Controversy Surrounding WordPress.org “Popular” Themes Exposes Weaknesses in the Algorithm

photo credit:  Luis Llerena
photo credit: Luis Llerena

If you’ve ever wondered how the WordPress Theme Directory identifies and ranks the themes that display under the popular tab, you might be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with ratings. Popularity is a somewhat subjective quality to measure in the first place, but WordPress.org has an algorithm in place to give users an idea of which themes are trending.

theme-directory-popular-tab

The number of sites using a theme is the first metric that comes to mind for popularity, but it cannot be limited to that or else the results might be skewed towards older themes that are not in fact popular anymore. Samuel “Otto” Wood, in response to a Twitter thread about how themes appear to be gaming the system, created a video to explain how the popularity algorithm works.

“Popular is currently active installs divided by age of the theme and a few other factors,” Wood said. “Ratings don’t currently factor into it. We’re trying to work out an algorithm to add ratings to it. For the most part it’s a popularity thing.”

I asked him for more clarification on the other factors and he said it varies depending on what data they have and how that data looks over time. “We adjust it to have it change fairly regularly, but still reflecting what is popular at the time,” Wood said.

Dion Hulse, who also helps maintain WordPress.org infrastructure, said, “It’s not published by design, to hopefully prevent authors gaming it too much. Other than what Otto has said, they only other public part of it is that a theme must be at least two weeks old to be included in the popular rankings.”

At the end of last year, theme download counts were replaced with the number of active installs to try to prevent theme authors from gaming the system in order to appear on the Popular tab. Gaming the system is much more difficult now but there are other ways to do it, due to the imperfect measurements for active installs.

How WordPress.org Measures Active Installs for Themes

The topic of active installs was re-ignited yesterday by Matt Medeiros, a small business owner and WordPress.org theme author, who suspected the author of a recently popular theme of gaming the system.

The Vertex theme, new to the directory this month, already has more than 10,000 active installs, despite having a much lower download count and no ratings. Medeiros made a video explaining what he perceived as suspicious activity propelling it to the fourth most popular spot on WordPress.org. This prompted Samuel Wood to film a response, which breaks down some of the flaws in the system that measures active installs.

“The active install count is a count of sites that have reported to us that they are checking for an update for that theme and that it is active,” Wood said. He explained that the 10,000+ in this instance and in many others is a rough estimate because WordPress.org does not have an exact measurement of how many sites have installed a theme:

What we are actually counting is yes, the number of active installs of a theme named Vertex. That may include themes not in our directory, such as this one from Elegant themes. If the theme isn’t in our directory we still get reports about it. The only way for us to not do that is to have the theme itself that theme check them for updates instead of checking us for updates, which their theme should indeed do. I would go so far as to say that any commercial theme should indeed be checking their commercial site, their systems not ours, but if they don’t have any special code to handle that case, then yes it will report back to our API server looking for updates. And if it has the name Vertex then yes, it’s going to be counted as being the Vertex theme.

In this instance, the creators of the Vertex theme were made aware that the name was already in use outside of WordPress.org. They offered to change the name of the theme to iVertex during the review process, but the Theme Review Team decided that it wasn’t necessary.

“There’s no gaming going on behind that,” Wood said. “If somebody does game the system, I will find it. I guarantee you. However, this is not such a case. Our current algorithm looks at active installs and if you happen to pick a name that is very popular [outside of WordPress.org], you can have a large number of active installs without it actually being this theme that is being counted.”

This problem could be solved with a unique ID for themes. Wood said there is a six-year-old core ticket that he would like to implement, but it’s not currently a priority.

“Unfortunately, there is no real push to do that,” he said. “At some point in the future, I would like all themes and plugins in the WordPress directory to get a unique ID which they can put in their headers and when they report back, having that unique ID will uniquely identify that theme or plugin. It would eliminate so many problems for me. It would make updates so much easier. I would be able to do a whole lot of useful things with it and it would let me fix this problem right here.”

How the Popular Themes Algorithm Affects Theme Businesses

Getting unique IDs in place is no easy fix, as theme reporting would need to be overhauled and multiple systems that interact with each other would need to be changed. It would be worth it in the long run for more accurate reporting on WordPress.org, which is the first place many users browse when looking for a new theme. If the active install counts are not a proper representation of installations via WordPress.org, then it doesn’t make sense to pin the popular algorithm to that number.

I asked Matt Medeiros why he chose to highlight the situation with Vertex, and he explained why many small business owners have a strong interest in the popular themes page.

