AcademiaThemes One Year Later

When Dumitru Brinzan launched AcademiaThemes in early 2014, he did so with the goal of providing high quality themes for the education sector. With one year under his belt, I reached out to Brinzan to find out how the business is doing. The first year was rough, thanks in large part to algorithm changes implemented by Google to its search engine in early 2014.

Academia Themes University Theme

The updates negatively impacted a majority of AcademiaThemes affiliates, “Many of our affiliates simply lost all of their traffic, so we lost basically all sales generated by them, which is an important source of revenue for new shops.” With affiliates having a hard time getting search engine traffic, Brinzan is finding it difficult to get new traffic to his site, “Now with almost all of the main affiliates out of the picture, it’s become incredibly hard to get traffic to our shop.”

Despite a significant loss in traffic and affiliate revenue, Brinzan will continue to operate the site. In fact, he’s opened a new theme shop called EnergyThemes aimed at the fitness market. EnergyThemes is the third theme company he owns that’s aimed at a specific niche. In addition to AcademiaThemes, he operates HermesThemes which offers themes for hotels.

The Achilles’ Heel of Affiliate Programs

I’ve never owned a WordPress theme shop, but I understand how important affiliate programs are. They provide free advertising while helping to generate sales. I never realized updates to Google’s search engine could drastically reduce affiliate revenue and traffic if sites perform poorly based on those updates. This is an important thing to consider if you’re thinking about utilizing an affiliate program.

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31 Comments


  1. Affiliate marketers are the dirty little secret that dominates the theme sales market for any shop that doesn’t already have an established and effective marketing channel. Without affiliates, I would have had almost zero sales in the first six months. And even now they still account for about 1/3 of sales — probably more, because I’m sure at least some people discover me through an affiliate, then send a link on to a third-party to purchase.

    There are better and worse affiliates. But by and large they’re the ones creating all the “25+ Best ***** WordPress Themes” pages that clog all the top spots in Google search results. These are the kinds of pages Google is targeting when it updates its algorithm, so it’s an acknowledged part of the risk. This summer I really struggled after my 2 top-performing affiliates lost their positions for important keywords (one has since worked his way all the way to the top, even beating ThemeForest!).

    One thing I’ve found is that for competitive keywords there’s a lot of movement. In the last six months I’ve seen half a dozen new entrants to the first page of Google results for the main phrase I follow, and some former top players got kicked off completely.

    The fact is that people go hunting for themes on Google and what they get there is a set of results completely dominated by affiliate marketers. As a community member, I hate this. As a business owner, it’s a system I buy into. I’ve never been really comfortable with this. But I have to acknowledge that it’s one of the only effective marketing channels I’ve found.

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    1. “As a community member, I hate this…” – this sparked my curiosity, and now I feel compelled to ask (out of pure curiosity): what would you like to see Google return when you type: “25+ Best ***** WordPress Themes”?

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      1. The primary problem is that these kinds of affiliate marketing pages do not take quality into account. They call them the “best” themes, but actually they’re just the latest themes which have an affiliate program they’re signed up to (like mine or, mostly, ThemeForest). The customer is being duped (frankly, this is part of sales in almost any industry).

        In an ideal world, I think prominent theme shops for a category would be listed alongside articles with well-researched and reasoned lists of good themes. As a purely arbitrary choice, let’s take “best real estate themes”, for example.

        I’d expect that all of the big marketplaces with appropriate category pages (TF/Creative Market/Mojo) would be listed alongside some of the respected players who have appropriate products (Studiopress, Elegant Themes, WooThemes). I’d expect that because they’re known and probably referenced and linked to elsewhere. And if there are any smaller shops specialising in this, I’d hope they’d have a chance to be competitive in the rankings too, since it should be their speciality. (This is actually a critical problem for niche shops. It’s very difficult to rank competitively in Google because your niche is crowded out by larger actors.)

        Alongside the actual product sites, it’d be nice to see some value-adding posts around what makes a real estate theme effective, which themes have appropriate features and design principles for that market, etc. Think of what Chris Lema does for plugins, for example. I’m not aware of anyone doing similar things for niche themes.

