Upsells, Barriers, and the End/Beginning of the Quality $free Themes Era

The WordPress.org theme directory is becoming little more than a crippleware distributor. I suppose it was inevitable given its reach, which can be worth $1,000s/month for theme authors.

Justin Tadlock via Twitter

As I think back on that tweet from 2019, I realize how unfair it was to refer to the themes coming into the directory as “crippleware.” At the time, I was a part of the Themes Team (formerly the Theme Review Team). However, there were real cases of crippleware submitted to the directory when I wrote that.

To define crippleware: some themes blocked core WordPress features and made them available via the “pro” versions. It was one of the more blatant abuses of the free themes directory I had seen for a profit.

However, the term does not represent the majority of themes submitted. Most of what we see today are “lite” themes. Some of them are well-designed themes that provide value to end-users at no cost. Others are stripped-down versions of what you would typically see from a starter theme. While they are fully functional — the Themes Team’s rules have been strict on this requirement — the real value of the theme is in the upsell.

This is not the start of an anti-commercial theme rant. When WordPress developers and agencies are successful, it benefits the whole ecosystem. But, how do we balance that with providing value — which is subjective, I know — to the free theme directory? How do we transition the theme directory to something flowing with more artistic or even experimental ideas?

Guidelines and Stumbling Blocks

Matt Mullenweg, WordPress co-founder and project lead, posted the following on the Post Status Slack two weeks ago:

The .org theme directory is particularly bad when you compare it to any half-decent commercial theme marketing page, or the designs available on other site building services or Themeforest directories. The .org theme directory rules and update mechanism have driven out creative contributions, it’s largely crowded out by upsell motived contributions.

There is a lot to unpack in his statement. I agree with most of it. The Themes Team agrees with at least some of it. However, its members lack direct control over the system outside of the guidelines.

“I actually agree with this in a sense,” said Themes Team rep William Patton. “Creativity has not prospered in the directory, and I think a large part of it is the barrier of entry. ‘Don’t do bad things’ is the overarching guideline for the theme directory, but that can be viewed very subjectively. If it were the only guideline we would see a lot of things that might not be best suited here. If we want to encourage creativity then more freedom to express it would likely be a good way to start bringing it back. However, it can be hard to know where the line should be placed.”

The team sometimes gets pulled in two different directions. When the project lead asks for things to be more open, many members rally around that idea. On the other hand, the call for stricter accessibility requirements, for example, are popular with others in the community. It is a choice between two ends of the spectrum that are tough to pull together as the gatekeepers to the official directory.

“Why couldn’t it be more like the plugin directory?” asked Mullenweg. “That has all the same potential issues and has been working pretty well. I’d like it to work just like the plugin directory, with direct access for authors, and most reviews being post-review vs. pre-review.”

The Themes Team is not against the idea. More than anything, they just need the help to make any significant change.

“Having the themes directory work like the plugins directory would be great!” said Themes Team rep Ari Stathopoulos. “And, in fact, it’s something we’ve all been asking for years, but there are many technical challenges because they are built fundamentally differently. Plugin authors have access to their plugin’s SVN while themes don’t. Theme reviews are public while plugin reviews are private and closed. There would need to be lots of changes in systems and meta. Not to mention that, as far as I know, plugins don’t do post-reviews, they do pre-reviews the first time a plugin is uploaded and post-reviews for updates (which is exactly what happens in themes too).”

The team has created tickets, asked for help, and have generally awaited a champion to push innovative ideas — or any ideas — forward. Seven-year-old ticket to support the standard readme files available to plugins? No takers as of yet. Allowing block-based themes to be uploaded? Maybe we can make that happen sometime soon.

The guidelines are likely less crippling than the outdated Trac review system, uploading ZIP files for updates (which Mullenweg mentioned), the limitation of a style.css header for the theme description, and the lackluster theme previewer.

WordPress.org theme review Trac system.
Theme review system on Trac.

For the most part, nearly every guideline has been put in place in hindsight. The team finds consistent abuse or issues and course-corrects.

