What’s Your Limit of Advertising and Upselling in Free WordPress Plugins?

On the Advanced WordPress Facebook group, a member recently raised the issue of display banner advertising in plugins. After installing Ultimate WooCommerce Brands developed by MagniumThemes, a large admin notice appears with an affiliate linked display banner for Bluehost.

Bluehost Banner Admin Notice
Bluehost Banner Admin Notice

Ultimate WooCommerce Brands is a freemium plugin and while I’m not against plugin authors making a few bucks through advertising, displaying a webhosting banner seems irrelevant.

The advertising banner also shows up on every admin page in the WordPress backend which I feel abuses the admin notice function, even though there’s a “Hide This Message button”. Upsells and advertising should be confined to the plugin’s activation and settings pages according to number 11 of the WordPress plugin directory guidelines:

Plugins should not hijack the blog admin. It is fine to include an Upgrade prompt on the plugin admin page, but not throughout the blog. It is acceptable to embed a widget on the dashboard but this should be the same size as others and be dismissable. It’s fine to put an error message at the top of the admin for special cases, but it should be linked to a way to fix the error and it should be infrequent. Any form of “nagging” is absolutely prohibited.

Samuel ‘Otto’ Wood, a member of the group and plugin review team confirmed that plugins that display advertising on every admin page violate the guidelines and users should report them by emailing plugins at wordpress.org.

The Guidelines Provide Wiggle Room

The plugin review team polices content in plugins, prevents spam, and attempts at bad faith from entering the directory. They also advise authors when they feel something that the plugin does is a bad idea. It’s important to note that the guidelines are not black and white. Instead, they’re somewhat subjective which allows the team to make decisions on a case by case basis.

The Power of Reviews

The WordPress plugin directory gives users an opportunity to provide feedback directly to plugin developers and users through reviews. Reviews are an excellent way to tell the developer why you dislike or like a plugin and it also gives fellow users in the community a heads up.

So far, no one has mentioned the display advertising in their reviews of Ultimate WooCommerce Brands. Perhaps it’s not an issue or users have chosen to disable it and move on to a different option. One of the benefits of WordPress is that there’s usually more than one plugin available to accomplish a task.

Jan Dembowksi, a volunteer moderator for the WordPress.org support forums, explains another benefits to reviewing plugins “Some of the forum moderators read every review. Occasionally, there may be a pattern if there’s a complaint such as not being able to dismiss the upsell banner or taking over the dashboard.

“Sometimes that leads to the moderator installing the plugin or theme on a test installation. This is to see if there’s really a problem or not. If there’s a valid concern then it gets reported up. It doesn’t happen often thankfully, but it has occurred and the plugin or theme author got a polite shoulder tap,” Dembowski told the Tavern.

What’s Your Breaking Point?

We know that upsells and display advertising are allowed in plugins as long as they follow the directory guidelines. How a plugin’s settings pages are displayed is up to the developer, but, as a user, how much advertising or upselling is too much? What’s your advertising limit inside a freemium plugin before you purchase the pro version or move on to an alternative?

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54 Comments


  1. Jeff, I think that this post just touches the tip of the bigger issue, which is how people build sustainable businesses from WordPress development.

    You’re asking a legitimate question about what ‘users’ consider as reasonable promotion.

    I’m sure that the authors of Ultimate WooCommerce Brands don’t want to see this huge banner on the admins of their sites. It would be interesting to see also what brings good developers to resort to displaying not-so-pretty banners by their plugins.

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  2. I think the current guidelines are clear and sufficient. I suspect where you implied that maybe users are self policing by rejecting the abusers for a different plugin is accurate.

    We review what we love or what we hate, but we rarely review the tools that are deficient in minor ways, including being overly aggressive in the freemium game. Companies that don’t look for and see this are short sighted.

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  3. Users need to spend a bit more time understanding who they are getting their themes & plugins from. Especially when the mentioned plugin’s pro link goes directly to CodeCanyon (didn’t realize that was allowed?) Anyway, it’s not easy for the average WP user to do this background research (or even care), I realize this, but some homework is necessary.

    That said, I’ll use this small blip in time to reiterate my 2016 wish: “Verified author’s tag for WordPress.org themes & plugins.”

