WordPress Theme Review Team is Cracking Down on Violations of the Presentation vs. Functionality Guideline

photo credit: pollas - cc
photo credit: pollascc

During this week’s WordPress.org Theme Review Team meeting Chip Bennett opened the floor to discuss the “grey areas” of presentation vs. functionality distinctions in themes. The hotly debated topic concerns what is permissible in terms of “content creation” for themes that are hosted in the official directory.

“We know that CPTs and custom taxonomies are off-limits; likewise with non-presentational post custom meta data,” Bennett said. “But what about content created via theme options, custom widgets, etc.?”

This question often comes up in relation to themes that offer static front pages with custom widgets or textareas in the customizer where users can add small blocks of text. For example, a theme might offer a biography section or a place to enter copyright text. The concern is that a user is entering content, not knowing that it will be lost upon switching themes.

The Theme Review Team has had an established policy for years that forbids theme authors from defining the generation of user content. However, due to disorganization during the process of moving the official version of theme requirements from the Codex to the Theme Review Handbook, this particular guideline was omitted.

Bennett posted a review of Theme Review Requirements and documentation today on the Make/Themes blog with previously omitted items highlighted in red for clarity.

Presentation vs. Functionality
Since the purpose of Themes is to define the presentation of user content, Themes must not be used to define the generation of user content, or to define Theme-independent site options or functionality.

As this is a fairly general statement, the Theme Review Team will be discussing the finer points of how it applies during the next meeting. In the past, this guideline has been subjectively and inconsistently applied, allowing many themes to slip by with functionality that falls into these grey areas.

Theme Review Team to Begin Aggressively Enforcing “No Content Creation” Guideline

Zerif Lite, one of the top themes on WordPress.org, was highlighted during the meeting as an example of a theme that has been permitted to skirt this guideline, among others.

“Looking at Zerif Lite: testimonials, our team, our focus, about us – these are all CPTs, disguised as custom widgets,” Bennett said. In a ticket where the theme is currently being reviewed for updates, Bennett encouraged Zerif Lite’s author to remove any custom post meta data, except for that that which is presenatational, as it falls into plugin territory. This includes aspects of the theme such as author details, team member position, social network profiles, etc.

Reviewers are already aggressively cracking down on Zerif Lite’s violation of this specific guideline and will likely extend their vigilance to uphold the guideline more consistently with all themes as they come up for review.

Codeinwp, the company behind Zerif Lite, replied to Bennetts’ requests on the ticket:

Most of the things that you are pointing out are really sensitive for two reasons:

  • Probably 50% of the most popular themes use some custom content on the homepage
  • A lot of things like contact issue or testimonial can’t be solved without breaking 100k sites which use the theme

Codeinwp contends that the approach used in Zerif Lite is far more user friendly than having to install a plugin, or multiple plugins, in order to add small bits of text to the home page.

At the end I agree that our approach was a bit different/radical. However, it looks like it is something that people really want (Zerif is one of the hottest themes at the moment, with mentions all over the web). I mean most of them want to build a beautiful site in 10 minutes, without any knowledge and with Zerif Lite they can easily do it. They don’t want 10 CPT, 10 required plugins, contact form, and Captcha plugins for a simple site.

The theme author believes that creating a plugin to handle four of the theme’s focus widgets would simply waste users’ time.

“Also, you realize the amount of work required to do this for 100+ themes installed on million of sites, right?” Codeinwp said. The author also cited several other examples of popular themes in violation, including AccessPress Parallax, Onetone, and Colorway.

Given that the WordPress.org theme directory is riddled with violations of what is purported to be a long standing guideline, it’s clear that reviewers have been exceedingly lax in enforcing it. Theme authors who were ignorant of this guideline will be in for a rude awakening on their next submission for an update. Bennett confirmed in the ticket open on Zerif Lite that the policy will be strongly enforced in the future:

It has recently come to our attention that possibly several themes have been approved that may have similar issues. We’ll address them as we find them, and work with the developers to come up with a plan to bring the themes back into conformance with the requirements – just as we’ll do here with your theme.

This will mean a considerable amount of work for authors who have defined ways for users to generate content through the theme. They will need to port this functionality into a plugin(s).

WordPress.org themes are not permitted to bundle plugins, but authors can recommend plugins using the TGM Plugin Activation Library or another method. Themes are only permitted to recommend plugins that are listed in the official WordPress.org plugin directory. This means that authors who remove functionality in favor of companion plugins will need to get those plugins approved for WordPress.org before submitting their themes for updates.

Next week’s Theme Review Team meeting will include a discussion on specific examples of types of content that themes should or should not be allowed to create, i.e. button text, copyright text, etc. The team is generally in favor of authors using core methods for content creation.

Documentation regarding this issue has been unclear, incomplete, and scattered, spread across the Codex, Make/Themes, and two different places in the Theme Handbook. The team is working to rectify this in light of its renewed dedication to systematically enforce the “no content creation” guideline.

This will affect many of the top themes hosted on WordPress.org, which will be forced to implement changes that are likely to break thousands of sites’ appearance on update. Without a change log in place, many users will not be aware when they are receiving an update that suddenly requires the installation of new plugins.


92 responses to “WordPress Theme Review Team is Cracking Down on Violations of the Presentation vs. Functionality Guideline”

  1. Thanks for covering it Sarah! While I understand most of the Chip points and what lock-in means, the update one is really sensitive and is something that we should learn from WordPress itself, we can’t release an update, break the user site and say that ‘ I have said you to install a plugin and you didn’t ‘, a lot of our users don’t even know how to install a theme or understand what a plugin is and why they should update, those wp.org new users and a good part of them new to WordPress as well.

  2. This is great article, Sarah. I’m so glad that WordPress is cracking down on themes which try to do the work of plugins. Over-engineered themes have been a bane in the WordPress world for many years.

    Migrating is a lot easier than the fellows over at Zerif Lite say. All CodeinWP need do is create a plugin which will support that existing data and provide a dual migration path: add the plugin and then upgrade your theme. The plugin will work independently of the theme, theme lock-in will be over and Zerif Lite will be in compliance.