        I’m not privy to the techniques affiliate marketers use to rank their sites so highly. But clearly Google has trouble distinguishing between a post that really answers questions about the best product for the job, and a post that’s merely listing products the author might make money on. So I don’t expect to see my vision come to fruition any time soon.

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      2. Agreed, Nate. I would bet that many of the sites that were banned were churning out LOTS of sub-par content hoping to rank on the long-tail keywords. Especially considering AcademiaThemes is a very niche theme shop. If you create 100 Top 25 X WordPress themes (fill in X with every niche business/community you can think of: education, cooking, fitness, under-water basket weaving) some of them will rank. And the beauty of the internet is, no matter how niche of a subject matter, someone’s out there searching for it. My dad always like to say, “There could be 2 people on the planet with a particular interest, but there’s going to be 20 websites about it.”

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      3. Some really great points — I agree entirely. Another one: I rarely see companies WooThemes and The Theme Foundry (i.e. companies with no affiliate scheme) mentioned these days… which is terrible — whenever I list themes or plugins etc I never ever think ‘which can I make the most money from’ – that just wouldn’t sit well with me at all…

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      4. I’m a bit disheartened reading the article and the comments since I have a plan of launching a theme shop sometime soon.

        I had a hunch that affiliates would play a vital role in theme shop sales, but I didn’t know it was THAT vital. If it’s that hard to strive then it might not be so bad being tied up with existing theme marketplaces.

        Here’s an idea.. Maybe it’s time for theme shops to band together? If theme shops banded together there’ll be less dependency on affiliates.

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      5. “If theme shops banded together there’ll be less dependency on affiliates” – How so?

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      6. I wouldn’t want to discourage you from going independent. There’s so much scope for doing things differently outside of ThemeForest — you can set your own prices, determine your own measure of success, and build the kind of products you value without being tied to the demands of a very particular marketplace.

        That said, you should think carefully about how you’ll generate traffic at a large enough volume to convert a few sales. There are lots of channels that don’t have to involve affiliate marketing, but do take more effort. It’s taken a while, but I now have a decent amount of conversions from relevant plugins I have added to the wordpress.org repo. Content marketing is increasing my SEO traffic very slowly over time. Some people lean on commercial upgrades for free themes on the .org theme repository. Others seek out placement in marketplaces like WordPress.com and Creative Market where they have more control over pricing.

        You might find this post about increasing traffic useful if you’re thinking about making the jump.

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    2. This whole affiliate situation has been getting worse and worse every year. I’ve never done affiliates for Theme Hybrid. I’ve always wanted true word-of-mouth advertising. But, it’s been harder and harder to rank against all these “top X WordPress themes” posts. From a business perspective, I’ve thought many times about going the affiliate route just to get mentioned in them.

      The sad thing is that I regularly have people contact me about getting put into these lists if I’ll provide them with an affiliate link. When I tell them I don’t do affiliates, my themes don’t get mentioned and I never hear from them again.

      If I hadn’t launched Theme Hybrid so early on, I don’t think I would’ve ever been competitive without affiliates. It’s a brutal game, one that has launched theme shops like ThemeForest to the top. I am happy with anything search engine providers do to put a stop to it. Maybe we can get back to competing on quality.

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      1. More than once a week, we receive emails via the contact form from theme shops wanting us to write about them and in exchange, giving us a 60-70% affiliate commission rate. I guess by offering that high of a commission rate, they’re essentially purchasing reviews.

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      2. – those are annoying. I get this daily… I’ve pretty much had to stop replying to almost all… especially those that can’t even be bothered to write a ‘proper’ email… Not good. :(

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  2. Here is the major issue. We have a lot of “affiliate marketers” who create subpar content on themes that are truly not that good. They go and grab whatever theme will sell well and hope that they turn a profit. A lot of the themes that they recommend are most of the time garbage. They will say top 150 WordPress themes and fill it with 150 affiliate links. However, the themes are very low quality.

    For instance, many of the themes that they claim are SEO optimized are not. You see many of them missing the schema markup or none at all! Then there are ones with no proper Breadcrumb integration. The two main themes in SEO and they miss them

    They still rank well on Google because the sites themselves are popular, in fact, the smaller websites tend to have better content, and recommendations, but they rank lower because they don’t receive the traffic that most of the larger websites are. Designrazzi is borderline pathetic with the quality of content. Yet, they have a huge following and are top on Google.

