The WordPress community is ending two days of heated discussions that rapidly descended into a mire of unbridled emotional confrontations across multiple social channels, following a tweet from John Blackbourn that raised concerns about WordPress.com plugin listings outranking WordPress.org on Google Search.
Developers expressed concerns about the SEO impact of the practice of cloning WordPress.org’s plugin directory for use on WordPress.com, with no backlinks to the original plugin. Another concern is that it perpetuates the longstanding confusion between WordPress.org and WordPress.com.
“I don’t think the SEO concern is real, and by that I mean that besides John’s screenshot, which I think is related to the .org en-gb subdomain decision/bug,” Matt Mullenweg told the Tavern when asked whether WordPress.com is considering not indexing these pages that duplicate content from WordPress.org.
“For general searches I’m seeing .com 5 pages down,” he said. “Just looking at traffic to those pages, they don’t seem to be getting much if any from search engines! So I’m not really concerned about SEO of those pages.
“The vast majority of the traffic to those is to logged in users. When they click ‘manage’ they can easily install it across multiple sites or see where it’s already installed, which actually works across .com and Jetpack sites.”
He offered a similar explanation to Freemius founder Vova Feldman on X, who claimed that WordPress.com has an SEO advantage over independent plugins.
Plugin developers also expressed concerns about new users arriving to a plugin’s duplicated page on WordPress.com and seeing that the plugin is Free only on the (paid) Business plan. This gives the visitor the impression that the plugin isn’t available for free elsewhere, because there is no link back to WordPress.org with an explanation.
Many WordPress.org plugin authors were not aware until recently that their plugin pages are being scraped for use on WordPress.com. Yesterday, Patchstack updated its readme file to ensure that WordPress.com users and visitors are made aware that the plugin is available for free in the official WordPress plugin repository, using the following text:
This plugin can be downloaded for free without any paid subscription from the official WordPress repository.
“I was at a Python conference last week and a guy came to our booth and said he has a WordPress site but he hasen’t been able to purchase any plugins yet,” Patchstack CEO Oliver Sild said. “I told him that they are all free, and then it turned out he had a WordPress.com site where he has to pay to install any plugins. These people think that THIS IS the WordPress.”
When asked if WordPress.com could at least link back to the .org plugin for logged-out views to eliminate some of the confusion, Mullenweg confirmed that he told Sild that WordPress.com would work on adding links to the .org equivalent page this week.
“But that confusion that people claim is causing huge issues for WordPress isn’t supported by the numbers or growth of non-.com solutions over 17 years now,” Mullenweg said.
“So at some point we should stop accepting it as within our top 100 issues for WordPress.
“It’s much more likely like a road bump for some newbies, than an actual blocker, not unlike learning the difference between categories and tags, or how to identify a normal-looking comment that’s actually spam.”
In response to WordPress developer Daniel Schutzsmith saying that WordPress.com is causing confusion for OSS, Mullenweg contended that it “creates a false dichotomy between WP on .com and ‘open source software.’ Every site on .com is part of the OSS community as much as on any other host.
“When there is confusion, it assumes that it’s a top issue for WordPress. Nothing about WP’s growth, including vis a vis other projects, indicates that the existence of a .com and .org with the same name has held us back.”
In support of his claims about the growth of non-WordPress.com solutions, he cited a W3Techs report on hosting company usage stats with extrapolated revenue on Post Status Slack.
“On revenue: If you extrapolate out public domain numbers with plan pricing, and look at public filings like the amount GoDaddy makes from hosting and what % of that hosting is WP-powered, you pretty quickly see that GoDaddy, Newfold/Bluehost, Siteground, Hostinger, and WP Engine make more than .com from WordPress hosting.,” Mullenweg said. “You can check out those companies on the five for the future page.”
Mullenweg has previously criticized large hosting companies for what he perceives to be a lack of support for the open source WordPress and WooCommerce projects in proportion to how much they benefit from the use of these platforms. His comments in Post Status yesterday indicate that while he is still unsatisfied with their core contributions, he acknowledges these companies as important to WordPress’ overall growth.
“By the way, despite not looking great for core contributions, I think each of those companies has been essential for the growth of WordPress, and particularly the work they invest into upgrade PHP, MySQL, core auto-updates, plugin auto-updates, and security are crucial for the health of our ecosystem,” Mullenweg said.