    • Hey Alec,

      Maybe I am missing something but how can we get 100% of the users to install the plugin and activate it before removing it from the theme ?

      I know we can build and add the plugin, is the easy part, however what if somebody don’t get the update and update after 1 year when the code is removed ? Or you are saying to keep the code in theme forever and add the plugin as well ?

      Also from another point of view, what is the compliance about ? Why to do things that affect everybody and nobody will gain from it, especially users ? Just to comply ?

      I think our goal just be to provide the best experience for the users, not just to comply without thinking about what users want, at least this is my goal, to build the best products that will help people to build their sites ( for free ) .

      • Hi Ionut,

        Functionality should always be part of the plugin, not part of the theme as users should never be locked into the theme. Worst still would be a conflict with the theme (due to the embedded functions) and the user not being able to change themes because everything has been in the theme’s meta data :) Sarah and the WordPress Theme Review team got that part right :)

        p/s: I’ve submitted a claim for a refund for Revive Old Posts Pro via the contact form on your site. Please respond

        • Hey,

          You are right, however when the content is theme specific, is ok for me to be in the theme. Matt got it right in slack saying that doesn’t matter if a theme breaks all the guidelines, if is interesting for him is ok .

          I don’t say that rules are useless, since without will be chaos, however I will always believe that is my duty to work against them/to change them if rules are bad, not to blindly follow.

          P/s : our support team will take care, the response time is around 24 hours and weekend is coming, so don’t worry you will get your money asap :)

  3. This will affect many of the top themes hosted on WordPress.org, which will be forced to implement changes that are likely to break thousands of sites’ appearance on update.

    This statement is untrue. In fact, the very purpose of working in-ticket with developers to come up with a path forward is explicitly to avoid breaking sites. Generally, it ends up being a process that involves multiple rounds of Theme updates, over time, to bring the Theme back into conformance with the Guidelines in a manner that avoids breaking users’ sites.

    • Currently the only way that I see if we don’t do any magic and we wanna not break anything is to wait few years for users to get the companion plugin installed or to somehow install/activate it automatically for them, which obviously is not ok..

      • I recognize that nobody can force end users to install a Plugin. Of course, you can’t force them to update your Theme, either. I would imagine that the subset of users who wouldn’t install a Plugin will overlap fairly well with the subset of users who won’t update your Theme, so in the end, there won’t be much of an issue.

        • Ionut, Chip has hit the nail on the head. You can even stop people who haven’t installed the plugin from installing the new version. Run a check for the plugin before allowing the theme update. It doesn’t seem that you are trying very hard with this. Theme portability is the right way to go.

          • I agree with you guys, however fairly well is not enough I think, probably with your approach Chip we will break around 10% of the users based on my data, is not huge, is not a big issue, however users won’t be happy and this scares me the most.

            @Alec I don’t have any control on how updates are delivered so I don’t think I can stop people to not inmstall the new versions based on the check.

            Believe me that I am trying harder that you think, I just know the impact and I am afraid of making even 1 user angry, as I said over and over again, if there is a way to do this without affecting anybody and not require useless extra steps, even if it takes 1 month of work I will be happy to do it.

          • Keep a downgrade handy for those who are not prepared to migrate. I’d look carefully at how you can require pre-requisites before allowing a migration. If such a check doesn’t exist now, Justin might be able to makes sure something like this is added to the theme upgrade process (as it would allow him to crack down harder on bad actors: hopefully you won’t be on that list Ionut).

            So basically the old (bad) version would go away from the theme repository. A new good one would appear.

            Even more basic technology which requires no changes: you have to delete and discontinue Zephir Lite and relaunch a new compliant Zephir Phoenix. Zephir Phoenix can replace Zephir Lite but contains all the warnings and instructions about migration to a plugin.

            You see, it’s not so hard after all to separate presentation and functionality.

          • @Alec, to you who have coded it as such, but it’s substantial effort to Ionut and his team. If only themes were permitted to auto-install a basic plugin, this whole situation would be less painful. ;)

  4. Probably 50% of the most popular themes use some custom content on the homepage

    That’s a bandwagon.

    A lot of things like contact issue or testimonial can’t be solved without breaking 100k sites which use the theme

    From dev to dev, may I call BS? It can most certainly be solved without breaking a single site! The only question is how much effort the authors are willing to put into it. And that’s a question no one but them should be answering, meaning: it’s not for anyone else to say if the effort they would have to put into not breaking sites is worth the benefits.

      • @Inonut Facts? You certainly don’t need anyone telling you that the fact your product can be handled by a user through a user interface implies certain means of interaction, because the product uses them already. :)
        From a redirect to a dialogue page after install/update, to a temporarily built-in data converter there’s a bunch of possible functionality theme and plugin authors have at hand to get their users attention. Why not partner with the theme review team and have their perspective helping you to create an enjoyable, or at least plausible transition experience for your users?

        Again, I’m not suggesting a transition like that should be taken lightly, nor that it can be done at low cost. And believe me, I’m feeling for you regarding the position you’re in right now, with a bunch of smarty folk discussing the meal you’ll be serving next while you’re the one who’s going to pay for it. ;)

        I just think it doesn’t do your product, its users or your company any justice saying it can’t be done without breaking sites. It can, and the real question is: Is there any way for you to balance the cost and, after all, profit from the changes?

        • Hey Casper,

          I appreciate your input and you are right, however you are not really familiar with WordPress.org guidelines which :

          – Doesn’t allow a redirect on activation
          – Doesn’t allow a popup on activation

          I am saying that from my knowledge we can’t do it not because is expensive or I don’t want, because I truly believe that we can’t with the tools that we have now as theme developers .