    It is clear to me that they are not putting any effort into their lists and are instead just trying to rank on long tail keywords. It is annoying as they are almost a guide for a lot of webmasters and they create poor content that can be made in 5 minutes.

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  3. Yeah, I’m pretty big on using affiliates on my site. But I think what has happened as mentioned… so many people who use affiliates are doing so just to make a buck… they don’t really care one way or another about the product. And as Jeff mentioned, I get them taunting me to do a review with a high aff commission. But I tell them straight out, no way. I only promote products I know and trust. Case in point, I push StudioPress (yes, I am an affliate) but also WooThemes as much (no aff program). It’s because of how long I have used them and the trust that has been built. It’s the old saying “people who ruin it for other people”.

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    1. – and you know what Bob, we see you promoting WooThemes and think: that’s the way to do it! You respect and like their products and so you promote them. Me too. It shouldnt be any other way!

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  4. We work with a lot of affiliates, but our rules are a bit different. In order to be an affiliate for WPML or Toolset, you need to be a client and to actually use our plugins.

    From the start, I didn’t like the idea of people writing about our plugins without even knowing how they work. Our affiliates use our plugins and recommend them from their experience.

    So, we rarely appear on ‘Best 15 plugins for XYZ’. Our affiliates normally write content that adds value, using their expertise or unique experience.

    Typical great affiliate content:
    * How to run a multilingual site with theme NNN and WPML
    * How to use Views plugin to build NNN
    * A course/tutorial/training on PLUGIN

    We’re also against coupons:
    http://wp-types.com/2014/11/black-friday-cyber-monday-sorry-playing/

    An affiliate that promotes our plugins will not be offering a ‘unique discount for my readers’, but unique content and information.

    I agree with Nate. This takes a lot longer to get off the ground. For our Toolset plugins, it took 3 years to break even. But I think that it’s more sustainable.

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  5. I may have kicked things off on a critical note. So I want to clarify that, as several people have demonstrated, affiliate marketing isn’t always bad. In fact, I have earned affiliate commissions for a few products which I promote on my site. This is usually when I’m offering recommendations about the best way to accomplish something, and comes after I’ve investigated the products/services and their reputation. Not all affiliates are bad for the community. Some play an important role.

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    1. To piggyback on that thought, while they make mistakes, Google is extremely good at what they do. I don’t think you were being critical of affiliate marketing as a whole, but only the types of affiliate blog posts that ended up getting punished by Google.

      Not to point fingers or make assumptions here, but honestly my first thought on reading this article was: if you lost the majority of your traffic/business due to a Google algorithm change.. to me, that’s cause to raise an eyebrow. That said, the fact that the Tavern has taken an interest, and (like I mentioned in my previous comment) the niche nature of Academia Themes puts them in that “long tail” category, I’d guess that this doesn’t really reflect on the quality of their product.

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      1. While they are trying I still don’t think they have managed to get rid of the problem. These websites are still s**tting out absurd amounts of these poorly written and plagiarized posts and then they are ranking very high.

        As my original point says look at DesignsRazzi their “lists” literally are copied and pasted descriptions from Themeforest, the images are taken from there, and they just place an affiliate link. Rinse and Repeat and they make a lot of money.

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      2. Hi Robby,

        The article doesn’t say that AcademiaThemes lost the majority of traffic, it says that it lost “the majority affiliate traffic”, there’s a huge difference :)

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  6. Glad to see people commenting about the shop and the general discussion that came out of this article.

    I would like to point out that while Google took a big swing at affiliates, it also helped out the big guys get even bigger.

    I’ve been tracking over 50 keyword phrases for some years now, and since April-May 2014, ThemeForest jumped to first 2 positions for most keywords, while it was steadily on 3-7 positions.

    Even though many affiliates didn’t produce any kind of content, they still provided opportunities to new shops to get into the market.
    Now, if you are not with ThemeForest, you can’t really compete, no matter how good your themes are. If nobody knows about you, it doesn’t matter if your theme is good or bad.

    Now all you can do is either partner up with a marketplace or just disrupt the market, usually with low prices.

