On November 28, millions of people awoke to a Black Friday ad on nearly every page of their WordPress admin, courtesy of the Yoast SEO plugin. That day also coincided with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, so it left freelancers and agencies scrambling to address a banner on their clients’ sites on a day they likely planned to spend with family. The ad was not limited to users with administrative permissions either, so some site owners were troubled to find users with low-level permissions could see the ad in the WordPress admin.
The initial code for the banner was added on October 25, which made its way into version 12.4 of the Yoast SEO plugin. The code for the banner ad limited its output between November 28 and December 3 (Cyber Monday).
After blowback from users, the Yoast team published an updated version of the plugin without the banner. However, the initial damage was done. Users began immediately leaving poor reviews for the plugin. The 1-star reviews are still coming in, putting the number over 100 in the span of five days.
“That BlackFridayBanner was not the best idea,” wrote Marieke van de Rakt, CEO of Yoast, on Twitter. “We’re truly sorry for the annoyance and difficulties it may have caused. We did not think this through properly. If you want, you can update to a new version of our plugin without that banner.”
The initial decision to place the ad was about growth for Yoast’s premium products. The company has not grown as fast as expected over the past year explained van de Rakt. They had also seen other plugins use those types of ads, which was a part of the decision to run it.
“Let’s be clear,” said van de Rakt. “This was a mistake. We just didn’t think this one through. It was incredibly stupid. So I can talk about why we made a decision, but I don’t want that to be the explanation. The explanation is that we made a mistake.”
The ad was an animated banner, and some users complained that it was difficult to dismiss. All notices in plugins available through the WordPress plugin directory must be dismissible. “That was a technical mistake,” said van de Rakt of the issues with clicking the “x” icon for dismissal.
While the team had seen other plugins run similar ads in the past, van de Rakt explained that they didn’t take into account how large of a user base Yoast SEO has in comparison to those plugins. “For so many users, we were the first plugin that done this,” she said. “They never saw this before in their backend. And they freak out. This was a complete error of judgment.”
Yoast plans to talk more with its plugin’s users. Currently, the team is looking into creating a user-testing panel to prevent similar situations in the future.
“In hindsight, and that’s what I feel most bad about, the banner did not fit our values,” said van de Rakt. “These kinds of banners are not ‘Yoast.’ Perhaps, if we state more explicitly what we as Yoast find important and what fits Yoast and what doesn’t, a mistake like this will be made less quickly.”
Making Money with Freemium Products
Yoast is a large company within the WordPress space. It employs 90 people in its primary office in Wijchen, the Netherlands. It also has an additional 20 employees around the world. Running a successful business means paying everyone, contributing back to WordPress with its five-for-the-future work, and running charitable programs such as the Yoast Diversity Fund.
Currently, the Yoast SEO plugin has over 5 million active installs. According to van de Rakt, only around 2% of the plugin’s users also use the company’s premium products. Such a large plugin needs continuous funding to support and maintain.
Advertising a product or service in an internet culture that is seemingly averse to ads is not always easy. “It’s rather hard to find ways to reach our audience, and we also have some principles on how (not) to do that,” said van de Rakt. “We like to advertise in a straight-forward way. Tell people what they’re buying. Ads are very annoying, but at least they are clear in what they’re doing.”
One issue that plugin companies run into is the lack of an official premium marketplace for WordPress. Currently, companies have to resort to in-admin advertising or similar tactics to push users on an upsell. Most of Yoast’s premium products are sold through banners on the plugin’s pages in the WordPress admin. Such practices do not always go over well with users, particularly when they are using a free product. One wrong step and it could spell disaster for future growth. Yoast is large enough to bounce back, but smaller companies may struggle more.
It is a tough balancing act between providing a valuable free product and making enough of a return to run a successful company. The Yoast team does not want to lock their popular SEO plugin completely behind a paywall. “Our mission is SEO for everyone,” said van de Rakt. “We believe that every idea should have a fair chance in the search results. That means that also without any funds, people should be able to have a good working SEO plugin. Our free plugin is really important to us.”
“I had a really bad weekend,” said van de Rakt. “I am a people pleaser and I was terribly sad by what happened. But, the discussion about how to handle this is a good one.”
Perhaps some good will come of this incident if there is an open dialogue. “These kinds of things sometimes lead to different ‘rule-sets’ or policies within WordPress,” said van de Rakt. “Might even mean that there will be different and better ways for premium plugins to market their products.”