          Also is not about cost, I think Zerif theme brings so much value to the users/community that no effort is too much :)

          • @Ionut Awesome! I’m obviously not part of the TRT, but if I were, I’d value user happiness above guidelines in a critical case like this. If that would mean, after much scrutiny, to temporary waive the no-redirection rule in order to give users a chance to directly react to the changes their sites were about to undergo as the theme had outsourced functionality to plugins—maybe even install said plugins from the same dialogue page through a built-in converter and thus not experience any damage in the front-end—it should be allowed, for that particular scenario.

            If I know Mr. Tadlock and his crew, they most certainly will listen to your ideas and support you in making that transition as smooth as possible. Justin says it right here in this comment thread. Why not take his word for it and talk to the TRT about how to make that change happen? With a popular product like Zerif you’ll also set an example for others. Unicorns all the things! :)

  5. It’s become a regular occurrence with the theme review team to make decisions that will be sensitive to many theme authors; understandable considering they’ve let things slide for so many years. I’m sure there will be more coming because I see things that makes me scratch my head wondering how did that one get past?

    Personally, I believe wordpress.org should have created a brand new theme repository while suspending new submissions to the old one. A new repository would be a better way to implement and enforce new changes and requirements because you can start from an updated foundation, eventually phasing out the old repository.

    • @Andre,

      I agree 100% about the new to create a new theme repository. The current one is broken as it is and, while the enforcement of this policy is overdue, what we will shortly have is a ton of old themes that don’t comply, and which may well have XSS vulnerabilities too, alongside tightly-coded compliant themes.

      How a user is meant to distinguish the good from the bad, when they will all be lumped into one repository, I have no idea. There does not seem to be a date filter for search functionality.

  6. I hate that some of these theme issues have slipped through the review process, especially considering this is one of our top priorities. It happens; we have human reviewers who make human mistakes. And, our automated checks can check for the register_post_type() function, for example, but it can’t check if a theme author is using theme options to create things that would normally be post types (e.g., testimonials, portfolios). It’s not a perfect system.

    I do want to make it clear that TRT will be working with theme authors to bring them into compliance with the guidelines. If that means pushing their current update through with a plan in place to migrate the users to a plugin, that’ll happen. If it just means discussing ideas on the best way to code something, we’ll help with that. This is not the first time we’ve had to do something like this and won’t be the last.

  7. Thank you for your sane, thorough and expert voice in the theme review process, Justin. What’s very important is the absence of double standards. All theme authors should be treated equally, with no free passes for “friendly” developers. On the plugin side, there’s lots of internal politics.

  8. If the themes that people want the most are the ones breaking the rules, then maybe the issue isn’t with the themes but with the rules.

    Being so inflexible about potential(!) content migration concerns to the point of blatantly ignoring the preferences of your own users just drives them off the official repo and onto ThemeForest.

    What do you think is a greater pain point for users: having to manage a plethora of different plugins, updating each one and praying they don’t conflict or break on a core update, OR losing a bit of periphery content on a theme switch which is a time-consuming process no matter what.

    The expectation that you can switch themes and keep all your content and functionality of your old site without having to spend any set up time is unrealistic for all but the most basic of themes. All “cracking down” is going to do is continue to push the innovative and popular themes that users actually want off the repo altogether.

    • Hey man, Bradley, you’re so right. You and Kropotkin are so right. Everyone should be able to do whatever they want and if somebody wants to give you money to get high, hey that’s their right to. Who am I are or who is WordPress to intrude on your trip. It’s your world Bradley and you have to be free.

      More seriously, anyone naive enough to buy a theme off of Themeforest gets what they paid for: a slow bundle of incompatible garbage with lots and lots of theme lock-in. Rescuing Themeforest sites when they grow up is a lot more expensive than refitting sites built on compliant themes. The first hit is always free.

      There are very few good commercial theme developers (naming five off the top of my head would be a challenge). As an example, Woo Themes was one of the worst.

      What responsible developers like Justin and I are trying to prevent is exactly that situation: less knowledgeable people taking on thousands of dollars of future pain.

      • @Alec maybe the reason why there is a lack of trust is because decent approaches to solving these kinds of challenges, in the way @justin responds, gets overshadowed by the kind of condescendimg, sarcastic bullshit you just spit up by way of reply. God, when did WP leads get so friggin uppity?

        There are is an awful lot not to like about ThemeForest, and a lot of the themes sold there, but this is about how policy changes effect authors, users, and the success of the theme repo. And this is as much about a review process that allowed policy breeches for years, and the BEST way to correct that. And no one here said they should be able to do whatever they want.

    • The concept is economics is called the unseen hand. What people will gravitate towards what they want.

      These decisions mean time and effort, and more importantly, money for a free marketplace.

      @Alec, could you be any more disrespectful? And just because you don’t like ThemeForest themes, means you are only the minority. Otherwise Envato wouldn’t be as massively successful as it is, even in comparison to WP.org themes.

      But you are creating, right now, thousands of dollars of current pain…

  9. I don’t get it…why changeing things if everything works like a charm. Users are happy because they can put up a site in just a few minutes…developers are happy because they know what to do and how to make users happy.
    Is anyone here who developed a theme that have thousand of downloads and actualy knows what is about to happen?
    I support you Ionut, they don’t have a clue about wordpress users.
    If wordpress is so opensource, shouldn’t we vote or something? Or ask users what they feel about this?
    If it works, keep it simple and stupid.

    • Yes, voting has taken us a long way. Vote for corrupt congressman from the Crats or corrupt congressman from the Cans. So in your world the commercial theme developers would mobilize their tea party style supporters to vote down key improvements to WordPress theme management.

      And we could all celebrate while the ice caps melt, the Pacific ocean is poisoned with radioactivity and there’s no more ground water thanks to fracking.

      Simple and stupid indeed.

      The situation right now does NOT work like a charm. Fixing the roof before the winter sets in is only prudent management. Planning for the future, instead of carpe diem.

      • Alec,
        Careful you don’t fall off your high horse and land on your soap box. Whoever it was that said perhaps the rules are wrong is correct here.

        Users make the rules, that’s how WP survives and morphs into what it will become, otherwise that 50% will never see the light of day.