“It’s getting harder and harder to survive as a theme shop these days,” Medeiros said. “Indie authors are overshadowed by huge theme shops and mega marketplaces. For me, .org is the only source of distribution for my themes, and I have a desire to see the repo become the defacto place to find quality themes. Sadly, not all themes are submitted to ‘do it right’ and many crop up to make a quick cash grab from unsuspecting end-users. Top spots are worth A LOT of money (see: Zerif) and coupled with an aging search engine for themes, gaming to the top is worth it, even in the short term. Unsuspecting users, who find searching too challenging, settle with what’s in front of them.”

Medeiros referenced Zerif Lite, which was recently removed from WordPress.org, due to violations of guidelines that began to be enforced after the theme was approved. The theme was pulling in tens of thousands of dollars for ThemeIsle, thanks to its frequent spot among the most popular themes on WordPress.org. Ionut Neagu, the company’s CEO, estimates that Zerif Lite’s suspension from the directory will diminish the company’s $70K/month revenue by 50%.

“There’s a lingering distaste in the review process for freemium upsells,” Medeiros said. “Not everyone agrees that folks should have an upsell product here, and that’s unfortunate. As a small business owner, that revenue helps me reinvest into the WordPress community, WordCamps, hire and train people in developing with WordPress. At times the review process, mixed with the emotions of others, feels like a rising tax against the small software business owner, like myself.”

When drawing attention to the suspicious active install numbers for the Vertex theme and the flaws in the algorithm, Medeiros drew resistance from Wood, who does not see the directory as a place where businesses should expect a return for their investments.

“The theme directory is not an advertisement to peddle your wares,” Wood said. “It is exactly that sort of thinking [that] makes me want to ban all themes with a ‘paid’ version from the directory entirely. The theme directory is not an advertising means. That is not its purpose. If that is your intent, then you are doing it wrong.”

Medeiros said he isn’t interested in reviewing all themes for possible fraud, nor does he expect Otto to do the same. Vertex is just one example among many where the flaws in the algorithm are on public display.

“I chose to highlight this issue because I think the repo can be a better choice for users than a for-profit marketplace,” Medeiros said. “Either way, I can only hope unearthing this conversation helps affect change for the better.”

54 Comments


  1. I think it’s long past time some type of Steering Committee was structured around .org. The statement made by Mr. Wood is frustrating, because I’m not sure why these are his decisions to make. In practice, I understand they fall to the person doing the work and the legacy of our Benevolent Dictator, but given the size of the community and the impact of these decisions, surely it’s time for a new model.

    The fact that so many businesses have been able to monetize WordPress, including Automattic, play a huge rule in it’s success and popularity, and it’s past time to stop the freemium/money bad mentality.

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    1. There’s nothing wrong with money. Money good. I just wish more people would move to the services model instead of the selling-code model.

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      1. It’s not your place to tell people how to run their business nor to affect those business by decisions based on your opinions.

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      2. I’m as free to offer my opinion and feedback as you are, sir. My opinion is my own.

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  2. The theme directory is not an advertising means. That is not its purpose. If that is your intent, then you are doing it wrong.

    I wonder if he holds the same opinion for plugins and if not, what makes plugins and their upsells different from themes?

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    1. I do hold the same opinion for plugins, but we have historically allowed upsells on w.org, and have no plans to change that.

      I dislike it when authors release free code only as a means to sell product instead of as a means to help others or contribute in some way. I see it a lot, and I prefer it when code is released for its own sake.

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      1. Just wondering, does this opinion extend to other marketplaces etc? ie: is selling WordPress-based plugins/themes in ANY marketplace/site frowned upon?

        I really hate feeling guilty (almost punished) for wanting to earn money by building on top of WordPress.
        It’s also probably one of the main reasons I haven’t committed any of my personal plugins/themes to the repository – I can’t justify the time I’d spend getting them ready as I need to earn $$.
        (To be clear, I’m not talking about a limited plugin here, but a full-featured free version with optional add ons)

        I also agree with the comment from Diane:
        “The fact that so many businesses have been able to monetize WordPress, including Automattic, play a huge rule in it’s success and popularity”

        Even Envato/Themeforest have helped build the popularity of WordPress.

        I honestly believe that if WordPress could address this freemium=bad mentality, meet developers half-way, and find a way to help them earn a living from building WordPress themes/plugins – then we’d see popularity and support skyrocket.

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      2. I don’t care if you sell stuff. I care if you sell stuff and then make a limited version of said stuff to release for free in order to improve your sales. That’s the wrong way around. IMO, of course.

        There’s perfectly good ways to make code that helps people for the purpose of helping people, and then sell add-ons that add value. Pippin figured it out very well.

        Also, understand that Automattic doesn’t actually sell any code, generally speaking. They’re entirely service oriented. I like that model. Continued cost for continued value. I like services that offer good value. I spend money on those services. I generally do not buy just code. Just my 2 cents, and my personal opinion.

