Goodbye Featured Themes, For Now

Screenshot of the WordPress theme directory, which now features popular themes.
Front page of the theme directory, featuring popular themes.

Yesterday, the featured themes page was quietly removed from the WordPress theme directory. Previously, it was the primary page users would see when visiting the directory. It has now been replaced with the popular themes list. This change is only reflected on the WordPress.org website and not directly in the WordPress admin for end-users.

This is the first major change with the featured list since it was switched to a randomized set of themes in 2014. Over the past six years, volunteers have presented numerous ideas on what to do with the page that is, in many ways, the face of WordPress, particularly for new users who are searching for their first theme. No proposal has gone beyond a Trac ticket with a handful of participants or a theme review team meeting. It is almost as if every idea was dead on arrival.

Removing the featured list altogether is not a simple matter of hiding the page on WordPress.org. There is an API endpoint that serves the list and core WordPress fetches themes directly from WordPress.org. Even if removed from the software, we would still be dealing with years of backward compatibility for older versions of WordPress. At this point, outright removal is not an ideal solution.

The commit note makes a point that hiding the page from the theme directory is only temporary. The idea is to eventually replace it with a properly-curated featured themes list.

However, such a proposal could languish for years. Given that we have suffered through six years of a randomly-generated list, it is unclear if anyone is motivated enough to push the project forward.

What Happened to the Curated Featured Themes List?

In October, the WordPress theme review team decided to create a system for a curated feature themes list. The initial plan was for the team representatives to work out the finer details and create a path forward. However, the idea seemed to fizzle out before it ever broke ground. There was little public mention of it after the excitement of the initial decision.

“It was really hard to come up with requirements that we wanted the themes to follow,” said Carolina Nymark, a TRT representative. “Like the keyboard navigation and skip link had to be added to the theme, and no upsell. That alone limited the possible themes to a selection that was too small.”

The idea for curated themes was that they would be the best of the best. Seemingly, that meant going above and beyond the standard requirements while being completely free of commercial interests. In hindsight, that level of scrutiny over the list may have been too tough of a sell. Curation does not necessarily have to strive for perfection. Uniqueness may provide more room for flexibility.

“We did not hold any meetings with votes because there were concerns that people would only root for their own theme, their friends’ themes, or even get paid to suggest themes,” said Nymark. “It would be too easy to game it for profit.” Such backdoor schemes have been trouble with previous programs in the team’s past.

The curated list based on their criteria would be too small to rotate regularly on the featured page. The team attempted to find other solutions. However, they were unsuccessful.

“It was a strain that we could not figure out a good solution where theme authors would be treated fairly,” said Nymark. “Then we had a video meeting with [Josepha Haden, Executive Director of WordPress] where she said that the TRT team representatives should not have to select the featured themes. And it stopped there.”

Ari Stathopoulos, a TRT representative, mentioned the elephant in the room that the team was not addressing. “There would be significant drama if the list was manually curated,” he said. “If it’s done by reps, then those who were not selected would accuse reps of favoring some themes. If it was done by a rotating committee, the same. Authors would rather believe that they are a victim of some conspiracy rather than believe their theme is bad.”

A curated themes list is still a possibility. It is unlikely the theme review team will be handling it directly anytime soon. If it does happen, it will likely be another party who makes the call and gets to be the bad guy.

28 responses to “Goodbye Featured Themes, For Now”

  1. everything feels like a conspiracy against the new authors.
    Also once I sent a theme for review and it took months (about 6 to review them) on another occasion it was 9 months. This is very demotivating.

    • Having worked directly on the team for several years, I can assure you there is no conspiracy. It’s just that the process is inefficient. This inefficiency is not necessarily the team’s fault, at least not completely. Part of it is the nature of themes and how complex they have grown over the last 10 years. Part of it is having to teach and re-teach basics like how to escape and sanitize unknown data. There are sometimes communication barriers. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of pieces that come together and make for a terribly slow process at times.

      It can definitely be deflating though. Hang in there!

      • You don’t plan to improve the speed process? What does the director of the review team say? And how can I be part of reviewers? I know enough to create natural WordPress themes. I would like to participate in the review, maybe I could deflate the process more or support.

        • It’s been a rather troublesome effort to attempt to speed up the queue. Nothing much that we have tried has succeeded in speeding things up. It’s an ongoing effort the team has been trying to resolve for a long time.

          The availability of reviewers has always been a problem, there is never enough people to review all the themes thoroughly and themes authors come up with lots of new ways to do things every day. Reviewers always come across things they have never seen before and we try to review every file and function in a theme.

          The more complex a theme is the longer it takes to review. Themes have grow much more complex over time.

          You are absolutely welcome to join the team – new members are very much welcomed. You can find details about the team and how to get started at the link Justin provided above.