“I don’t think that Matt’s idea of a creative theme is a theme that is not secure or not compatible with GPL,” said team repo Carolina Nymark. “Creativity is not limited by being asked to sanitize options. It is not limited by making sure that your theme can be translated. If the reviewers saw creative, beautiful themes that lacked in some other aspect like basic accessibility, then the team could help explain to the theme author what kind of changes are necessary. But that is not the kind of themes that are being submitted.”

Financial Incentive

In the mid-2000s, the average theme developer could get away with building an entire theme on a lazy weekend afternoon. WordPress was far less complicated. Theme development was not a race to the bottom, bundling every feature imaginable.

Today, we live in the era of the multi-purpose theme. To soar to the top of the popular list, most themes need to handle everything from being the online face of a pizza restaurant to masonry grids for artist portfolios. They also either need good luck, name recognition, or good marketing. That is the reality for the average theme developers trying to make a name for themselves.

It makes for boring themes in a free theme directory. If the theme author has any financial motivation behind creating a WordPress theme, they need to bundle the nicer features into a paid package.

As Eric Karkovack wrote in his piece for Speckyboy, Are High-Quality Free WordPress Themes a Thing of the Past?, “Money changed the equation.”

There is not much incentive to push a free theme out to the directory just for fun. Most themers are spending a month or more of their time in today’s ecosystem to build a theme. The days of the weekend-afternoon project seem all but gone.

Even releasing a theme to give back can often be a letdown. There is little chance of any name recognition as the developer’s creation is swamped by the hordes of lite themes in control of the directory. There is no way for unknown players to get any exposure through the directory except in the brief moments their theme lands in the latest themes list. It is that one make-or-break moment that could potentially help best the algorithm and slip into the nearly unattainable popular list.

In comparison to Themeforest, the WordPress.org directory is lacking. Themeforest is inviting to users because it provides the backend tools for theme authors to market their themes. They can load up custom demos, provide screenshots, use a modern categorization system, and provide all sorts of extra data to end-users. They’re in the business of selling a product to users.

Screenshot of the Themeforest WordPress themes page.
WordPress themes on ThemeForest

While WordPress.org may be free, it should still be selling the promise of a beautiful website to its users. I have always said it, the themes available on WordPress.org are the face of WordPress.

Users deserve better. Theme authors deserve better tools to make it happen.

Even with better tools and a better-designed directory in place, there is no guarantee of an uptick of creative contributions or a better overall balance that keeps pure upsells in check.

“I think that due to the reach a theme or plugin that becomes popular quickly commands, monetization is a necessity to be able to properly ‘support’ such an endeavor,” said Joost de Valk, CPO of Yoast, in response to Mullenweg’s statement on Post Stats. “I think the community also ‘demands’ a certain stability and a certain level of support that is simply unfeasible to expect from any non paid contributor. Because WordPress.org has no way of doing that monetization ‘on platform,’ this is what you end up with.”

He also argued that something akin to an app store would make things like the “balkanization from non-G-based site builders” less attractive to theme authors. Such a store has little or no chance of becoming a reality.

“I think we first need to agree on what the theme directory should be,” he said. “We need a ‘mission statement,’ of sorts. And I think we probably need less control than we currently have, be much more like the plugin directory. But if we have a vision of what it should be, then we could work towards that.”

There is an opportunity to turn things around. Full Site Editing will leave ample room for releasing creative, fully-featured themes with upsells. There is plenty of reason to be excited about pattern design and template packs, better value-adds for theme authors who want to upsell. The problem is going to be getting authors to abandon traditional themes and explore new terrain.

Changes Are Coming, Maybe, Hopefully

Popular themes list on WordPress.org.
Popular listing on the WordPress theme directory.

For some, this is a song and dance they already know the lyrics and steps to. It is a years-long conversation that has netted little in return.

However, the WordPress.org theme directory may be forced to change one way or another. Block-based themes are not arriving in some distant future; they are knocking at the door. Full Site Editing is slated to land in WordPress 5.8 this June.

With this change, the WordPress.org theme directory needs to be prepared. Even with a move today, it will be a mad scramble to get systems ready in a handful of months. If waiting for the last minute, it is just asking for chaos. Block-based themes should already be allowed to be uploaded, for example.