    Just like VATMESS, Google’s algorithm punishes affiliates for bad content (a noble intention), but the result is that legit startups get caught in the crossfire.

    And no, I don’t believe in the idea that “if a theme is good, people will find it and buy it”. If the game is against you, you will have to struggle A LOT.

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    1. “if a theme is good, people will find it and buy it” – yeah, that just doesn’t make any sense to me at all… if your theme is good, that’s nice. But how will anybody find it if you haven’t already got a lot of traffic to your site (i.e. if you’re not an already established player)? You might get mentioned on WPTavern of something (although just as likely you won’t) and get a peak of traffic, but then what? It’s the same with any idea on the net! See: https://wptavern.com/5-wordpress-initiatives-that-didnt-make-it-out-of-2014 (although not all of those are good ideas of course)… ;)

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  7. im an affiate marketer … and many of these comments are just so misguided, inaccurate and ill informed

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  8. Many of the comments here are from affiliates or theme shops.

    I come from a different perspective. I am one of the managing partners of a successful web design company called NewMedia Website Design. We recommend or buy a lot of themes for our victims (oops, I mean clients!)

    We buy a lot of themes that run under Genesis… but that’s a small community with a rather limited number of offerings such that we can keep on top of what is ‘hot’ and ‘new’ in that sector.

    But what happens when we need to do a site for a restaurant or pet shop or a salon or some other speciality biz that does not have an acceptable (to us) offering in Gen-land? We go on a theme hunt. We search for “Best pet shop wordpress theme” (i.e. http://bit.ly/1FM9ZAu) etc.

    It is important that we be able to find a wide cross section of themes and if affiliate ‘review’ sites provide that, even if perhaps not 100% “legit,” we’re still grateful for the ‘help.’

    What choice do we have? Do you think I can call or write WPTavern and ask Jeff or Sarah for a recommendation? Do you think they have time to answer the email they get now, much less my plea for assistance? Of course not.

    And yes, we do look at other restaurant/pet shop etc. sites to see what is being used, but that is also a time-sink. (We like to buy themes, but when we can’t find what we need we do it ourselves with a web builder product like Dynamic from CobaltApps.)

    Yes, I wish there were a lot of unbiased review sites, but there isn’t… mainly because there is no easy way to monetize such a site.

    So warts and all, small firms like ours need the affiliate paradigm… the “25 best..” sites. Besides the good folks at WPTavern how else are we going to find out about some of you smaller theme developers out there so we can evaluate your products?

    We know a lot of the reviews are ‘shills’ but bottom line we only have so much time to find the right ‘look’ for the client… and as the saying goes, “you fight with the army you have.”

    So, I’m wondering if all of this is more of a problem for theme developers because from my POV the current ‘system’ works pretty well… at least for us.

    So, if you are an affiliate of some shop, or if you are a shop with affiliates, please believe me when I say that ‘we’ need you. Of course we’d prefer a “Top 25” list to come from someone who is independent and unbiased, but given the need to monetize one’s time in doing reviews, that is not likely to happen too often.

    We need themes, you need customers. I think that for better or worse the current distribution system works pretty well for both of us.

    (Dev ducks and runs!)

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    1. Great comment Dev!

      Every shop has a good % of customers that are actually developers re-selling the theme one way or another. You buy the theme for $50, put some hours into it and then sell it to your customer for $1000.

      As long as an affiliate website (with low quality content) showed you 30 screen-shots and 30 links, that’s really all you need from it.

      Will you stop to read a review? Heck no. You will follow the link, open the Live Demo and instantly get your answer: is this for me or not?

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      1. I actually do read the reviews. That’s rather an important job… to find the themes that won’t ‘choke’ our staff (contractor) developers. While I do a lot of the development myself, especially on a new theme we’ve not used before, we farm stuff out and I don’t want to give someone a tool that I have not vetted. So I try to determine if the review is honest.

        I talk with a number of design shops and like me, designers shopping for a theme spend as much time looking at the demo as we do looking at the HTML and the CSS of the product (often via one of those un-minify sties.)