        • @kimstuart,

          So “Users make the rules,” do they? Not on wordpress.org, they don’t. That would be crazy. WordPress.org is supposed to provide leadership and examples of best practice. You might not agree with what gets decided — hey, I frequently don’t — but it is definitely not, and should never be, the users who decide. That would lead to utter disaster.

          Now outside of wordpress.org, users, developers, etc. can do what the hell they want. That’s the beauty of open source, isn’t it? And if what goes on outside wordpress.org turns out to be better than the direction in which the wordpress.org leadership went, then all power to those ploughing that furrow.

          But please don’t confuse the power to do your own thing in your own space with a supposed right to do your own thing on wordpress.org.

  10. I am so sorry they’re doing this to my fellow theme developers. I truly sympathize with what you’re going through. My advice to all of you is find an alternative means of distribution for your themes and stop relying on .org. They’re doing everything they can right now to eliminate upsell themes and force the communization of themes. At this point you’re not even going to be able to offer distinction between your themes without forcing users to download a plugin they may never download for functionality they’ll never even know exists because you won’t be able to visually communicate with them.

    For anyone interested, I’m working on a saas model for theme authors right now. You can find me at MysticLabs.com.

    • I am so sorry they’re doing this to my fellow theme developers.

      What is it that the TRT team is “doing”, exactly? We discovered that a long-standing requirement was not being enforced consistently in reviews, and we’re addressing it.

      They’re doing everything they can right now to eliminate upsell themes and force the communization of themes.

      This issue here has absolutely nothing to do with upsell Themes. It has to do with Themes not being used to create user content.

  11. This is not a new guideline.
    Frankly authors only see parts of what is happening because they only meet their reviewer what, once every two months, if they submit themes regulary? While many reviewers look at atleast one theme a day.
    Alot of authors appreciate the reviews.
    The trac is open. You can see the reasons to why tickets get reopened.
    What I wish for on tuesday is a clarification. One that will make it easier for authors and speed up reviews. A review shouldnt be a place for arguing about guidelines, that is just draining and time consuming for both. The guidelines should be clear and easy to follow and we should continue to strive for that.

    • Agreed, but Carolina you yourself admitted this has not been enforced. Though it may not be new, it’s still impacts a large number of developers. Please don’t dismiss all the new effort your team has generated for them by these decisions. :)

  12. Another example of the WPTRT being totally out of touch with users of WordPress. This is likely to break thousands of sites if the people upgrading don’t fully understand all the changes they are going to have to make to keep their site running. Short sighted just like the requirement to use the Customiser, it will stifle innovation to the extent all themes will be the same.

    • Colin, the theme customisers should be the same. If every stove worked differently how would people cook safely? These one size fits all super themes are all overbaked anyway and top heavy. Like going on a canoe trip with your living room furniture. High time for a pruning of runaway theme developers and a clear focus on DESIGN. Advanced functionality is for plugins.

      Site portability has always been a core value in the WordPress community. It’s a pity theme developers abused their freedom and the rules have to be very tight and very explicit. Just another example of the tragedy of the commons.

      Yes, notifications will have to be clear. I think that can be managed. Alternatively, as I suggested earlier, non-compliant themes can simply be retired to avoid dangerous autoupdates with replacement themes installable with instructions. Yes, it will take a little bit of effort. No more effort than wrestling with a monster of a theme with twenty different and unique modification screens. Quite a bit less actually.

      WordPress.org and self-hosted is for people who have a clue and want to make an effort. Or who are willing to engage competent help. There are hosted services for those who have less time, money or technical skills.

  13. As a consumer I’d like to offer some perspective on what I am seeing here:

    I see several prominent names here in the comments that I truly have gained a lot of respect for, and do not direct my comments at any particular individual.

    I was really very surprised to be greeted by the link to this topic this morning (I am in SE Asia). I have just spent a week (part-time) creating, and now finalizing, a site using the Zerif-Lite theme. In this case it is a site strictly meant to front-end an archive for our Facebook (wildlife photo) Group – a strictly non-profit, social interaction group, no money involved – and that is what made Zerif-Lite very appealing. It’s free, almost everything can be done ‘right there’, a few plug-ins to manage the photo database and memberships behind the scenes and … done. Personally I need a bit more detailed control than that, and that is where this type of more strictly ‘defined by the theme functionality’ can also become a challenge.

    Considering the time spent and now to learn of potential upending and reconstruction may help explain why I am taking the time to make these comments It is the first of two reasons.

    I understand the argument by WP.org, and after all it is the ‘mothership’; but at 100k users for just one theme, the functionality being discussed seems to have its dependents. It reminds me of the process of the leap from DOS to Windows in some ways. I hated the continuous degradation of control as a user.

    More to my point though, it is my opinion that WordPress.org needs to step up and acknowledge a little more responsibility than I see them doing (in this particular venue, I don’t know if they have done so elsewhere). WP.org has guidelines that need to be enforced and were not consistently enforced . It is the nature of any competitive market that the players will push and test the limits; when they see an openng they will take a run at it. In fact as with any organization – i.e. sports is a great example – the guidelines need to be enforced through proper monitoring by those in place (or should be in place) to do so. That is the responsibility of the regulating body.

    In my opinion, to retro-actively come out and, for example, use terms such as “slipped through” is side-stepping responsibility. According to this article the key guideline was omitted somewhere along the way. Hence the normal competitive reaction by the players to take advantage of the opening. The term ‘slipped through’ can connote ‘sneaky’ behaviour but if the guideline was not currently defined I consider the term “used to their advantage” to be more appropriate and less evasive of accountability.

    On the other hand, as professional members of an organization developers are expected to use a measure of self-control and perhaps could be expected to ask for clarification before going in a questionable direction. Competitive nature being what it is that doesn’t always happen and the process still requires oversight by regulators, wherein lies the ultimate responsibility of prevention.

    The second reason for my rather long response is the unprofessional measure of mutual respect that I see in this article and some of subsequent comments. I feel that reflects on the community as a whole, and, just as pro-active compliance is the the responsibility of members, so is decorum in public forums by members.