  2. I had noticed how quiet it disappeared. As for the curated list, there are just too many variables of concern. I think by the time something could be imagined, WordPress will be a completely different product.

    On a side note, if we can now get rid of the controversial profit-laden “Popular List”, then that just leaves the theme directory without ways of being gamed. The top tier of the popular list is owned by big names and sites with huge traffic resources that seem to live there year-after-year. Big traffic and big sales.

  3. I’d love to have a single person picking them. We can all complain about the person, but at least it’s ownership and accountability over the quality of what’s there.

    • What about @tofumatt – he managed the Gutenberg accessibility issues pretty well as far as I remember.

    • This only works with ultra-transparency, with well-documented reasoning about why themes were chosen to be featured. Otherwise, it opens another can of worms regarding favoritism, nepotism, and/or possibly gaming the system. If something is featured it should be considered golden, worthy of attention, and at a minimum, a post about it should go out explaining why it’s been featured. Theme authors, in general, get discouraged building for WordPress when decisions around choosing winners are not transparent.

    • Matt Mullenweg, I think you should have no person picking them, but an algorithm.
      I would calculate a quality index to decide when a theme should be considered as featured.
      The algorithm could take into account some parameters like the number of active installations, reviews, activity on the support forum, automatic tests on PHP and JS warnings, automatic basic test performance and so on.

      The algorithm should take into account parameters based on the user’s satisfaction and objective evaluations.

      • I second Jose on this, although the number of active installations should be weighed down in order to give a chance to newer themes and have a list somewhat different from the popular themes list.

      • I wanted to say exactly this :) The number of installations should be used to promote new themes. My comment was not so clear.

    • Pick me, Pick me.

      I can’t be influenced as I have no friends, lots of money and am safely hidden away in a state that I never leave and no one ever comes to.

      We’ll change the “Featured” tab to “Nick’s Picks” so they know who to blame. I’ll purchase the domain nick.sucks and let people say whatever stuff they want to make themselves feel better.

    • To an extent, I agree with Matt. There’s nothing wrong with having a Featured Themes list, curated by a single person. Not everything is handled best “by committee” or “by algo”.

      Could also be a guest slot. With a weekly Featured/Favorite Theme by someone from the WordPress community. New person each week – and a rule that the same theme can’t be repeatedly mentioned. So if last week’s theme was f.e. Astra – then there can’t be another person recommending Astra the following week. Just a matter of juggling the featured guests in a meaningful way.

      But all in all, the Popular and Latest views are quite sufficient, along with the Feature Filter. The latter could be beefed-up / refined a bit, though.

  4. The featured themes list was deliberately excluded (along with popular themes) from the theme browser in the customizer that shipped with WordPress 4.9 over two years ago. That interface defaults to latest themes and emphasizes filters and search. Only the legacy theme browser in wp-admin still has the featured themes list. It remains part of the wp-admin section that is functionally replaced by the customizer but still exists for political reasons.

    The long-term goal was to improve the theme discovery experience through a refined approach to filtering, and by unifying theme browsing/switching with other site management and customization workflows. That work could pick back up with limited technical challenges if interested parties can agree on an approach.

  5. In my opinion, the featured themes system was not a bad idea, it just needs to be improved :)

    For example, it would be great if random themes were shown (just like now) but with a set of rules:
    1) Themes need to be updated recently (no more than 6 months).
    2) The themes must not have a rating lower than 3 and a half stars.
    3) The author of the theme constantly responds to user requests in the support page.
    4) Other features that reward the effort of the author of the theme.

    This could be an incentive for authors to keep the theme updated and respond to user requests.

  6. Please, focus on search and filtering of themes and plugins. The whole system is rigged and search results are a mess. Featured Themes as Featured Plugins is not transparent. As Search is also not transparent, since you get systematically the same plugins for very different keywords. For a new user, that doesn’t have any idea about the quantity and diversity of plugins, Search is a nightmare.

  7. This is a bad news. Because a random list of featured themes sometimes stimulated users interest in missed themes that didn’t become popular as they get live. Can will come up with a random sampling algorithm, maybe by some fair/neutral criterion. And take the tab name is something like a Theme of the day.

    Theme authors that do not have a big marketing budget or SMM popularity and who are beginners to have lost a second chance along with this change.

  8. Some of the filters seem very outdated now and need a shake up. Having the featured themes at leat meant you could accidentally stumble across a relevant theme.

  9. Instead of this, you should focus on improving the filtering of themes, which is almost useless as it is now. Nobody searches themes by “Custom Logo”, “Featured Images”, “Microformats”, “Sticky Post” or “Threaded Comments”. People look for themes compatible with WPML, WooCommerce or Elementor. Or having a Masonry layout, or Google Fonts support. Or having a specific number of stars or active installs.

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