As we saw earlier this week, Automattic launched its Blank Canvas theme. It is designed to work on single-page websites. It does not support commenting out of the box, which is a requirement for inclusion into the official directory.

Block-based themes will forever change the system. In the past, traditional themes needed to cover all their bases, integrating with every front-end feature of WordPress. In the future, that is not necessarily the case. Because everything will be built from blocks and users will have direct access to customize those blocks, a theme has no need to cover everything. The user can add and remove features at their leisure. The review guidelines need to be molded for this future.

Full Site Editing almost seems purpose-built for outside-the-box theme designers. Whether it is a simple, one-page wedding invitation or an author’s book landing page, there are more possibilities upcoming than there ever were in the past. And, these things will be far easier to build on the theme-design side of things. It will remove a lot of burden from developers and from the Themes Team during reviews.

“Regarding the FSE themes: to be honest all my hopes are there,” said Stathopoulos. “They are very different, and it’s a fresh start for the repository. New theme paradigm, a different set of rules (with of course some overlap for basic things), and a new way of doing things and thinking about themes. However, if they are presented in the same way in the same repo we have now, then nothing will change. the theme repo needs to change, and there’s no way around that. But that’s a decision that will have to be made from the WordPress leadership and implemented by meta.”

As always, I remain optimistic about the future of WordPress themes, hoping for the ushering in of a new era. I get the sense that the Themes Team shares some of that enthusiasm, at least cautiously so. More than anything, they need the community, particularly theme authors, to chip in and shape that vision of what the WordPress theme directory should be.

Perhaps today, the stars are nearing alignment. Mullenweg plans to chat with the team and gather feedback in the coming weeks.

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25 responses to “Upsells, Barriers, and the End/Beginning of the Quality $free Themes Era”

  1. I’ve got to echo the sentiment of Joost de Valk. The theme directory — and the plugin directory — should recognize the reality that developing quality themes and plugins takes financial investment, that there are upsells, and thus provide a mechanism for upsells to standardize the process.

    Standardizing would allow classifying and quantify the types of things being sold (3 theme templates, 7 blocks, etc.) and it would allow the directories to provide searches that could limit themes to only those that are “fully free”, only those that “cost < $xxx” and so on.

    Allowing users to filter for “fully free” themes encourage more people to publish fully free themes because they would be more discoverable.

    It would also give Automattic a revenue stream because they could offer the payment mechanism and take 10% or less of the cost of the theme or plugin.

    It would create a much better user-experience for those users who do choose to upgrade.

    It would make it easier for vendors to monetize, and it could also allow WordPress.org to limit ratings of paid products with paid support to those who have actually paid for support.

    It would solve a myriad of problems that the strict “only free” mentality has created.

    #jmtcw

    BTW, I don’t sell themes or plugins so I have no dog in this hunt other than as a user.

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    • The issue with Automattic handling the marketplace payments etc is that they get all the data on what sells and not and if they see something gets a lot of sales they will just add it to their JetPack offering. This is how Amazon works and I do not expect Automattic would act any differently.

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  2. Rodrigo says:

    For theme authors to join the FSE bandwagon, I think it is necessary to have a clear statement of what kinds of features the Site Editor will provide exactly. What degree of flexibility it will have.

    For example: will it be possible to style a complete website with it, considering grids, responsive design, custom icons, animations and so on? Or should I need an additional block plugin, with tons of custom controls to do this?

    I saw some hints here and there in Github issues, but at the moment there is no clear picture.

    See, if we need to rely on three or four plugins to create a custom theme, it’s better to keep using just one page builder plug-n, isn’t it?

    Without the flexibility to deliver the type of layout that a page builder can, what’s the point?

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  3. Louis says:

    In all honesty, once I get past the idea of around the years around 2500 being past tense, the entire outdated (and vastly only ideological at this point) idea that plugins and themes hosted on .org are “free” is laughable.

    I wish WordPress.org would take a more honest approach to the Themes and Plugins directories. The big decision makers in the WordPress world are rapidly attempting to take over many of the popular plugins in order to force people to use their products over what else is available on the market. Essentially insuring there won’t be a lot of competition.