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      1. It’s comments like this that make me want to build a nice little +1 button into Epoch (along with a new command in Postmatic).

        +1

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    1. What is so funny about your “Verified Authors” tag Matt, is something a friend of mine suggested a year ago. My response was something like, yeah, I’m sure they will do that, lol. To be honest, a Verified Author’s tag would be interesting to see happen. I would imagine that basically is like saying this is an official theme or plugin developer who has been a good boy or girl and eats all their peas and carrots before dessert :) Or what would it be in reference to?

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      1. I tried answering this below to Peter’s comment.

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    2. Matt who can “verified”? There are plugins with millions of active installs with “bad” business practice from well-knowed developers and tons of useful plugins without any junk from new developers.

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      1. First off, there are smarter people than me that should make this decision *and* with a lot more data (from .org) to make that decision.

        I think before adding [Business Practice] to the equation, we need to start identifying some core components like number of themes & plugins in the repo, update cadence, community interaction, documentation and support would be a nice start.

        Again, how are these measured? I dunno. I assume that’s what makes this difficult, but I’d venture to say that 80% of the problems are when themes & plugins authors go missing after a few iterations. No support, no enhancements, no security patches, no keeping up with core WP. So maybe you’re verified every year by checking into your profile or by scooping up .org repo data? Don’t check-in, don’t update, lose your verified tag?

        Or how about identifying that there ARE alternative commercial supported versions available, from the source author in their own store, not from Envato or another marketplace?

        I know, I know, “everyone” hates on shops trying to make a little money with this stuff — I get it — but sometimes a user might just want to pay to have the more readily available support for the software they are using for their own business.

        Here’s an example: The Responsive theme was owned and supported by a very vocal WordPress business owner, Trent. He was very active in the community, had a lot of pioneering ideas, and wanted to grow a healthy company. Whether you agreed with him or liked the theme is not the point here, but the fact that he had a presence. You knew who you were downloading and purchasing a theme from. At the time, his products had a roadmap which is a good thing, but costs money to create. They could have been “verified.”

        He sold CyberChimps some time ago and now it’s operated by a company that I don’t know much or hear much about. Who really knows what’s going on with the core code of Responsive — and with such a large active install base — that’s a bit worrisome.

        Now that .org has flipped the theme popular list on it’s head, listing by active count, Responsive theme is back on the top and freshly minted WordPress users are given a chance to activate that theme once again.

        Is this good or bad for endusers? In a “verified” world, would that badge have been taken away after the sale of the company? If so, even as it was on the popular list, would an end user still download it?

        It’s all theory crafting really, but I think it’s an important discussion imho.

        …that is until, WordPress becomes just a GUI database to all of our REST API driven front-end JavaScript crafted apps — /hops_on_his_Jetpack (pun intend) — to the future! :)

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  4. As long as no personal data is being gathered without approval, I’m actually perfectly fine with a branding free payment model.

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  5. The plugin review team doesn’t police the content in plugins but rather, prevents spam and attempts at bad faith from entering the directory.

    Not 100% correct.

    We don’t actively police every single check in, this is true, but we do constantly and consistently scan and check plugins. Example? I get an email for every single commit to every single plugin. I run a lot of extensive filters to catch a high number of issues from creative commons to ads like this. It’s imperfect, of course, but we do police content all the time :)

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  6. Wow, I’m surprised that actually made it through the plugin review and got in the repo. Up-selling a pro version or an add-on is understandable, but affiliate banners as mentioned in the article shouldn’t be allowed.

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    1. Keep in mind, a high number of offenders (for lack of a better word) submit one plugin for review and then upload a different one weeks, months or (in the case of a recent one) years later.

      We come down more harshly on people who were told before not to do a thing.

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      1. It seems nobody has come down very hard, or even very soft, on Joost De Valk, who’s been filling almost every admin page of the Yoast SEO plugin with his self aggrandizing Premium product promotions for years.

        He’s been allowed to get away with it for so long.

        How come?

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      2. What he does in his plugin regarding upsells and advertising settings pages is up to him. If those were displayed everywhere in the backend, then it would be a problem

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      3. Bradly, there is no popup in Yoast SEO at all. You may have other issues. There is no need to buy the premium version, the free one works well. I do have the premium version but I’ve had it since day 1 it came out.

        FYI, your link just not work I’m afraid.