    Honestly, the article and follow-up read like a direct attack on a specific developer. It is stated that there are a number of ‘culprits’ but the focus is primarily on the one theme. There are several opportunities to lend credence to the article and broaden the spectrum by referring to others. In fact considering the web of relationships and competing (or conflicting) interests involved, it could leave the intent of the article somewhat suspect. Not something I would have hoped for from an ‘institution’ as influential as WordPress.com.

    It is no surprise this developer responds with defensive language under such a powerful spotlight; and of course when one is on the defernsive it draws further attack from those eager to take advantage of the opening – parallel reference intended. Initial defensiveness is normal and will wane with time and increased understanding. It would have been nice to see some peer compassion as opposed to the somewhat ‘gang mentality’ I see in some of the language here. After all rules change, who’s turn might it be next time?

    Finally, in my opinion Caroline sums it up succinctly in her closing sentence and I think it bears a litle more consideration by those that would be “holier than thou”. The responsibility is not confined to the developer community.

    to be clear, I have never interacted with the developers of Zerif-Lite other than to download the theme; and they have yet to suffer my support requests. My observation and opinion are motivated by the details I’ve cited from the article and comments.

  14. As someone who has used the odd theme from the repository for client projects over the years, I am finding disappointment with the continuous flooding of horrible looking themes that have no business being approved. It’s obvious the visual design is not important to the review team while they seem to focus only on code. Although quality code is important, people (end-users, clients, customers) don’t care about that because they decide on how themes look and what features they offer. One reason why Theme Forest has become a huge success and a preferred choice for finding themes. Unfortunately I have to say I now use Theme Forest for my clients.

    For the last couple of years, I’ve been aware of decisions, discussions, and even arguments that are directed to the theme review team, especially within the last few months. In my opinion and observations, it appears theme developers are having to make themes for the review team and not the end-users. It was mentioned that the review team is out of touch with the users, perhaps, but from what I see, read, and hear, I believe they need to hit the restart button on the whole theme repository, documentation, and the review team. One person made a suggestion of starting a new repository with all these new changes and then phase out the old one. Perhaps that should be the solution.

    Regarding this “cracking down” from the review team, I think they need to crack down on themselves because they’ve allowed so many themes to be approved when they’ve been breaking the rules. Now the developers and end-users are the ones who will pay the price. There has been no consistency, even to this day.

    Again, this is just an observation over the last couple of years, especially lately, but I believe theme developers are going to walk away from .org and seek alternative methods to deliver themes with the freedom they feel they should have, especially when it’s open source. I also believe users will start to walk away too. I’ve looked at the restrictions and guidelines for theme submissions; all I can say is wow! I think everyone needs to have a reality check.

    • > It’s obvious the visual design is not important to the review team while they seem to focus only on
      > code. Although quality code is important, people (end-users, clients, customers) don’t care about
      > that because they decide on how themes look and what features they offer. One reason why
      > Theme Forest has become a huge success and a preferred choice for finding themes.


        • The average WP user does NOT CARE about the reputation of ThemeForest, unless it jumps out at them from a Google search. Or perhaps a FB group.

          What part of ThemeForest is not going away but is only going to get bigger is so hard for this community to grasp? They offer convenience at a reasonable price, which is ALL that most non-technical users care about.

          If we restricted WP to ONLY those with some magical level of technical know-how, then there would be about 23% of next to nothing for usage stats.

          This protection of the ‘purity and sanctity’ of WP as if it’s some unicorn traipsing through the forest is downright silly. The internet is the size it is today because of porn, for gosh sake, and without porn the development of all things image/video/audio related would have been set back years. The average user is going to get what they want. If it’s not from WP, then they’ll go to Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, Medium, Ghost, whatever… it’s the democratization of publishing, not the dictatorship of who can publish what.

  15. Wow, a lot chaos here. I’m not going to talk about the holes in WordPress Theme Review team, of which I’m a proud part of, but for the possible solution of this problem.

    The best way I could see will be having a Welcome page which shows up after a new installation or update, similar to BuddyPress & WordPress itself, where themes can ask user to install the plugin in order to use the theme.

    And if a theme author wants to do more, he can also create something like BuddyPress Component page. Of course, there will be a lot of users who won’t be able to figure out why the theme doesn’t work, but for them you can always include a documentation.

    To be honest, theme authors should be allow to use whatever they want in their theme as long as it uses the latest WordPress and coding standards, and passes all the security checks.

  16. When we ask ourselves how a marketplace like ThemeForest has been able to thrive, we need to look no further than guidelines and rulesets like these. The developer me gets it. “Presentation versus functionality.” “What happens on theme switch?” The user me cringes so hard thinking that I may need to download additional plugins just for a text block on my site that doesn’t belong in a predefined widget area. The business owner me laughs and questions if actual customers, free users, or beta testers have been asked how they feel about this. Seems to me that most users, myself included, want to be able to build a site quickly. This does not help that cause.

    It seems like finding good free themes has become harder, not easier, because of overly dogmatic stances like these that make it both harder to make and use themes. Which is easier as a user? Adding a trivial content block via theme option into a site (i.e. phone number, banner, etc.) that can be re-added into a site quickly or having to search for and install a separate plugin to handle this? “Theme Switch” to a user, myself included, pretty much means “changing my site to something else entirely”. Sometimes widgets are lost, sometimes trivial content needs to be added back in. This usually takes less than a minute to do and isn’t a big deal. What is a big deal is needing to waste time to set up a single theme, which will happen if guidelines like these are pushed too aggressively.

    There’s a difference between being right and doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is finding ways to help people build beautiful blogs and sites quickly, easily, and painlessly. Is this helping? Probably not.

    • That’s a very good point about visual quality, Philip. Still why should raising the visual standards should be no reason to lower the requirements for code.

      It’s really quite simple: a beautiful car with a lousy engine is a terrible vehicle. An ugly car with a great engine and suspension is little joy as well (although this is what I’d prefer if I had to drive either/or).