    I don’t know why they aren’t doing the same with regard to commercial market places. After all, there are only a few little decisionsleft before WP.org will be hosting plugin author sales pages right on the descriptions tab. The only thing really missing is payment integration which some plugin authors directly link to from their description pages.

    I say, “Jump in there and be more honest with what you are doing.” They aren’t promoting “creativity” in either repository. They are promoting a lot of garbage that really needs the Pro versions to be an asset to a website.

    Not all, but a very large portion of Plugins aren’t much use if you don’t have the “upsell”. Let’s just put the old idea to sleep and open up the WordPress.org marketplace. Make it official.

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    • If a plugin is just garbage, a placeholder trying to persuade people to buy something different, then there’s a review system so that the people misled by it can say so. Unless you have a decent free offering, you’ll hurt your own attempts to sell something else.

      Making wordpress.org a place that takes payments is a terrible idea. There might be something of the Wild West about .org, but concreting it over and replacing it with an official corporate monopoly would be much worse. And I doubt over-stretched people at .org want to get into all the consequences of becoming a co-vendor.

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  4. “In comparison to Themeforest, the WordPress.org directory is lacking. Themeforest is inviting to users because it provides the backend tools for theme authors to market their themes. They can ….”

    This is not just an issue in the theme directory. The tools available at wordpress.org to plugin developers and plugin support teams have also seen only the most minor evolution in the last decade. The result is that both developers and users spend a lot more time working to deal with the tools’ limitations.

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    • Jay C. Mailen says:

      I don’t know that I fully agree with you David. I’m a developer and always found the documentation to be top notch, for the most part. The react and block documentation is… well, it’s getting there. But generally I find it among the best.

      I guess my view on the entire subject is a bit different from most. I’ve never been a fan of “Themes” because far too often they try and cross into PlugIn territory. For example, a “Theme” for Real Estate seems silly to me. That’s PlugIn territory because it implies functionality, not design. Change the theme and you lose functionality and that’s ridiculous.

      So to me, the whole evolution of commercial theme companies was never a good model. Right now we’re seeing the very concept of themes as we know them disappearing and I think long term it’s a good thing.

      I build and sell commercial PlugIns and at one point we sold themes. Honestly, they were among our best sellers because people want complete solutions. We killed our themes a couple years ago and it killed our general sales, but that also allowed us to focus on our core VIP customers. This in turn helped finance the next set of versions for our suite of PlugIns.

      So I get it, there’s some good easy money in Themes and they draw in customers, especially the low hanging fruit. It’s not easy moving away from that model and it’s a costly transition. Most top notch Theme companies already know this, it’s why companies like Woo Themes focused on acquiring, building or in Woo’s case forking, a PlugIn to become their flagship product.

      As for the WordPress.org directory, there’s a rating and review system which does a pretty fine job of letting people know what’s good and what’s not. It’s not perfect, but I personally find it effective as it is and think the “Theme” directory will whither while “Blocks” will begin to take it’s place.

      Things are bound to be a bit of a clustered up mess during this time of transition, but I’ve been working on the internet since before there was a web and this is just part of the life. It’s constant change and there’s always a clustered up mess. It’s fun, keeps things exciting ;-)

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  5. Fränk Klein says:

    Everybody wants a theme marketplace on WordPress.org, but nobody wants to run it.

    Matt has been critical of the theme review guidelines for years. Yet in all that time he did nothing to change WordPress in a way that could cut down on these guidelines.

    WordPress doesn’t have a templating layer that would make it trivial to escape data on output.

    Even worse a theme can do pretty much anything that a plugin does. A theme is just a set of PHP files, with no limits of what code they can contain.

    WordPress has lacked Core-provided theme customization options for years. So each theme developer came up with their own. All this code needs to be checked for security, which is difficult as no automated tooling (WPCS) is used.

    Now FSE will help with that. It’s a step in the right direction, and it could be a solution for many of these technical
    issues. But it doesn’t help with a larger issue that prevents experimentation.

    After years themes still cannot opt out of features. Comments being an example. WordPress is still as monolithic as it was when it was first forked off B2.

    Even if that were fixed, the interface of the directory still needs to be adapted so that users can find what they need. As in if I as a user need comments, I should only see themes that support them.