“It’s ‘cynically cool’ to hate on some of the bigger ones, but it’s a free and open market, none of their WP users are locked in and could easily switch to other hosts if they weren’t happy with the price and value they were getting. In fact by that measure, you could argue they’ve all done a much better job than .com at connecting with customers. Maybe I spend too much of .com’s engineering and investment on things like 2fa/passkeys, reader/notifications, stats, the mobile apps, Gutenberg, and Calypso and not enough on marketing or paying off affiliate host review sites.”
The Damaging Community Impact of Public Confrontations
Mullenweg continued to be active on Post Status Slack and X (Twitter) throughout the day, attempting to debunk claims that Automattic is exploiting open source contributors for profit. These interactions included personal attacks which followed after Mullenweg blocked WordPress Marketing Team co-rep Sé Reed who claimed that he is standing in the way of contributors improving the open source project and that he was “vilifying, dismissing, and insulting” the WordPress community.
Some perceived him blocking Reed as him shutting down criticism, despite the fact that he said this is the first person he has ever blocked on Twitter. Although her comments were tangential to the original issue (the impact of the WordPress.com plugin listings), they became a focal point after Mullenweg lashed out at developer and product owner Dan Cameron who accused him of “actively doing more harm than good.”
I reached out to Automattic-sponsored WordPress Executive Director Josepha Haden-Chomphosy who said she did not have additional comments about what has happened with the recent confrontational exchanges, nor the impact on the community.
“I find it kinda refreshing to see Matt throw an elbow or two and stick up for himself,” WP All Import Product Manager Joe Guilmette said in Post Status Slack.
“It’s not the greatest look, but that’s for his PR people to sort out. I don’t have any idea how I’d handle being criticized so heavily for years by the people who built businesses and careers on a project that I helped bring in to the world, but it probably would be a lot worse than calling a few people out on Twitter.”
Others who gathered in various Slack instances, watching things play out on Twitter, felt collectively traumatized by witnessing the interactions between Mullenweg and different community members.
“I think Matt did way more damage this time than ever before,” one prominent WordPress consultant said, requesting to remain anonymous. “It generated good but quite wearied and sad expressions of grief and anguish in my company Slack and no doubt many others.
“The instantly and deeply (however crudely researched) personal nature of Matt’s attacks leads people to paranoid fears that he has a shitlist of enemies who are just regular people, not giant companies etc. It’s a fearsome kind of punching down where the community gets stuck in the psychological position of the children of an abusive parent. Different personalities and different perspectives based on our own experiences lead us to different coping responses. But it’s very ugly now to have the paranoia confirmed as Matt basically taunted the fact that he feeds on what he’s told second or third hand about things others say about him in private.”
Matt Cromwell, Senior Director of Customer Experience at StellarWP, said that discussions that start and stay on X/Twitter generally have very little fruit, especially when resolving something as complicated as the WordPress.com plugins SEO issue.
“The community keeps leaning on this platform for these discussions but things like the impact of duplicate content on two sites both called ‘WordPress’ requires more nuanced and trusting conversations which Twitter can’t provide,” Cromwell said.
“Mullenweg used the whole thing as an excuse to make so many of the plugin owners that drive WP adoption feel small. It was extremely hurtful to the trust product owners put into the leadership of the WP project. I expect to see more product owners prefer to build SaaS integrations with WP rather than dedicated products because they don’t trust that Mullenweg has their mutual interest in mind at all anymore – and I don’t see a way for him to ever put that genie back in the bottle after this behavior both on Twitter and in Post Status Slack.”
WordPress developer and contributor Alex Standiford said Mullenweg’s public confrontations yesterday are “a bad look for WordPress, and deflate the passionate contributors who genuinely believe in WordPress.” Despite recent events, he continues to believe in the larger impact of people building open source software together.
“I believe that WordPress isn’t software,” Standiford wrote on his blog. “It’s not community. It’s not a single person, no matter how significant that person thinks they are. I believe that WordPress is the manifestation of a belief that the web is at its best when it’s open. If I genuinely believed that forking WordPress would be good for WordPress, and the web, I’d contribute to it over the existing platform in a heartbeat.”