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      3. After re-reading, I thought I should clarify:

        I wasn’t directing this at you personally (Otto) or trying to be negative. I know that a huge amount of (free) work goes into WordPress and it’s platform/repository – and despite how my last comment may have sounded, I do appreciate the work everyone puts in.

        And I was also talking about WooCommerce-style addons not those Freemium plugins with annoying “Upgrade Now!” banners.

        At the end of the day, we all want to see WordPress grow – I just wish it was a little easier on developers trying to help that happen.

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      4. mzalewski: rest assured, i read your comment in the spirit with which it was intended. I understand your view completely. I just don’t like the general idea of “write code once, sell many times”. I’m a programmer. I’ve been a professional programmer for nearly 20 years. Most programmers don’t write-once-sell-many. That’s a very unusual case for programming. So, I see it as a more continuous work thing. You program because that is what you do. Expecting to write a few themes and sell them many times strikes me as a poor model, in general. Not because of the state of themes or anything else, but because I work for a living and I always have. It’s a weird view, to me, to sell product. As a programmer. Again, just my view. I write code, I don’t market it.

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      5. I get that – programming is a service, and doesn’t really fit as a product – and agree (mostly).

        The general idea behind building a product (for me) is that I can write-once-sell-once and help one person build their WP site – or I can write-once-sell-many and help a lot more people build their site.
        It can be a continuous thing though – a decent premium product has to be updated and supported.

        I’d rather see clients using high-quality, supported, premium plugins than poorly coded, quick fixes created by an over-saturated, low-price freelance market (I discover rushed, low-quality code far too often).

        In saying that, they’re not mutually exclusive – you can find high-quality freelance programmers, just as you can find poorly-coded “premium” plugins/themes.

        I feel as though drifting a little off-topic now, but basically – not all premium theme/plugin developers are just looking for easy cash, and they can solve issues for (and support) a lot of people.
        If a premium product owner can write high-quality code, provide ongoing support to their users and give back to the community in general, then I think they should be supported/encouraged.

        In any case, thanks for your response – it adds some context to the original quote above and helps me understand your point of view

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      6. Got it – ok, makes perfect sense to me. Thanks :)

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      7. I’ve never understood the mentality that selling code is somehow bad, but SaaS is good.

        I like both models. They both have positives, negatives, advantages and disadvantages. Both to the developer and to the end user.

        But, trying to promote SaaS as being morally superior in some way because you aren’t “selling code” is just plain silly.

        SaaS may not be selling code, but it is like renting code.

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      8. “Most programmers don’t write-once-sell-many. ”

        You’ve heard of Microsoft Office? Windows? Adobe? And hundreds of other companies? If you’ve been a developer for 20 year and hold that opinion, you’ve been ignoring large swaths of your industry. MANY businesses have sold software commercially.

        The services model was popularized by redhat since the distro itself was, of course, open source. It’s a perfectly fine model but it’s not the only valid one.

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      9. Commercial sales of software are, by a long shot, not the norm. Did you buy the software to run your refrigerator? Or the code to make your car run optimally? Because a programmer wrote that code, and I guarantee you, they don’t make money on the software sales there.

        I know for a fact that if you buy parts from a popular automotive store as a commercial business, you are buying those parts through a system I helped develop around 8 years ago. Do you think I still get paid for that work?

        Nearly all programming is not programming code you actually see and interact with. And I say this having the code I wrote probably actually used to test your automobile’s electrical systems in the assembly facility before it left the manufacturer. No, really. If you bought American, then I practically guarantee it. :)

        I recommend reading The Magic Cauldron. Starting with the chapter on The Manufacturing Delusion: http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/magic-cauldron/ar01s03.html

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      10. Did you buy the software to run your refrigerator

        @otto, As someone who have been in the embedded software business for a long time, the answer is a big YES. just because you are not billed separately for it do not mean otherwise.

        Yes, there are more programmers working on and more lines of code written for a “one off” software, but there are also many more people and many more cars served in mercedes garages annually than the amount of workers in and cars manufacture by mercedes itself. The two methods of doing things are complimentary and not contradictory.

        Selling software is a social/socialist style thing. One person can not fund the development of windows but when you divide it between millions (almost) everybody can afford the cost.

        As for wordpress.org and free leading to paid model, yes it is sucks, but this is because we can’t sell plugins on wordpress.org which basically force everybody into the bait system to just get people to come to his site. The other option is abandoned plugins or abandoned users (no support).

        I would gladly pay 5% commission to wordpress.org and call it my 5% contribution to wordpress. The current system is not good to anyone. It seems like it is good for users but they are the ones that get stuck with unmaintained plugins that an “integrator” shoved into their site and now holds them back from upgrading anything.

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      11. I see your point, Mark, but does that refrigerator programmer get paid by the refrigerator? Generally speaking, programmers get paid a salary, not on sales by unit.

