WordPress Theme Review Team is Cracking Down on Violations of the Presentation vs. Functionality Guideline

photo credit: pollas - cc
photo credit: pollascc

During this week’s WordPress.org Theme Review Team meeting Chip Bennett opened the floor to discuss the “grey areas” of presentation vs. functionality distinctions in themes. The hotly debated topic concerns what is permissible in terms of “content creation” for themes that are hosted in the official directory.

“We know that CPTs and custom taxonomies are off-limits; likewise with non-presentational post custom meta data,” Bennett said. “But what about content created via theme options, custom widgets, etc.?”

This question often comes up in relation to themes that offer static front pages with custom widgets or textareas in the customizer where users can add small blocks of text. For example, a theme might offer a biography section or a place to enter copyright text. The concern is that a user is entering content, not knowing that it will be lost upon switching themes.

The Theme Review Team has had an established policy for years that forbids theme authors from defining the generation of user content. However, due to disorganization during the process of moving the official version of theme requirements from the Codex to the Theme Review Handbook, this particular guideline was omitted.

Bennett posted a review of Theme Review Requirements and documentation today on the Make/Themes blog with previously omitted items highlighted in red for clarity.

Presentation vs. Functionality
Since the purpose of Themes is to define the presentation of user content, Themes must not be used to define the generation of user content, or to define Theme-independent site options or functionality.

As this is a fairly general statement, the Theme Review Team will be discussing the finer points of how it applies during the next meeting. In the past, this guideline has been subjectively and inconsistently applied, allowing many themes to slip by with functionality that falls into these grey areas.

Theme Review Team to Begin Aggressively Enforcing “No Content Creation” Guideline

Zerif Lite, one of the top themes on WordPress.org, was highlighted during the meeting as an example of a theme that has been permitted to skirt this guideline, among others.

“Looking at Zerif Lite: testimonials, our team, our focus, about us – these are all CPTs, disguised as custom widgets,” Bennett said. In a ticket where the theme is currently being reviewed for updates, Bennett encouraged Zerif Lite’s author to remove any custom post meta data, except for that that which is presenatational, as it falls into plugin territory. This includes aspects of the theme such as author details, team member position, social network profiles, etc.

Reviewers are already aggressively cracking down on Zerif Lite’s violation of this specific guideline and will likely extend their vigilance to uphold the guideline more consistently with all themes as they come up for review.

Codeinwp, the company behind Zerif Lite, replied to Bennetts’ requests on the ticket:

Most of the things that you are pointing out are really sensitive for two reasons:

  • Probably 50% of the most popular themes use some custom content on the homepage
  • A lot of things like contact issue or testimonial can’t be solved without breaking 100k sites which use the theme

Codeinwp contends that the approach used in Zerif Lite is far more user friendly than having to install a plugin, or multiple plugins, in order to add small bits of text to the home page.

At the end I agree that our approach was a bit different/radical. However, it looks like it is something that people really want (Zerif is one of the hottest themes at the moment, with mentions all over the web). I mean most of them want to build a beautiful site in 10 minutes, without any knowledge and with Zerif Lite they can easily do it. They don’t want 10 CPT, 10 required plugins, contact form, and Captcha plugins for a simple site.

The theme author believes that creating a plugin to handle four of the theme’s focus widgets would simply waste users’ time.

“Also, you realize the amount of work required to do this for 100+ themes installed on million of sites, right?” Codeinwp said. The author also cited several other examples of popular themes in violation, including AccessPress Parallax, Onetone, and Colorway.

Given that the WordPress.org theme directory is riddled with violations of what is purported to be a long standing guideline, it’s clear that reviewers have been exceedingly lax in enforcing it. Theme authors who were ignorant of this guideline will be in for a rude awakening on their next submission for an update. Bennett confirmed in the ticket open on Zerif Lite that the policy will be strongly enforced in the future:

It has recently come to our attention that possibly several themes have been approved that may have similar issues. We’ll address them as we find them, and work with the developers to come up with a plan to bring the themes back into conformance with the requirements – just as we’ll do here with your theme.

This will mean a considerable amount of work for authors who have defined ways for users to generate content through the theme. They will need to port this functionality into a plugin(s).

WordPress.org themes are not permitted to bundle plugins, but authors can recommend plugins using the TGM Plugin Activation Library or another method. Themes are only permitted to recommend plugins that are listed in the official WordPress.org plugin directory. This means that authors who remove functionality in favor of companion plugins will need to get those plugins approved for WordPress.org before submitting their themes for updates.

Next week’s Theme Review Team meeting will include a discussion on specific examples of types of content that themes should or should not be allowed to create, i.e. button text, copyright text, etc. The team is generally in favor of authors using core methods for content creation.

Documentation regarding this issue has been unclear, incomplete, and scattered, spread across the Codex, Make/Themes, and two different places in the Theme Handbook. The team is working to rectify this in light of its renewed dedication to systematically enforce the “no content creation” guideline.

This will affect many of the top themes hosted on WordPress.org, which will be forced to implement changes that are likely to break thousands of sites’ appearance on update. Without a change log in place, many users will not be aware when they are receiving an update that suddenly requires the installation of new plugins.

Who is Sarah Gooding


Sarah Gooding is an Editorial Ninja at Audrey Capital. When not writing about WordPress, she enjoys baking, knitting, judging beer competitions and spending time with her Italian Greyhound.

There are 92 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *