Is WP Notify the Silver Bullet WordPress Needs to End Admin Notification Spam?

A short while ago, Justin Tadlock posted an article titled Are Plugin Authors to Blame for the Poor Admin Notices Experience?. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading his article. It describes in detail one question I’ve been pondering since I originally posted the WP Notify feature project proposal almost a year ago now: Will a new notification system for WordPress solve the notification spam, or just move it elsewhere?

The answer might not be as simple as we think.

I have been building, maintaining, and supporting a number of free, paid, and client plugins for the past five years. During that time I have also been an active contributor — as much as I possibly can outside of work and my personal life — to the WordPress open source project. Now that’s definitely a drop in the ocean compared to some folks, but whenever I see the mess that can occur when multiple plugins or themes register admin_notices on EVERY SINGLE ADMIN PAGE, it strengthens my resolve in the idea that WordPress needs a centrally managed notification system. 

If you read Justin’s article, or you are a plugin or theme developer yourself, you know that the notifications system (aka admin notices, a reference to the WordPress hook that prints these notices) in WordPress is limited at best. We need to be honest with ourselves, however, admin notices was not designed to function as a notification system. Admin notices should really only be used to display useful information to the user about state changes in the system. Messages like when a post has been updated or deleted, or a database upgrade is required. Short, useful, and more importantly, relevant.

As developers, we usually look for the root cause of a problem. And in the case of admin notices, the root cause is not the current notification system, or the fact that plugin developers use it for things other than, well, admin notices. The root cause is the fact that there has never existed a mechanism for notifications other than admin notices to be displayed to the user. This means that whenever a plugin developer has needed, or in fact wanted, to communicate with their users, via “in app messages,” admin notices has been the only way they can do so.

Want to let your users know about a new upgrade? Admin notice. Want to ask them to leave a review? Admin notice. Your premium license is about to expire! Admin notice. Hey, we’ve got a new sale on our premium products! Admin notice. It all soon adds up to an almighty mess.

And that’s the problem with a project like WP Notify. We’ve had admin notices, in its current iteration at least, since 2011. That means we have been using it for all our user facing messages now for nine years at least – nine years of plugin and theme developers using admin notices to send messages to users. 

If you have children, imagine telling your nine year old that the way they have been walking is wrong, and they now need to learn a completely new way of doing it. Good Luck!

So, as much as it pains me to admit it, WP Notify is not the silver bullet that will magically fix the problem at its core. As Matt Mullenweg pointed out in the comments on Justin’s article, “I don’t think a notification center is the solution to this problem. It may be useful for other reasons, but not that one.”

However, not having a specific solution for notifications other than those that are necessary, means that developers will keep on doing things the way they have always been. Enforcing new guidelines around the current functionality nine years later is going to be hard, especially since enforcing these guidelines will have to be done by a small group of volunteers, namely the theme and plugin review teams. 

By building WP Notify, we create a new and hopefully better way for plugin and theme developers to connect and communicate with their users. At the same time, we provide a tool by which we can more easily enforce any new guidelines. A guideline could be created for example, that unless your message is strictly within the realms of informing the user about state changes in the system, it needs to be displayed in the notifications center, and not as an admin notice.

So no, I don’t believe WP Notify will be a silver bullet solution. We’re not going to build it, ship it, and suddenly all the notification spam goes away the next day. That kind of change takes time.

But I do believe it’s a step in the right direction.

If you agree with me, why not join our merry band and help us build it

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11 responses to “Is WP Notify the Silver Bullet WordPress Needs to End Admin Notification Spam?”

  1. Can we follow up with what’d be the unanimously acceptable way to notify the user about “buy premium, review our plugin/theme, sale sale sale”? AFAIK right now, nothing is.

    We’re only talking about restrictions, which will ultimately leave new plugin and theme developers in the dust–making 0 income.

    As the one who built The SEO Framework with heart and soul, without ever utilizing persistent notifications, I can expose that 90% of our users don’t even know that we have a premium/paid version. Getting that number up to 80% could easily double our income.

    I can also expose it took four long years of dealing with debt before I could even climb out of the gutter and think about expanding. Utilizing notifications, like other plugin authors are doing, would surely kickstart a significant income.

    I vehemently can’t recommend being as pure with FOSS as I have been.

    Just tossing an idea out there: Add a standardized and exposed “has premium” button on the plugin/theme page, which leads users to all the information they need.

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    • Why do you think that there is an acceptable way?

      Don’t advertise paid stuff in the free systems. Doing so makes you exploitative of the community provided systems for profit. That makes you “the bad guy” and no matter what you do, you will be seen as such by some.