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      4. Derek, I see the link.

        It’s a popup for Yoast SEO Premium

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      5. I think you guys are misunderstanding what each are referring to. Yoast SEO doesn’t include browser popups, but does include in page layovers/lightboxes/inpage pop-ups (or whatever you may call them).

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  7. The Power of Reviews

    Just to add to this: some of the forum moderators read every review. Occasionally there may be a pattern if there’s a complaint such as not being able to dismiss the up sell banner or taking over the dashboard.

    Sometimes that leads to the moderator installing the plugin or theme on a test installation. This is just to see if there’s really a problem or not.

    If there’s a valid concern then it gets reported up. It doesn’t happen often thankfully, but it has occurred and the plugin or theme author got a polite shoulder tap.

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  8. Advertising sucks. It’s unpopular (and increasingly so with AdBlockers on Android and iOS becoming the norm). There are better ways to make money, like offering premium features with one-time paid fee or asking a monthly recurring fee and offer a bundle of plugins. Lots of ways to spin the same wheel, but all ultimately better than advertisements. I see an advertisement in a plugin, I uninstall that plugin.

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  9. My limit is one text link in plugin’s setting. I like my sites and enjoy time with them :) I don’t build a billboard for other peoples.

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  10. I use Yoast SEO and was recently disappointed to find an intrusive upsell for Yoast SEO Premium while editing posts. On post.php, there is a small plus sign (+) which can not be removed. When the (+) plus sign is clicked, the user is presented with the following text:

    “Multiple focus keywords is a Yoast SEO Premium feature
    To be able to add and analyze multiple keywords for a post or page you need Yoast SEO Premium. You can buy the plugin, including one year of support, updates and upgrades, on yoast.com.”

    This behavior can be seen here for an example:
    https://cloudup.com/cuFK9w5uXVf

    The behavior violates Plugin Guideline #11, cited above, “It is fine to include an Upgrade prompt on the plugin admin page, but not throughout the blog.”

    I personally find the (+) sign distracting and therefore annoying. More importantly, when trying to teach the process of publishing a post, along with SEO and meta data information, teachers should not have to say, “and don’t click the (+) plus sign.”

    I appreciate the Yoast SEO plugin and the entire team behind it.

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    1. My point exactly.

      The other day I was looking for a replacement for the Yoast SEO plugin [and found SEO Framework ~ and its very good, very fast, and no upsells, I digress], and I think I counted at least 2 plugins in the repository, specifically designed to remove all the cruft from the Yoast SEO plugin.

      Now, I would have thought the mods would have been aware, if people are having to use plugins to get rid of all the upsells, something aint right here.

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    2. Interesting… to me that’s using a disabled button within the plugins settings area to inform the user of a feature they are missing. Very different from taking over real estate at the top of the page like a large banner and much more legit.

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      1. I’m not refereeing to the plugin’s settings area. What I was mentioning is that this button, a plus sign (+), is present on the post edit page. To be clear, that’s very different from the plugin’s settings page. The former is permitted by the Plugin Guidelines while the latter is a violation.

        Here’s a link and you can see more clearly that it is the post edit view:
        https://cloudup.com/iahtGtj3pHe

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      2. What he’s suggesting is that it makes sense to advertise a pro feature there because how else would a potential customer easily discover it can do that?

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      3. I understand the logic that it makes sense to advertise a pro feature there. But then I suggest that there needs to be a “Hide this Message” option after clicking the (+) plus sign.

        Whether it’s a banner advertisement for hosting or a small box upselling to premium, it’s bad UI/UX and should not be forced upon the user’s screen each time she edits a post. At the very least, there should be an option to dismiss and hide the upsell.

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      4. On reflection I would need to add that, if the end-user is happy to put up with it, its not ‘harmful’, and its in a product he/she has not paid for, then there really is no need to go to the extent of making a closed system and inventing rules and enforcing dictates about advertising/upsells is there.

        The more greedy the author becomes and the more aggressive the interruptions, the will be the take up by new users.

        The market will out in the end.

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    3. Interesting. I’d never noticed that tiny (+) button in the Yoast plugin until you mentioned it, and had to go looking for it. OK, it pops up an ad for the premium plugin, but only on response to a click on a defined area that doesn’t show another purpose, and it goes away as soon as you click the X on the banner.