      I’ll say it again, there’s no reason for theme creators to get a free pass. Theme sales is largely about marketing and hype. Both Woo Themes and Elegant Themes had atrocious performance but good marketing, crippling hundreds of thousands of small business sites (many of whom may have left WordPress altogether later, when they had to deal with the trouble of upgrading or fixing their sites). Actually Woo had to raise their prices radically to cover the ongoing support for the mess they had created for site owners (in retrospect, I’m not surprised), generating 492 mainly angry comments in just two days. And Woo Themes and Elegant Themes were two of the more professional commercial theme developers!

      Poor engineering on an installed theme becomes apparent to a site owner when

      1. you either want to change themes.
      2. you want to improve performance.
      3. you want to add advanced functionality and your pretty rotten theme is loading three different versions of jQuery.

      By then it’s too late for anybody except an advanced WordPress developer to rescue your site. Expect a large extraction bill or lost data if an end users tries it on his/her own.

      These pretty, tarty, overengineered and overmarketed themes do deserve their fate.

      • I think my main point is that this feels like bikeshedding. Whether an option for text is packaged into a theme or plugin doesn’t take away from the fact that it needs to be performant, secure, and coded extremely well. I’d rather users be given bread than water and flour.

        • +1 Philip

          Finally someone gets it right..
          there is already a bad reputation of free themes on org that they are just ugly skeletons. After they implement this no content rule, all the free themes in the org becomes blog themes. As free themes on org should display the bog layout as their preview. So that makes all the themes look almost same and very basic. Doesnt really take into consideration that WordPress has come a long way to become a CMS not a blogging platform. Now if all the themes in the org looks like blog.. isnt it limiting the themes? what kind of impression will new wordpress users have?

          • Why not offer to remove the internal display altogether and instead provide as an option an easy link to an hosted demo. I guess this happens already, but let’s develop this a bit further – like “Preview on WordPress.org” or “Preview on theme homepage”. Eliminate the link the intermediary link to “Theme homepage”.

        • “I’d rather users be given bread than water and flour” says Philip.

          Speaking as a user, I’d say you certainly aren’t looking out for my interest then. Whether I’d be happy with the bread that depends very much on the bread. Sweetened, processed muck I can happily do without, thanks very much. In that case, I’d much prefer to have clean water and organic flour.

      • Poor engineering on an installed theme becomes apparent to a site owner when want to change themes.

        Heated debates often occur because of a significant difference in values; see the abortion debate for an archetypical example.

        In the case of this debate it seems the TRT and some users place a high value on the ability to switch themes and a low value of reducing effort and complexity required of an end-user interested in building a site. Then there are many other and it appears most theme developers who value the opposite.

        Thus I would not say that inability to switch themes is “poor engineering” but instead a different in optimization preference.

        Personally I think the TRT’s position on the need for users to be able to switch themes ignores the valid preference of a significant portion of users. Many users would be perfectly happy to forgo any future ability to switch themes if it means that they were able to get a more feature-rich site built quickly with less expertise required.

        If I were making the rules I would add a theme header option called “features” with a default value of “none” and potential other values of: “custom-post-type”, “custom-taxonomy”, etc. Then if the features included are not “none” when a user tries to activate said theme they would be given a full page overlay in large type that spells out the future horrors they will encounter upon switching themes and thus requires them to acknowledge before activating.

        If this were done then this entire debate would be rendered moot and everyone(?) would be happy, no? That is unless of course the real motivation is that some on the TRT want to impose their values on others who do not share those values. Not that I’ve ever seen people want to impose their own values on others in this vast world of ours! ;-)


    • Philip, you’re railing against decisions that have not been made. In fact, we’re holding discussions during our regular meeting times to discuss what exactly constitutes “content creation”, and where the line should be drawn.

      This is why sensational headlines like “Cracking Down” do a dis-service. They’re great for getting eyeballs, but not so great for helping people understand what is really happening.

    • Good point Sir! The problem here is how theme preview is working and that developers can’t change reading settings on activation ( to set the custom homepage ), so is kind of normal and good that people found a way around to offer to users the experience that they expect.

  17. This is excellent news it really forces theme authors to come together and form standards for how information should be stored to support interaoperability. Next step would be to make similar demands on plugin authors. Probably there needs to be big improvements to how the whole template systems works with WordPress to really be able to separate presentation and functionality with plugins.

    I see a lot of mentions of; well Themeforest themes does this and people buy themeforest themes therefor its good. No. That just means that the guidelines on envato sucks and that the buyers and users are not very wellinformed of the consequenses of their choices.

    • it really forces theme authors to come together and form standards for how information should be stored to support interaoperability.

      Good point. That would be a very positive outcome if such a thing actually does occur.

      However I’m not optimistic because I’ve not seen much interest from the core team in establishing such standards. I pushed a lot for standards on wp-hackers and elsewhere in years past but I finally gave up on the effort seeing it as futile.

      But maybe times have changed?

  18. Another option would be to leave Zerif Lite “as-is” and not change anything. It will be removed from the WordPress.org directory for non-compliance, but at least the thousands currently using it will not be impacted. They can continue using their installed theme without any problem.

    Then, if you want to offer a free version of Zerif that is complaint with WordPress.org directory standards, you can create a new version that relies on plugins or pages for content creation, not the theme.

    Call it Zerif 2015.

        • For theme authors who have had this kind of functionality built into their themes since the initial submission to WordPress.org and are now being required to remove it, this action is definitely “cracking down” on a practice that was previously permitted (albeit through reviewer oversight.) They haven’t said anything about removing non-compliant themes but certainly won’t be approving any new themes that violate the presentation vs functionality guideline. While the finer points of what this guideline entails are still up for discussion, the broader sense of it and overt violations are already being enforced as you can see on the Zerif Lite trac ticket.

          • The requirement has been in place, and enforced, for years. The period of potentially inconsistent/lax enforcement encompasses approximately a half-year. (Zerif Lite introduced the content creation about 7 months ago.)