      When this is inherently a bad thing to do, then there is no good way to do it. So, either we get heavily restrictive, or let the community itself decide. Which it largely does, thru reviews and articles and blog posts and Twitter and etc…

      The plugin and theme directories allow some advertising and try to limit things as best as possible. You can agree or disagree. And you will be countered by somebody else who disagrees with you, always. We can argue where that line is indefinitely. :shrug:

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      • That’s easy to say when you don’t support WordPress for a living, but instead, you’re provided a living to support WordPress.

        The lack of guaranteed living is why these solvable issues exist and will continue to exist until plugin/theme developers are thrown a bone or two. From where I’m standing, it seems Audrey’s chewing all the flesh off those bones, and stashing them in a chained mithril bag thereafter. There’s a reason Apple is under scrutiny for its monopolistic approach around the App Store, and I’m saddened that the WP Governance Project went down under.

        As for community-generated reviews, articles, and blog posts about our “free” work… well, they don’t spawn from nothing. They’ve proven to come from those annoying notifications (look at how Yoast SEO went from 2.4 stars to 4.9). And, sometimes, there’s a lot of cash involved behind the scenes. I’ve encountered this, I’ve reported this, I’ve been ignored for this. It’s anti-competitive, it’s sorely illegal in North America and the EU, and it’s somehow condoned by W.org’s plugin repo maintainers. The community doesn’t decide itself, they’re decided for.

        WordPress isn’t a FOSS baby anymore; it’s a heavily monetized platform. Real people with real families eating real food who are living in the real capitalistic world who have to pay for real internet and real electricity really need to get paid with real cash to support WordPress. WordPress owes its life to them, and then some.

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    • Thanks to the Tavern for enabling this discussion, and for such a constructive post.
      Please, “Add a standardized and exposed “has premium” button on the plugin/theme page”.
      This is such a common sense thing to do which can only improve things, and will enhance the aims of the WP Notify project.
      There is always a more “acceptable way” to do things.
      I am fine with commercial themes and plugins supporting, improving and building on open source, people have to make a living. However I get sick of pollution in the admin area.
      I just delete those who pollute, but that is not the solution for providing a more acceptable way of doing things. I also know how to move plugins such as Jetpack to the bottom of the Admin menu, but most users will not.

      Getting something done in this area will be a great enhancement to WordPress.

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  2. I appreciate the admin notifications letting me know my Premium plan is about to expire and sales notices, as well. It’s also good to know when there are upgrades so I’ll know what to expect. I don’t know how many WP peeps read or even know about notifications so perhaps it should be more standardized and exposed, as suggested by Sybre Waaijer.

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  3. On Facebook, you have a little bell on the top, just right of centre. you get a number in white font, with a red background on top of that little bell.

    On Twitter, you have on the left sidebar.

    On Instagram you have a heart on the top right.

    My bank, same thing.

    If there is an update, put something on top. In fact, WordPress does have it. two circular arrows pointing at each other. Around the top left.

    Why do we need to see these annoying admin notification spam.

    The whole “subscribe to newsletter”, “you have been using xyz plugin for a while, rate the plugin” type messages………………………….it is so annoying. Get rid of them.

    Let’s forget the fact that some kind of tracking must be occurring for you to know I have been using xyz plugin for a while. So much wrong there.

    Every month I get a notification that my credit card statement is ready and available online for me to check. It’s on the top right of my bank’s admin account dashboard page.

    GET RID OF ADMIN NOTIFICATIONS. Put them all in a small icon that shows you how many notifications there are in a number.

    I would take a screenshot but I have no updates right now on my WordPress sites. Sorry.

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  4. Some of the notifications could find a better “home” as a panel in the Dashboard. One good candidate would be themes and plugins updates. As such, people that want that information can activate that panel, and those who don’t, like me (I rater do all updates via WP-CLI), can hide that specific panel. I know is not a solution for all cases, but helps by mitigating the amount messages displayed.

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  5. i belive WordPress needs to need to End Admin Notification Spam, As a wordpress developer i find it annoying trying to hide notifications and the likes. But something i find so not cool is when a particular plugin prompts you to allow sync of data for improvement purposes. if this admin notification spam is checked we can have a more cleaner dashboard and header flow.

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  6. Apple has “in-app purchases available”, why not handle an internal system for all these as well. Currently everything is an anarchy and it is terrible.

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  7. Bioe makes a good point.

    Plugin authors often need to sell something to survive, whether that’s a premium version, a subscription, etc. Without that, we wouldn’t have a lot of the plugins that make WordPress popular. That means they need a mechanism for letting users know about what they’re selling.

    At the moment, WordPress is completely neutral on this, and it’s up to each plugin author to decide how to advertise and how annoying to be – which the sad result that too many of them have decided to be very annoying. If WordPress had a built-in mechanism for letting you know about upgrades in a non-annoying way, they wouldn’t have to abuse the notifications area.

    If you want to stop people walking on the grass, give them a footpath.

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