    And this is not to mention the lack of developer tools. It’s easy to blame guidelines for the lack of themes. And not the whole setup, which is entirely in Matt’s control. Uploading a ZIP? In 2021?

    This ongoing discussion about guidelines hides the fact that no good designer wants to jump through all these hoops to get his theme “out there”.

    This is not 2007, and theme creators are no longer hobbyists working on our weekend side projects. Design, development, support, marketing–if you want to make money with themes you need to
    master all of these. Nobody will do that if they aren’t getting rewarded for their knowledge and their work.

    So if there are lots of well designed themes on other marketplaces, and not on .org, it’s really not the fault of guidelines. By the way ThemeForest’s guidelines are even stricter, both for technical aspects, and for design.

    And it’s not like the plugin repository is this astounding model of success. It has had its fair share of issues and continues to do so, for some of the same reasons.

    Long story short: if the WordPress project lead wants a reposiory full of high quality themes, then he has the power and the financial resources to make it so. I mean who else is going to get this done? A handful of unpaid volunteers with little to no authority?

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  6. Bastian says:

    Matt says that “The .org theme directory is particularly bad”. My question is, if he thinks it’s so bad (which it truly is, by the way), why not use Automattic devs and money to improve it like they do with Gutenberg?

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  7. I think, there will be no other themes, just one: plain, stable, and secure theme from wordpress.

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  8. Gerald says:

    It,s truly sad but things are changing but unfortunately, not all for the better, you could start a blog before and run it on free themes that had unlimited features, not days, it’s just impossible

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  9. I have to agree with you that the themes on WordPress.org are the face of WordPress. Which makes it even more absurd the fact that in the back-end, when you open the Themes page, we still get those louzy tabs with “Featured / Popular / Latest”.
    The featured tab is first, and it’s just a random list of (often terrible) themes.
    At least rename it to “Random”, so that new WordPress users don’t think that this random collection of themes are somehow the best of what WP has to offer.

    As for some of the most popular multipurpose themes: the keyword is affiliate marketing. If these themes have good marketing skills and a great sales funnel, content creators will promote them.
    Why promote a niche shop with a 0.5% conversion rate when you can promote someone with a 2% conversion rate and a higher commission rate?
    And once marketers get on with it, the smaller guys are screwed.

    Just a sad reality of doing business.

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  10. Juergen Klein says:

    One major problem I see with all recent “upselling” trend on WordPress is the price structure, particularly the trend towards yearly subscriptions.

    Whilst I recognise the economic reasoning from authors the current prices exacerbate an economic divide! Yes, I understand that if you live in California or central Europe you need a minimum income as a WordPress developer. But current pricing trends have moved WordPress out of reach for poorer people.

    Prices that average US$50 (or more) per item might be fine for users from wealthy countries, but they make it near impossible for a low budget start-up from a poorer nation to set up any successful website with WordPress.

    Usually it’s not one premium product one needs to set up a site, but a whole basket of these: premium theme, several premium plugins (from contact form to features missing in the theme to possible image optimisation, etc.), premium caching, and more. That’s all before the annual hosting bill!

    So starting a WordPress site might require an upfront and repeated annual investment of easily US$3-400/year = which equals the minimum monthly income in many countries, even in Eastern Europe.

    So the premium add-ons move the so-called free WordPress out of reach for too many!

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    • Corey Burger says:

      The annual subscription stuff is brutal. I took over admining a page with an older (2013 era) theme. In order to get updates, I’d have to buy their annual subscription, so am running an ancient, possibly vulnerable version.

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  11. I agree with the previous comments that it is not the right way how wordpress.org hosted themes & Plugins being sold and pricing structure for each product is really a big deal for Asian Countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh & Many More..
    I think it may lead to many users moving to other CMS provided they are equally competent.

    It is all because of your past doings – How Themes like Astra, plugins like – Yoast, Elementor , Beaver Builder being allowed and favoured to use ur platform for their benefit. Have u seen their charges.

    Now i see themes and plugins are only released for one purpose- How to start their selling for elementry features. There is no creativity. Theme authors like Alxmedia or suffusion author being ignored by the community- why . Those were really creative ones.

