Curated List of Featured Themes Coming to the Theme Directory

Themes are the face of WordPress.

Like it or not, the average user is more interested in what their site looks like when they first begin using the platform than what the thousands upon thousands of plugins can do for them. Perhaps that’s unfair to plugin developers — there are more exciting things happening in the plugin world right now — but it is what it is. Themes are visual, and they are what sell the platform to people who just want a site that looks good.

While WordPress is massive, I can’t help but think that it is losing out on more users because such users are not always presented with solid options for their site’s design out of the gate.

Most of the default Twenty* themes are good introduction themes for first-time users, but they are not to everyone’s tastes.

I’ve worked with numerous users who were setting up their first WordPress site over the years. Today, many similar people use a pre-installed script to launch WordPress from their web host. Much of the initial work is done for them. Often, they are unfamiliar with the WordPress community and what is available out there. They don’t know how to find, buy, and install a theme from a reputable commercial theme business.

What they do is head over to the add-new theme page in their WordPress admin, and they are presented with the “Featured” themes list.

Screenshot of the featured themes list in the WordPress admin.
Featured themes list in the WordPress admin.

Sometimes a user gets lucky. Other times it is a crapshoot.

For several years now, the official WordPress theme directory has shown a random list of themes from the 7,000 or so themes available.

While themes in the directory undergo a strict code review, there is no quality control on design. That is a good thing because it allows designers at any level to contribute to the platform. Open source communities should always have an open contribution process, and themes are one area that many developers get started with WordPress.

However, the term “featured” implies that there is something particularly special about those themes. They should be distinctive in some way. They should be a cut above the rest. That’s not what we have today, and it’s not what has been presented to users for the last half decade.

This is a huge missed opportunity.

Today, web hosts have started taking over this role. Whether it is GoDaddy’s onboarding process with their custom Go theme or WP Engine with the Genesis framework, hosts are doing the job that couldn’t manage to get together.

How Featured Themes Became Random

In the 2013-2014 era, the WordPress theme review team (TRT) was trying to find a way to get more people to contribute to the review process. By that time, themes had become big business and more theme authors were submitting themes to the directory. The team implemented a program that allowed the top reviewers each month an opportunity to pick the featured themes.

The program’s original intention was for reviewers to select a theme they liked during reviews. The best-laid plans…

The problem was that nearly all of the top reviewers were theme authors. Their incentive for doing reviews was to get their themes featured. Big theme businesses stood the most to gain. They could put multiple reviewers to work who would knock out review after review.

It wasn’t a level playing field. Even if it had been, the featured themes list was being taken over by business interests via a pay-to-play system. Those with the most resources would always come out on top.

Theme companies featured on were already raking in cash at that point. Zerif Lite, a theme in the popular list just two years later in 2016, reported north of $100 thousand per month from upsells. Even at one-tenth of that number, it is enough incentive for any businesses to play the system to their advantage.

In April 2014, the program was shut down because reviewers were choosing their own themes and repeatedly featuring the same themes. The featured list then began showcasing a new set of random themes every day.

Randomly-chosen featured themes levels the playing field for every theme author. However, it doesn’t showcase the best that WordPress has to offer.

A Curated List of Themes Coming Soon

The TRT decided in their team meeting yesterday on a change in how featured themes are handled. Denis Žoljom wrote in the meeting notes that the team would try a curated list for a few months to see how the WordPress community responds.

The current plan is to hold a meeting every two or three weeks where people can recommend themes to be featured based on their design, code quality, and potentially other merits. The team reps would pick from the recommendations.

The reps are still deciding how to best handle any foreseeable issues before the new program begins. The team was divided over whether there should be a curated list and what the criteria might be for such a list. The biggest concern is over the potential for abuse and conflicts of interest. These and other problems will be something the reps will need to figure out.

The general consensus seems to be that featured themes would not have any upsells or other commercial aspects. That could limit the pool of potential themes considerably because many theme authors have some sort of commercial interest in having their themes hosted in the official directory.

I welcome the change from seeing random themes every day. I want to see the diamonds in the rough that get buried beneath big business and themes that dominate the landscape in the separate popular list. I want to see theme authors who are building unique themes front and center.

The big question is whether this change will help users find that perfect theme for their sites.


11 responses to “Curated List of Featured Themes Coming to the Theme Directory”

  1. I was in that meeting, mostly to observe, but even though I think the theme queue (which is now reaching 4.5 months from submission to going live) is a priority issue, the idea behind the proposed Featured List concept is interesting.

    Abuse and conflicts of interest are going to be a problem to try and avoid from that happening, but can it really be fully avoided? Over the years, there has always been some form of controversy with the whole theme directory and review process.