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      12. One of the huge money makers for Automattic are WooCommerce extensions, nearly all of which are in the “write once, sell many” model.

        I think what’s really being sold is support – which incidentally is most important service that can be offered. Or at least that’s what I do: Write a plugin once, sell it to all comers, then support it and evolve it over time for those who buy it, everyone else is SOL. No free stuff. I learned about a decade ago that when plugins and themes are given away people literally demand free support and complain to high heaven when they don’t get it fast as if they’re at a McDonald’s drive-thru. Sheesh. And they write all about their dissatisfaction with “slow support” (which they often claim is “bad support”) in so-called “plugin reviews”, which incidentally renders the plugin review system at WordPress.org nearly useless and definintely misleading and a disservice to plugin developers.

        So some years back I pulled my plugins our of the respository and stopped publishing any new plugins there for exactly those reasons. I’d rather sell them to the few that actually find value in them and can offer something of value in return…

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      13. Otto, in proper software development companies programmers are always being paid for developing products which do not exist yet, so not much point to talk about being paid from revenue/profits. As an anecdote I am still shocked but I saw a guy which was licensing a relatively small component for a company and got money based on product sales and this is the closest I saw to developers being paid for their coding directly from sales.
        But if you think about it this is how startups work. People develop software and in return get some ownership of the company which in indirect way means they do money from sales.

        WordPress environment is different in that a “one man show” company can have a viable software product, and in this kind of companies you can’t make the distinction between the programmer and the CEO, but IMO it is not different than any other software development companies – programmer works without even knowing if there will be sales and the CEO gets the money from the sales. It just happens to be the same person

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      14. Regarding: “programmers get paid a salary, not on sales by unit”. What is the problem when programmers actually run a healthy business instead of getting paid by salary? Is that a bad thing? Or isn’t it just smart? :-)

        Salaries usually don’t scale very well as your time is limited and unless you’re a celebrity, your hourly rate will be limited at some point as well. That isn’t a very good starting point for a successful scalable business, unless you have a business model like for example Codeable where the company basically is offering freelance work on a large scale. In that case the company of course is scalable, but the developers still have limited income based on their available time and resources.

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      15. That would depend on what you mean. All plugins in the repository are free. No, we would not accept a do-nothing plugin that then requires you to buy the actual plugin from elsewhere.

        But by “free” we mean as in speech, not necessarily free of cost. If a plugin exists to connect a site to a service which has no free tier, then that’s acceptable.

        For example, a video hosting service might require you to subscribe to it to host your videos there. Such a service has costs associated with it after all. Hosting and bandwidth aren’t free. A plugin that connected that service to WordPress would be allowed even though the service itself is not free in cost. There’s no requirement for them to provide a free tier.

        Another example would be a site backup service. You pay for the service and storage, but the plugin that connects your site to that service and which even sends the backup data to it could be perfectly free and in the directory.

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  3. I hope there was a “really free” checkbox in the repo so one could filter out all the freemium themes when searching.

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  4. When I search for a free theme, I want a free theme because I do not want to invest money in a paid one then found out the theme I picked keeps adding ads inside my dashboard to upgrade or making a sales pitch too upgrade. That’s annoying and same goes with plugin developers who create free stuff with the intent of forcing people to upgrade.

    If I wanted a preium them or a plugin, I would use that keyword when searching google or let’s say the theme directory.

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    1. And the repository could enforce a flag that would let you narrow things down that way. However, I fail to see how freemium really hurts you. If the free version is OK for your needs, ignore the paid version.

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    2. That is a *much* requested thing on the repository, and I’ve considered it, but I have no idea on how to enforce its use properly. If i come up with a way, then yes, we are aware of the idea. I like the idea, but if it’s easily gamed, then it has no value.

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    3. Personally, I’m more likely to prefer a theme or plugin that does have a premium version, if the free version is non-sleazy. I reason that the plugin/theme with no paid version is more likely to go away when its author has a change of life circumstances / gets bored / can’t afford to keep supporting it / etc. Whereas the people behind a product with a paid version have more “skin in the game”, and more resources to enable them to keep providing support and future versions which are compatible and have more features.

      Of course, freemium schemes can be abused. Everything can be abused. Freemium schemes, in the here-and-now, enable lots of great plugins to exist that almost certainly wouldn’t otherwise. Look at the first 30 ‘popular’ (i.e. most-installed) list at https://wordpress.org/plugins/browse/popular/ – freemium is the most largest category there. Obviously, freemium can be done well and produce the best plugins, as well as badly and produce really bad ones.