      If the banner came up on its own, or wouldn’t go away, that would be a different story, but to me, it might as well not have been there. I’d never seen it before, and I suspect I’ll never see it again.

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  11. To answer the question, I think text links on the activation screen is fine, and I definitely think where there’s a plugin settings screen, mention that there are addons available or features that are paid are available, but admin notices is where I draw the line. Admin notices are for, yep, admin notices, not ads.

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  12. Repo plugins are free. I don’t think I have the right to complain about something that is free. If it’s valuable enough to complain about, it’s very likely valuable enough for me to buy the full version.

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    1. Completely disagree.

      In my opinion, if you’re going to hammer me with ads to upgrade, you don’t get my money – period.

      I have every right to complain about them and often do.

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  13. WordPress.org should be for share, not a sale. It is not an advertising platform.
    I would apply more strict policy for plugins. Developers have other channels for advertising their business.
    There are plenty of successful WP developers who don’t “advertise’ their service on the .org directory.

    It would be cool if we can keep .org clean from “cheap’ marketing practices that take advantage over unfledged users.

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    1. WordPress.org should be for share, not a sale. It is not an advertising platform.

      Totally agree. ;)

      I would apply more strict policy for plugins. Developers have other channels for advertising their business.

      Totally disagree. ;)

      *Pulls out soap box, remains cognizant that this is a comment and not my blog ?*

      Policy, guidelines and standards: A policy is high level and vague, a guideline is less vague but still not set in stone. Standards are well, definitions and tend to be inflexible on purpose.

      The WordPress Detailed Plugin Guidelines isn’t a strict policy. Except for items like number 10 (powered by links) it is subjective. Serviceware gets around that one BTW.

      What one person defines as “cheap marketing” may be fine and allowed by the guidelines. When there is a question or a not-sure then the plugins team can be pinged. As indicated above in Jeff’s post that does get acted on when found and the plugin team agrees with the complaint.

      Not all complaints will be valid, some up sell are just gauche. It’s up to the plugins team (and theme review team for themes) to make that decision.

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  14. there are a few plugins in the directory that go overboard, its not that the advertising is the nag, its the way they present it, almost making the UI very hard to navigate.

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  15. I will NEVER use any of Yoast’s products ever again for this very reason. There are much better options available that don’t hammer you with ads.

    Complete scumbags that don’t know when enough is enough.

    I buy a LOT of pro versions and commercial plugins – they just won’t be one of them.

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      1. My opinion – deal with it.

        I”ve been in the internet since the beginning. I’m not going anywhere junior. :)

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      2. There’s a comment policy here, and I hope it gets applied on your comment above.

        Your comment may be deleted if it matches any of the following criteria: …Uses vulgar, profane, or unnecessarily harsh language, …Personal insults, …Is written anonymously

        Voicing an opinion is one thing; using the fact you have an “opinion” as an excuse to insult other people in public—you cannot seriously expect to just be tolerated when you do that. Namely when you’re hiding behind a generic first name and a Wapuu avatar.

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  16. Yoast SEO plugin goes overboard.

    There is also AdRotate, WPSmush it.

    with AdRotate, after you activate the plugin, on top of the plugins list you have to “activate” or something like that (click a button) then “AdRotate PRO” spam garbage comes on.

    WPSmush it, after you activate it, above the plugins list, it puts a field for you to subscribe to the newsletter. Shouldn’t I test the plugin before I want to do that? 1 second after activation is not enough time.

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    1. I don’t know about AdRotate and WPSmush it, as I have never used them, but it’s certainly remarkable how much Yoast get away with.

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      1. I would seriously love for Jeff to have an interview with Yoast. You are right, Yoast gets away with so much stuff.

        By stuff I mean crap.

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  17. I think advertising your own products in the dashboard is bad, but advertising third party products for a commission? That really is pure spam.

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  18. Jost would do well to learn from Pippin’s EDD, and see how its done correctly. A simple menu entry marked “Extensions” leading to a single display page is all that’s needed. As it is Yoast makes their SEO plugin look cheap and scummy, like so many other affiliate market plugins out there. I guess that’s their choice, but the meta team shouldn’t be applying one rule for him, and another for everyone else. Which is what seems to be happening.

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