    As for not having themes listed that have up-sells or some form of commercial aspect integrated into the theme, as Justin mentioned, could limit the pool. The truth is, most theme authors submit themes with the hope of up-sells. Look at what the Zerif Lite brought in; who wouldn’t want to grab even a tiny percentage of that. I know others will say “it’s supposed to be about giving back to the community”. But if that is true, then perhaps “all” themes in the repo should not have any up-sell or commercial elements in themes.

    Anyway, the idea for the new Featured List is interesting, but it needs to be carefully laid out before it gets implemented. Personally, I’ve brought this up many times to only be ignored, but I would love to get rid of that Popular List. Keep the Featured one or the proposed version, and drop the popular list. The unfairness of it means that only the BIG players are monopolizing the list in the higher levels.

  2. Considering we have Customizer, Gutenberg, easy ways to add CSS, and 10,000s of plugins I’m surprised to still be seeing so many templates. I guess old habits die hard. Or is it the desire for instant designs that work right out of the box? Personally, the theme clutter makes it much harder to pick a starting theme. So many themes that are essentially the same.

    I hope Featured Themes provides us with a set of themes that provide a good foundation to build on. Themes that give us a head start on designing a website: good page structure and classes that provide good support for whatever I need to do with CSS.

    But most of all I would like to see more attention to WP core. I should not have to add 50 plugins to get basic webmaster functionality. Lots of little functions that make a big difference in managing a website.

  3. Remove popular, Latest and Featured.

    And keep a simple search just like Google search and let the user decide which theme he/she likes based on their requirements.

    All of this is again giving someone else a priority over others.

    I think it is a bad decision altogether.

  4. This discussion about featured themes not including upsells is ironic, not to say hypocritical. For how many years do we have featured plugins that include upsells? Even installed with WordPress itself.

    The “featured” sections need to be handled transparently, based on the merit of the plugin or theme, and completely eliminating conflicts of interest.

    There is no point in featuring +5 year old themes, and having a featured plugin section always with the same plugins, several from the same company, and promoting upsells. There is clearly a conflict of interest in the way these plugins are being featured.

  5. I tentatively support this idea, but echo the comments of others that more useful search filters would greatly aid the discoverability of themes appropriate for certain projects.

    Perhaps the review team could not just judge themes pass/fail but give marks for code quality, adaptability, and upsell costs. Those could be search facets for people looking for a new theme, in addition to recent updates, ratings, etc., as mentioned by Álvaro above.

    There would not have to be just one curated list, either, because your choice of theme will vary depending on the project. There could be lists of themes chosen by the review team for speed, code quality, adaptability, aesthetics, etc. This might also help add some transparency to the process, so people would know more about who chose the themes on this list and why.

  6. Search filters would be nice, if the tags were not of such poor quality. A few years ago I prepared a table of about 25 themes vs their tags. Admiring my result, it took only moments to notice many existing features were untagged (e.g. a theme with footer widgets but not tagged for that).

    Looking at the current list of filters terms I see the list has been thinned out. I suppose someone hoped this would improve the quality. I don’t think so.

    I think the filter terms do not provide nearly enough detail. Why is there is a tag for “footer widgets” but not for “header widgets”? There are tags for “left/right sidebar,” but what if I need 2 right sidebars, or 3? Some themes do have multiple sidebars, why no tag? Should I care about “custom colors” when I have easy access to CSS?

    The theme previews are useless; mostly showing stuff that is easily changed via Customizer or CSS. Why not provide links to sites using the theme (this could be automated so to require no maintenance) or have the developer provide an example (most already do on their own sites).

  7. I was looking for a theme yesterday, so I scrolled down the popular list and found a suitable theme after a couple of minutes. IMO there should be a popular list because I prefer a theme with at least a couple of thousand active installs and some good reviews (= hopefully properly coded and regularly updated).

  8. I am who many of you are talking about. I started my journey down the rabbit hole earlier this year. No experience at web development. Solid background in tech at lower levels (sys admin/support/training).

    I’m still trying to figure out what makes one theme better than another. Plug-ins I get. Theme’s, not so. I started with WP’s 2019. Tried 3 or 4 others off of the Featured or Popular list. Ended up using an Astra ‘free’ theme. It’s fine for my purposes and has allowed me to get better acquainted with what a theme is. I’m coming to the conclusion that what they offer I can do on my own. It will take effort but I won’t have fluff to deal with. Perhaps after I go through that process I will develop a better appreciation for other peoples themes.

    I absolutely agree with the sentiment being advanced that multiple search and filter capabilities would be far better than the current state. I can only presume that the decision makers have decided that the end user is not smart enough or creative enough to find what they are looking for ‘on their own’. It’s like a take on the 80/20 rule. 20% of end users will never figure out how to find a useful theme so we need to cater to their needs.

    Out for now, thanks for listening.


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