      In my view, the selling software/selling services distinction can be made in an excessively artificial way. When we buy software, we understand that we’re also buying services with it (support, access to updates, funding next year’s improved/compatible-with-future-stuff version). I submit that few WP users operate with a hard software/services distinction, or even think that much about it. That’s something, as far as they’re concerned for ideologues. The typical user has a blend of more or less time and money which he/she is willing to trade in order to achieve the goal of having an acceptable website.

      My view, then, would be that the plugins/themes in the wordpress.org directory should be honest and not advertise features that aren’t accessible without payment, unless this is clearly marked. But, beyond that, users should be allowed to make their own decisions, rather than steered towards some particular ideology that is serving someone else’s goals rather than theirs. To be sure, some users might happen to have the same ideology. But the directory itself needs to serve the many, not the few.

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  5. Interesting article. Can i just say one thing… is this really a controversy. Do we need more things being called controversies? Any who, that was just my thought reading the headline and the article. Interesting subject, complex topic.

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  6. Maybe just change the name to “Trending”?

    The way the “popular” list works now encourages quick, poor quality themes with a nice screenshot, in my opinion. Quick money at the expense of users who believe these are actually “popular” themes.

    These quick themes are also the source of frustration many people have with the freemium model.

    My theme has been in the directory for over 2 years now, which seems to really hurt my ranking regardless of my downloads (700,000+), active installs (40,000+), reviews (350+) and near perfect resolved rate in the forum.

    And yes, I have a premium version which feeds my family. Not all of us are “big evil theme shops” – I support my free users as passionately as my premium users and provide premium solutions to free users if asked.

    I guess my point is that there are many of us with great themes that get pushed down the list and out of sight simply because we don’t release a shiny new theme every 6 months. Quality over quantity should be encouraged.

    I look forward to the day where age doesn’t matter. Popularity should be based on a mixture of downloads, active installs, reviews and support. I think once we get there, users will benefit hugely.

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  7. I fully agree with what Matt said, although I tend to believe that Vertex was a coincidence (an unfortunate one as it may be a good idea to actually Google a name before using it as a theme name because you may conflict with an existing brand which can be quite expensive), but others may not. Thinking that .org isn’t being used as an advertisement platform by commercial companies is honorable, but also extremely naive at the same time.

    Just like with classic advertising, search engine optimization, social media marketing or content marketing, .org is a great way to bring a product in front of many WordPress users and the majority of high-quality themes on .org are being uploaded by developers with commercial interests, believe it or not. If the developer isn’t selling a product, then the free theme/plugin is being used to promote his company or drive traffic to a particular website where money is being made via advertisements or services.

    Otto, I really respect your hard work and your authority, but assuming that this isn’t happening, or even saying that running a business while using .org as a marketing tool is wrong, isn’t that great. In my opinion using .org for promotion is absolutely valid, it’s just an obvious place for promotion because that is where millions of users are looking for their favorite plugin or theme. In fact, I would even say there is no better place for promoting a WP product than on .org – at least when starting a WP business to get some traction, especially with the high competition nowadays.

    And like Matt said, many small business are depending on .org as their main source of income, you may find that questionable, but it’s just like it is and it isn’t a bad thing – if you are aware of the risks as a company. It’s basically the same like when app developers are depending on their revenue via the App Store / Play Store. Is there a 3rd party dependency or a business risk if a company is relying on that, surely there is, but it’s not your call if that is a good or bad decision as many companies are contributing to WordPress like that since years.

    Like Matt said as well, the same companies are sponsering WordCamps, organizing WP meetups, contributing code, providing support in the .org forums or contributing in many other ways. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a healthy environment and many WP businesses wouldn’t even exist anymore without some kind of promotion via .org.

    With that being said, the current popular algorithm is actually encouraging to game the system. I’ve raised that issue already months ago (right after the new algo was introduced) and also mentioned it recently again on Slack because it simply doesn’t make sense to rank brand new themes without an actual user base (or track record) higher than well established quality themes with thousands of happy users and great reviews or even default themes (although it may be questionable as well to have the default themes actually included in the popular list).

    However, I also understand the technical limitations on .org and that there is no way to solve this on short term, but still it’s good that the current issues are pointed out as it may contribute to a solution instead of being d’accord with it.

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    1. I’m not saying that promotion or upselling is invalid, necessarily. What annoys me is when you use the directories solely for promotion in the first place. When you think of it as being an advertising model from the start, then that diminishes the directory as a whole. Too often I see people putting stuff in specifically to advertise.

      What’s funny is that 90% of the time they’re not even good at it. I have lost count of the number of plugins we’ve had submitted that are a) slightly modified copies of somebody else’s plugin, b) have the original author credits removed, c) have zero new features, and d) have added advertising to point users back to the thief’s own site in some manner. This has happened *thousands* of times. It’s not even a rare occurrence anymore.