            It is also not “cracking down”, as the process is to determine a mutually agreeable path to compliance, that generally involves multiple iterations of Theme updates. “Cracking down” implies something considerably more harsh, and drastic.

            Overt violations have always been enforced. The discussion we are having is about non-overt content creation, and where the line should be drawn. That we are drawing attention to inconsistent reviews that have let some overt violations get approved does not constitute “aggressively enforcing”. We are simply enforcing. There is no aggressiveness.

          • Cracking down doesn’t automatically translate to no path to compliance. For example, a school might start cracking down on students selling candy at recess. That doesn’t automatically equal expulsion.

            Same thing here. We’ve got plenty of highly visible, top themes on WordPress.org that are sporting violations of this guideline which is not a new rule. To suddenly start enforcing it on them (when they have never seen it enforced on their themes before) is akin to cracking down. Word choice in this instance is a matter of opinion.

            Our aim through the publication is to inform readers about what is happening, given that they don’t all have the time to attend these Slack meetings and sort through all the internal squabbles that happen there.

            We’re not seeking to be “helpful” or “unhelpful” to any party but rather to make readers aware that a long-standing guideline is now being fully enforced and that the TRT is making reviewers aware of previous oversights. This is a big change for many people who create and use these themes. The post is clear about the fact that the finer points are still being ironed out at the next meeting but that the main guideline is now being enforced. (see Zerif Lite trac ticket example). There was nothing misleading about that.

            • Cracking down doesn’t automatically translate to no path to compliance. For example, a school might start cracking down on students selling candy at recess.

              Yes, or the police might start “cracking down” on drug dealers or prostitution in a neighborhood. What imagery does that phrase invoke?

              The generally accepted meaning of “crack down” is “to increase the intensity or severity involved in preventing or regulating (or punishing) something”, or “to act more forcefully to regulate, repress, or restrain,” or, “to take strong action to prevent something bad from happening.”

              None of those things apply to what the TRT is doing. All of those things evoke imagery that elicits exactly the response seen by your readers who have commented here.

              We’re not seeking to be “helpful” or “unhelpful” to any party but rather to make readers aware that a long-standing guideline is now being fully enforced and that the TRT is making reviewers aware of previous oversights.

              Wow, see how much more neutral this statement reads? The inclusion of “cracking down” and “aggressively enforcing” add… what, exactly, to the story?

              One thing is clear: it added quite a bit of incorrect inference by your readers.

              You don’t need to be “helpful”, but perhaps you could avoid being unnecessarily sensational.

    • Another problem is that current TRT guidelines do not allow to have theme name similar to another. For example I did a big update for my Tiny Forge theme, but I was not allowed to publish as Tiny Forge II, I had to change name to Tiny Framework. This puts a lot of work for developers, because documentation, web resources, many thing should be updated. Also there is an impact on branding, because your old theme name just dies…

      • Indeed, we do not allow version numbers as part of the Theme name. It prevents much confusion, and protects your Theme name. If you release Tiny Forge II, what would prevent someone else from releasing Tiny Forge III?

        If it’s a different Theme, it should have a different name. If it is the same Theme, then just bump up the version number.

        • Sometimes updates break compatibility with old things. For example for Tiny Framework I removed Site Logo functionality (who knew it was coming :) ) and pushing that update would have impact on many users…

          Here’s an idea. If you really want to help developers protect their branding identity, why not to create a rule, that only same dev. can publish theme with similar name? Problem solved ;)

  19. There can be no doubt that, in accordance with development best practises this rule should be enforced. Themes should handle the presentation layer of a WordPress web site. Content should be handled by core or by plugins.

    After all, that is the very point of having themes and plugins as separate entities. If that line becomes too blurred all hell breaks loose. We’ve already seen that happen to an extent on ThemeForest (referring to the numerous security issues caused by themes bundling code they have no business bundling).

    We’ve taken this approach (separating features/content generators into plugins) from day one with Storefront and it’s been working well for us. Users seem to be finding, downloading and installing them just fine.

    On that note, I do not buy the whole “installing plugins is a pain for users” argument. Plugins are one of the biggest contributing factors in WordPress’ success. Plugin downloads far outweigh theme downloads. Folks have no problems finding and installing them.

    Management is easier too – it’s more concise to have all your features modularised instead of having everything just bundled into a single codebase. Don’t believe me? Wait until a critical bug arises in your ThemeForest theme and you have to take your entire site down to fix it rather than just removing/updating a single plugin.

    The main issue here seems to be that in order to conform with the rules, some theme updates are going to “break” users sites. Obviously this is a big deal and needs to be addressed in some way. But guys, it _can_ be addressed. In the case of Zerif, why not just create the appropriate plugins, then include TGM in the theme itself to recommend, and give users and easy way to install those plugins? You should even be able to have it automatically import the data from the settings that previously existed in the theme.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it would be a great help to theme authors if the theme listing pages on .org were closer to plugin listing pages. A dedicated changelog tab, more detailed description / screenshots / FAQs etc would be really useful for communicating things like this.

  20. I’d rather users be given bread than water and flour.

    This is a great analogy from Philip. I agree completely. And I’m going to expand on it to the metaphorical breaking point. :) With themes it often seems like we’re either offering competing loaves of bread or making sure the water and flour is pure and pristine but not really looking at the hunger itself. Or where it’s coming from. And why so many people are starving.

    I was going to say bakery instead of hunger but I think hunger sounds more dramatic.

    Anyway, setting up a theme is hard. Regardless of your solution.

    Tons of options? Built-in plugins? Customizer panels? There seem to be lots of disparate solutions with many problems from switching themes, to maintenance, to security, to learning a new piece of software sitting on top of WordPress itself.

    On the other hand keeping things pure doesn’t leave it any easier for users to create a great design. Though there’s a good chance it’ll leave them better off for the future and make setup easier if someone can guide them along.