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  12. FREE vs. PAID Themes has been a source of consternation for me for many years! While I don’t mind paying for a theme that works and has great SEO, I detest the annual charges that many of these themes are after, offering you the world yet hardly giving you a ROI.

    The infamous WordPress themes marketplace has sent me into orbit on so many occasions because it seems bogged down by a select few who for no logical reason occupy the top spot, like a crusty layer of mold on top of your biscuit that you would like to bite into.

    Having said that, the irony is in the power of choice. The more themes you have, the more options you have; while at the same time, the more themes you have the less time and motivation you have to explore them all.

    This hurts (puts restrictions on) the small blogger like me who runs a blog for fun and a bit of extra income. I love what I do and I think it is a bit unfair to castigate people trying to make money on the internet by developing a theme for profit; I happen to think it’s unrealistic to solely have WordPress powered by 100% FREE themes as economics will devolve the industry. Just my 2p.

    I love that this article explores “crippleware” in the way that it does because it truly represents the hardships and challenges of bloggers like myself who are on the front end of much of this idiocy. When I find a great theme, I am overjoyed and in love! However, it’s like anything else in life: nothing worth its salt is not worth it without a bit of struggle, and the whole WordPress game is no different.

    There are great themes out there, I think we all are looking for a better system of matching them to our specific needs.

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    • Juergen Klein says:

      …which would begin with a much better “Feature Search” functionality in the theme and plugin depository! Right now the search categories are way to vague and don’t include all desired options.

      For example, I only want a theme that includes the excerpts() function and a sticky menu. Whilst with some these might be listed there’s no comprehensive search option, like a long list of features with (let’s say) 3 radio buttons to select: required, maybe (would use), not wanted feature.

      If you don’t know the name of a good theme you have a slim chance to find it. The same applies for plugins, where a few big ones dominate the search results. I tend to use a lot of lesser popular choices. Take the contact form (why isn’t a basic contact form part of the WP core?): Contact Form 7 always comes up – despite it being a real problem with load speed. I use Caldera Forms because it does what I need.

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  13. The Brutal Truth says:

    WordPress.org needs a modern, simple, minimalist and easy app-store like system like the Apple App Store, Microsoft Store or Google Play Store. It should handle the payments there as well. Otherwise we’ll just continue to use ThemeForest.

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  14. Angshuman says:

    Free WP users like me donot much care about themes if there be ‘feature’ blocks that could be added to any blank page to provide theme like functionalities to the site. That way wp can do away with themes altogether. There are too many good themes as per users choice & not so good ones, but anyway, they do not much matter if I can develop a site up from a blank page & a few plugins.

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    • Corey Burger says:

      In some ways, plugins and the complicated themes offer the same thing – features, styled in a certain way. Wonder if there is a good UI for combining the two nicely

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  15. David Roberts says:

    I’m a new user, switching from SiteBuilder which will no longer be supported after March, 2021. Loved it! Achived everything I wanted as a woodturner sellining his goods and educating the public for 20 yrs.

    WordPress has more issues when it comes to building an equivalent site than I can count. Themes are restrictive unless you spend a bundle on an upsell and even then your looking at custom work.

    Sorry to say it. But I’m done. Sites down, accounts clossed.

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  16. Dmitry Dinev says:

    This is one of the reasons why I am against removing the Featured tab from the wordpress.org theme directory.

    The question of who defines a theme in Featured is a technical question. This can be done by the theme review team and automatic based on activation stat and downloads number, for example.

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  17. ” I have always said it, the themes available on WordPress.org are the face of WordPress.”

    I fully agree with this. For a lot of folks who are just starting out with WordPress, a free theme makes sense. And trying to set one up may account for one of their first experiences using the software. If it’s a bad one, they may not come back.

    To me, having a way for users to easily find, compare and test out free themes is a key part of the onboarding experience.

    Right now, the theme repository feels like an afterthought. And it’s understandable, knowing the other things that have been in development. Certainly not the fault of the Themes Team – their hands have been tied.

    But you still can’t upload block-based themes? How are people supposed to get the full Gutenberg experience without themes aimed at its use? This is lacking in the commercial market as well. Maybe finally allowing this on .org will give the repository an edge.

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