      So, yeah, okay, maybe I’m a bit jaded on the topic. I see plugins with lots of upsell and “premium” marketing copy in them as kinda spammy. Mostly because we get a hell of a lot of actual spam doing exactly the same types of things.

      I’m not arguing that this sort of thing can’t be done right and tastefully. I’m arguing that it usually isn’t.

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      1. Ok, if you were referring to spammers who submit low-quality or copied work, then I agree of course because that just sucks. But I think it should be said, that this doesn’t apply to the many honest developers who are putting their stuff on .org as well.

        I basically was referring to your tweet to Matt where you said “The theme directory is not an advertising means. That is not its purpose. If that is your intent, then you are doing it wrong.”. That statement isn’t accurate in my opinion and I wouldn’t say that Matt is a spammer, just like many other developers and companies aren’t spammers and still use .org to promote their company, products or services. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just a natural thing to do. I would even say that if you want to run a serious WP business and don’t use the potential of .org to do some kind of promotion, that actually would be a bad business decision, from a marketing point of view. The same bad business decision as if you want to build a company and then don’t invest in marketing to tell the world about your offering.

        There are many developers out there who invest the majority of their time and hard work to create awesome products and supporting their users. These honest people shouldn’t be put in the same boat with annoying spammers, who won’t be successfull on the long run anyway because they usually are not even capable of maintaining their stuff properly and supporting users.

        As mentioned, many small businesses wouldn’t even exist if they wouldn’t use .org for promotion because not everyone has the budget to build a business without the reach of .org. That’s why I mentioned saying that .org isn’t an advertising platform for WP businesses is actually wrong and doesn’t reflect the reality. It’s just a natural thing to do and a valid and smart business decision. If you look at the successfull products on .org, most of them have a commercial background – either there is a pro version or the product is being used to promote a company or send traffic to a particular website (e.g. with paid WP tutorials or else). The reason is simple, people usually don’t work for free and we all have to support our families and make a living. Nobody can actually build a successful product which in the end takes a lot of resources to maintain and support and then don’t make money with it, in reality that doesn’t work out, unless you have your pockets full of money and don’t have anything else to do.

        For some reason in the WP community you often read “If you’re using .org to build your business, then you’re doing it wrong”. In my opinion that is a bad understanding of marketing and business, because in the end .org is a great tool for building and market a business and I’m not talking about spam. I’m talking about valuable products that people love to use and in the end it’s a win-win for everyone. Yes, we all get that WordPress is open-source and so on, but that doesn’t mean if you think of WordPress as a business is a bad thing.

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  8. Otto, I appreciate your willingness to engage Matt on this topic. I found your video to be a really helpful intervention. You’ve made a few comments here which leave me a little unclear. I’d like to unpack those a bit — not in a hostile manner but just to get a little bit more specific about maybe where you see the lines being fruitfully drawn.

    On the one hand, you’ve made some carte blanche statements about product sales and the freemium model:

    “I just wish more people would move to the services model instead of the selling-code model.”

    “I dislike it when authors release free code only as a means to sell product instead of as a means to help others or contribute in some way.”

    On the other hand, you’ve indicated that the model itself can lead to good results in some cases:

    “There’s perfectly good ways to make code that helps people for the purpose of helping people, and then sell add-ons that add value. Pippin figured it out very well.”

    So clearly there’s some wiggle room here. I suppose it’s the more blanket statements that put some of us on the defensive.

    I have a package of free plugins on the repo which fill an underserved niche. I sell commercial addons. But I don’t cripple the free plugins and ~95% of my users never feel the need to purchase a commercial addon. Without an economic incentive, I wouldn’t be able to provide the free plugins. And the ability to leverage the plugin repository as a marketing tool is an important part of that.

    I believe that your response would be that the services model can provide the same incentives, and that this leads to a healthier ecosystem. I disagree for two reasons.

    First, I disagree that the freemium model is not a service model. Services are at the core of my business model even though many of my customers view themselves as purchasing one-off products. Providing timely, friendly support to free users is a primary means of on-boarding potential customers to my brand quality. When customers do purchase a product, they’re also purchasing a license key which gives them access to one-click updates, a promise to continue working on the software, and significant after-sales support. Just because the code is not housed on my servers doesn’t mean that I’m not selling services. And most customers, though they see their purchase as a one-off, certainly expect more after-sales service than one would from a refigerator, a computer game or a t-shirt.

    Second, I disagree that the kind of services model you’re describing is the only model the ecosystem should support. My sense is that you’re talking particularly about the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, in which customers pay for software that runs on someone else’s server. This model certainly has an important, healthy role to play in the ecosystem. But I believe the SaaS approach decreases incentives for inter-operability and increases incentives for “walled gardens”. SaaS businesses benefit from network effects, the principle example being WordPress.com, which I think tend to reward larger businesses and therefore tend towards consolidation and the formation of oligopolies.

