something possible in both Android and iOS).