        For those of you who put up the semi-bogus review sites, often the URL alone gives it away. If that doesn’t, then often the effusive copy will. No theme is 100% great! A review that does not point out a few faults or dislikes is almost always bogus. If you a read enough of these things it does not take long to figure out what is ‘real’ and what is ‘shill.”

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      2. It is difficult to review a theme when you have access only to a Live Demo, with no access to the back-end and set up process.

        As such, you either have to ask developers for a free copy (rarely given), or you have to work it out just from the source code of the demo. Of course you can analyze performance and quality of CSS code, but that is not always sufficient.

        An honest, public reviewer of themes, with no direct interest as an affiliate?
        One man can’t review more than 2 themes per work day.
        Would developers submit their theme for review, when previous themes got 6/10 or “this theme is sh!t” marks? :)

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    2. Thanks for commenting and giving your perspective Dev. I think you’re right that a lot of people implicitly understand what’s happening on the best list sites and simply use them as a starting point for their research. Most people know to disregard hyperbolic claims on the internet.

      And you’re right to read up on reviews wherever you can. It’s a real shame that, outside of the marketplaces, there is nowhere for customers to leave reviews on themes from independent shops.

      I’ll give you a few thoughts, from my perspective, on how the theme discovery process you describe might not be best for the end customer (ie – you). I suspect most people (including you) are aware of and look out for at least some of these issues:

      1. You’re missing some of the most widely respected themes in the business. WooThemes, for instance, no longer offers an affiliate program. Several other well-regarded shops offer an invite-only affiliate program. For that reason, they frequently don’t appear on these sites. You know about Genesis themes. But what about all the people that don’t? I never see Genesis child themes on these sites. What about the WordPress.org repository? Lots of themes there have up-sells (Pro versions) with support.

      2. When your Google results for “best [niche] theme” are clogged with long lists of seemingly identical products with nothing but style variations, the “look” becomes the dominant factor for your purchase. There are definitely some niches, like restaurants or creative portfolios, where character and branding are important. But what experienced web developers will tell you is that the flashiest themes are often the worst websites: they load slowly and employ techniques which confuse and frustrate web users (scroll-jacking, poor touch-screen support, unnecessary repaints and performance issues on mobile). What good web design does, at the end of the day, is convert visitors into customers. Poorly maintained “best themes” lists lump the good in with the bad, which makes it harder to distinguish anything beyond whether you like the way it looks.

      3. In theory, a marketplace like ThemeForest should control for quality in this way, and help differentiate their products. Unfortunately, ThemeForest is more of a designers’ playground than a place where good web design is rewarded (consistently — there are some good developers on TF still!). ThemeForest has catered to the market’s tendency to choose style over substance, and dropped the ball when it comes to promoting other aspects of good web design. As a result, the ThemeForest marketplace has coalesced around a very particular type of product, rather than being a tool for discovering and differentiating products. Because ThemeForest dominates the “best of” lists, they tend to reproduce this problem.

      I’ll give you an example from the niche I know: restaurants. Nearly every restaurant theme will tell you they handle online reservations. But when they say that, they actually just mean that you can create a contact form on your site where people can send an email. Very few of them actually integrate with a good, well-rounded tool for handling reservations (a few are starting to, though). Several also tout their restaurant menu features. But many (not all) of them don’t replicate traditional menu designs or rely on you learning how to use a page builder to construct your menu. If you’ve ever had to construct a 100+ item menu, you know how tedious that is.

      But differences in capabilities, cross-device performance, and user experience are just not getting communicated well at any stage of the theme discovery process. This is not your fault. It’s ours — those of us who sell in the marketplace and are supposed to be the developer “experts” customers rely on.

      The reason that “best of” lists come in for criticism is that they occupy a very powerful position in the theme discovery process (Google). And by caring very little about the content of their list, they’re reproducing the problems in the marketplace that some of us are seeking to move away from.

      I’m glad you brought your perspective as a buyer into this discussion. We too rarely hear from the people who are driving the market. And as I said, I think you’re right that they offer a portal into the theme marketplace that is effective, even if I think it carries with it some of the issues I described. But as you mentioned, what we really need is a third-party site where themes and customer reviews can be listed for all themes, whether they’re in a big marketplace or not. Google is the only central location theme shoppers really have to help them make the best choice possible.

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