    I sell products for lots of reasons. But one of the reasons is because I believe the product model plays an important part in fulfilling the promise of the GPL. Certainly, the GPL does not exclude SaaS business models. But if the ecosystem moves decisively towards SaaS models, it won’t be long before your average WordPress site is just a collection of micro-services. The amount of real business logic that a WordPress site will control will be significantly reduced, and the promise of “owning your content” will be weakened.

    SaaS models feel like a good solution to a lot of the dirtier aspects of our ecosystem (terrible hosting, never-updated software, plugin/theme incompatiblities, etc). But it comes with it’s own trade-offs. I believe a healthy ecosystem needs better regulation. Definitely. But a blanket rejection of one business model in favor of another seems like a bad way to resolve our problems.

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    1. There is no way to make any form of “blanket” statement without adding in exceptions and caveats, of course. I’m merely commenting on what I regularly see as the current norms. The current norms I see are people using their “free” product as little more than a ticket into the repositories in order to upsell their users on better versions of said product. I’m against that. If you’re not doing that, then more power to you. But many are doing exactly that sort of thing, and it’s obvious, and I think it sucks. That’s all I’m saying. :)

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      1. Fair enough. I guess I haven’t seen as much of it as you, but then I don’t really dip into the theme repository much. Maybe the (lack of) value-add is worse there.

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      2. You have to understand that we also have authors coming to us with things like “this review talks about how features in the paid version of the plugin didn’t work for them, so since it’s not talking about the free version, please remove the review”. It’s obvious that they’re trying to silence criticism of their product by these means, and thus that the free version only exists to upsell to the paid version of the same thing. Critical and important features, features which are talked about in the plugin’s description, are missing from the free version specifically in order to sell the paid version. Things like that.

        This happens a lot. Note that we don’t remove those reviews. If you talk about it in the free version, if the free version upsells you to the paid version, then people are perfectly free to talk about their experiences with the paid version on the forums. That upsell experience itself is part of the plugin, therefore discussing the paid version is fair game, in my view.

        I wish this wasn’t the case as much as it is, is all. I’d prefer the directory to be filled with nothing but good, working code. I’d prefer paid versions of plugins to be add-ons which actually add extra functionality, rather than have the free versions be stripped down (sometimes to near uselessness) versions of the actual plugin. But more and more often, no, we see “X Lite” added to the directory instead of “X Pro” being what you can optionally buy. If you get my meaning.

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      3. Good points, Otto would you consider pro add-ons to be an issue as well for you? My difficulty understanding is that anything that is not included in the free product could be considered up selling.

        Thank you.

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      4. I think the general idea is that pro add-ons are ok, as long as the functionality of the free version isn’t crippled (ie: the free version doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of advertising a premium version).

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  9. There has been a problem with gamable algorithms on WordPress.org for a long time. It’s hard to assist with this, when we can’t see the code behind how they work though.

    I understand the logic in secrecy, but I think some of these things would work better if they were opened up for the rest of us to have a poke at.

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  10. I’d like to suggest that gaming would not be much of a thing if WordPress.org were to take a page from the WordPress.com playbook and offer not just Free Themes but also Premium Themes. Users, authors and the WordPress Foundation would gain something.

    I’ve heard it said that this will never happen but I can’t remember why.

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  11. There shouldn’t be any “gaming” in the first place.

    If people are trying to look at WordPress.org as a marketing platform for themes, that’s a problem in and of itself. I agree with wanting to remove freemium themes altogether and moving more towards a model like WordPress.com.

    It would be nice to be able to just have a “free or paid” directory. No gray area with the freemium themes. I’ve heard numerous complaints from clients and people I work with, and it seems like it just causes problems more than anything.

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    1. Freemium isn’t a bad thing and it’s a valid business model, not only when it comes to WordPress. Look at the App Store on your iPhone and you’ll find lots of freemium apps as well.

      The problem isn’t the freemium model itself, the problem starts when people submit low-quality stuff to the directory. But that’s a problem which usually solves itself, if a freemium product is bad (doesn’t work well, provides no value or whatever), it won’t get good user ratings, not many active installs and evenutally won’t be used and the developer won’t generate sales and possibly abandon the product.

      In the end a freemium model gives the user an option to use a product for free with the possibility to upgrade in case he wants more. There is nothing wrong with that process itself and in general it’s very unlikely that someone will invest money if he/she isn’t happy with the freemium product.

      Imagine the other way around, if there only were free and premium themes/plugins, users would always need to invest money without knowing what they will get. With a freemium product, the user can at least test a product and see if it works well for the preferred purpose, doesn’t cause compatibility issues or else. I really don’t see an issue with that.

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    2. If something like that would happen, would we want to do the same thing to plugins?

      I find it interesting how plugins and themes are treated so differently in the directory.

      I’ve heard numerous complaints from clients and people I work with, and it seems like it just causes problems more than anything.

      These complaints exist because of the current structure of the popular list.

      It promotes themes that have poor reviews and poor support simply because they’re new.

      There are amazing, successful theme authors on WordPress.org that put a lot of love into their themes. They exist, and they exist because they provide an amazing service to users and in turn are able to make a living doing it.

      Successful theme authors can’t release a free theme with barely any features in hopes of people upgrading to premium – users aren’t stupid and they will leave poor reviews. The successful theme authors have awesome free themes, and users upgrade because they’re impressed and want to support the author/make the theme even more powerful.

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  12. “Unfortunately, there is no real push to do that,” he said. “At some point in the future, I would like all themes and plugins in the WordPress directory to get a unique ID which they can put in their headers and when they report back, having that unique ID will uniquely identify that theme or plugin. It would eliminate so many problems for me. It would make updates so much easier. I would be able to do a whole lot of useful things with it and it would let me fix this problem right here.”

    Ya know, the plugins and theme directories are the weakest part of the WordPress ecosystem. They’re worse than Amazon recommendations.

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  13. It seems like this discussion went from being about the popular list to a freemium vs. free vs. premium debate.

    I think if we look at things from the perspective of the user, it all becomes a little more clear.

    Currently, WordPress.org makes the user work really hard to find the highly reviewed themes with good support. I think we can all agree that’s what people want?

    If I’m looking to buy a bike, and I have 1000 choices – what do I do? I sort by reviews. I want a 5 star bike.

    If I want the best Thai food and the city I’m in has 100 Thai restaurants – what do I do? I sort by reviews. I want the best Thai food.

    We have this amazing measuring device provided by the users that actually use our directory and themes, yet we don’t use it.

    Instead, we serve themes to these users based on an algorithm that uses flawed data.

    No wonder users are frustrated.

    When we can serve themes to users based on their reviews and their resolved rate in the forum, users will benefit and the frustration will disappear. The quality of themes and support throughout the directory will also go up.

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  14. So from what I see here there are a few issues, I wonder if a system like stackoverflow would help in this situation where the developers self regulate themselves a little more.

    For example Matt was complaining of how long it took for him to be approved for his new theme on a different discussion. If he already had a good reputation by other developers then he could bypass the review process altogether, only low reputations or new developers have to be screened this would lower the strain on the review team.

    If we had a system like this it might be hard to game other features like having Freemium or Premium options because if I as a developer approve another plugin or theme and it violates the rules then it can lower my reputation.

    Having a good reputation just like stackoverflow could allow you to get more options like adding new tags for these filters when searching for Premium or freemium etc…

    As for the algorithm of who is at the top of the list, this reputation system can help as well and add another level to improve your ranking.

    The other issue is where I can see how Otto is having a problem with implementation of all this is it’s extremely hard to find all this programically this would “only” require a rebuild of the wordpress.org site. All plugins and themes can stay the same no changes have to be made on their end.

    I would even go as far as say it’s worth stopping the development of wordpress core for a version or two to rebuild the .org site. I see wordpress core and .org as a symbiosis they both help each other alot.

    Anyways you get the idea

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  15. I won’t really get into the freemium vs premium subject matter because that is a whole other topic that is separate from what this article is about.

    For a very long time, I’ve noticed and kept track (somewhat) of the popular list. I know many people over the years have been upset with the fact the WP default themes are even on that list and often feel the popular list should be for theme authors outside from the default themes. I’ve even complained that the “Featured List” still has the TwentySixteen theme in it, taking up a space that could be used for other authors.

    However, what is frustrating is that over the last couple of months, authors are seeing new themes getting in the upper echelon of the popular list with a showing of 5000, 10,000, even 30,000 active installs (If you don’t think being there is generating a lot of $$$ for them, you’re crazy!). Right now there’s at least 7 themes that should not be where they are based on how many downloads they are showing; one being Primer which is by Godaddy…as many know, was allowed to jump the queue ahead of every theme author that are waiting months for their themes to get reviewed. Of course, that is a whole other story that WPTavern posted recently and what is done is done.

    Seeing themes get positioned high up in the popular list is very frustrating for many authors, especially when we know they found loopholes, whether a bug in the system or simply finding out how to game the system by taking advantage of either scenario. Some authors feel like giving up and walking away from .org.

    I don’t know how the system is coded, but I know it’s very old and more likely outdated. I would imagine that making changes is not easy with band aid fixes or find and fix loopholes without causing some kind of conflict, but it almost looks like it would be better to simply build a whole new theme directory from the ground up and start new.

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