    It often feels like there are missing pieces in the WordPress experience outside themes themselves. Much like I wish more people released design ideas for future default themes it’d be great to see more people push forward on ideas and solutions that could benefit every theme and every user. Or, at the very least, it’d be cool if it came up as a discussion point in threads like this. What are the things users need to do time and time again? Why is setting up a cool home page so hard? What are the missing pieces for a great design and setup experience?

    • Much like I wish more people released design ideas for future default themes it’d be great to see more people push forward on ideas and solutions that could benefit every theme and every user.

      Hey Ian, is there an official place where future default theme ideas are being discussed and people can release design ideas for them?

      • As a member and node of the WordPress community the most official place to talk about your thoughts on WordPress is anywhere and everywhere you are. Put your thoughts and designs up on your blog, add your theme to the WordPress.org directory, and tell it on the mountain. If you let me know about with a tweet or email I’ll likely point other people at it. I’m kind of super-nerd about default theme ideas.

      • I’m not suggesting a change to guidelines or anything. I’m suggesting more people work together on things like the customizer in core and trying to improve theme-supporting features outside of themes themselves. Things that make it easier for themers and theme-reviewers to do what they believe in most: making a great design experience for users.

    • Hi Ian,

      Good design is not having unlimited design options and two hundred grid variations available from the control panel. Good design is a strong concept cleanly executed. The more options a theme has the further it probably is from good design. Certainly the more options there are, the less likely a theme is high performance.

      That said, by enforcing use of the customizer for options, the theme review team is actually liberating users: whenever a user picks up a new theme, s/he’ll already know how to optimise it.

      No one has said that the customizer must stay as it is. I believe the hope is that with more use, additional creativity and code will go into making the customizer the simplest and most powerful theme customiser on any platform. A unified vision is important to progressive development. There are hundreds of Linux distributions available and yet as a desktop platform use is still under 1%. I’d love to move from OS X to Linux but the maintenance burden and transition cost is just too high.

      The theme review team putting its foot down about what goes into the repository means there is a hope for a common space and common good practices and progressive development (a cycle of improvements). The alternative is the steady fracturing of the WordPress platform as each theme developer tries to pull the sheet in his or her own direction. All site portability would be lost as clean migration from one theme to another would be as painful as Typepad to WordPress migration.

      Is anyone else veteran enough to remember the Thesis Wars when developer Chris Pearson openly denigrated the WordPress platform in his marketing, claiming that any WordPress site not running Thesis is second-rate? Commercial developers are not the second coming and should respect the platform on which they build, instead of trying to destroy it.

      The basic principle of theme = design and plugin = functionality is essential for site portability. One can move one’s plugins from theme to theme but not additional functionality hidden in custom formats. It’s clear the commercial developers are in love with lock-in. Losing the ability to sell “value added” features will be a marketing loss to them. It also means their users will be free to choose another theme when the time comes.

      Yes, I am an unrelenting advocate for data portability and against lock-in. Having rescued many hundreds of sites from platform lock-in, I know exactly what lock-in looks like and the price the publisher pays to extricate him or herself. There’s no excuse on earth to practice lock-in on our WordPress publishers. We promised them freedom and portability and I for one intend to honour that promise.

  21. A little late to the comment party, but I’m certain the TRT will happily work with the authors to get this solved in a way that won’t affect any existing users sites.

    The first thought that comes to mind is ensuring backwards compatibility by only displaying the content relating to grey areas to existing users on update, and hide it for new users altogether.

    I agree with the TRTs approach though, that themes should deal with visual aspects, and the easiest way to identify this is by asking your self “if I change my theme will I lose this content” (that’s not to say I agree that adding plugins can be difficult for the end user if you need a handful of them for basic theme functionality, but at that point I’d wonder if the theme isn’t overly complicated to begin with?).

  22. I think this is a very interesting topic and one which we’ve had to deal with recently when creating Layers. Layers is exactly what .org themes aren’t. It is a theme as a site builder focussed on helping users create a site quickly and easily, it has on-boarding help videos and it uses WordPress widgets (hidden CPTs as Bennett would say) to create content.

    As Alec Kinnear said abruptly, it is up to developers to choose a path, and if that path is not in line with the TRT then we must deal with the ramifications. It’s not fair to put all ThemeForest theme companies in the same boat or to lay blame at them for being so vehemently non-TRT, it’s simply a business choice that has been made by those companies.

    It’s worth remembering that a majority of theme developers are creating themes due to their passion for making money and not empowering the community, as Philip Arthur Moore has pointed out, business is the driver of do-it-all themes.

    Something to consider too is that there are different types of users:

    The general WordPress user who runs a site using a .org theme or a site on .com, ie. the type of user who likes to change their theme often, give their site a new lick of paint every once and a while.

    Then there’s the type of user that buys a “ThemeForest” do-it-all theme. They do not like to change their themes, they do not even like to run updates. They are generally a business who have spent time making sure that their theme runs in a very specific way or paying some one to do that for them. Regardless if they’re using plugins or a theme for their content, they do not change, they are scared of change. And the reality even with Obox customers is that most of our customers never changed their theme. They run their sites as-is until that site closes.

    With Layers we know that most of our users will set their site up and never change themes, just based on experience. That’s why we’ve created StyleKits (in essence it’s just the application of CSS over their sites and the importing of content), so that customers can update the look of their site without ever touching content they’ve curated.

    As a community we have to respect each case-point instead of battling each other on the point of who’s right or wrong. The TRT have a job to do to keep .org themes within guidelines and respecting that is as important as respecting the other side of WordPress and that people will do things differently on non-home turf.

  23. Every time I switch the WP Theme on my main StoreLocatorPlus.com site I curse the fact that the “LITTLE” theme-specific elements like menus and widget areas are toast. I need to recreate all of my menus and widget placement which takes a good bit of time to get things back to usable for my site visitors and customers.

    This happens via a core feature of Woothemes Theme Framework including Storefront (among many others) that is listed in the WP Theme directory. This certainly qualifies as built-in custom theme functionality IMO, which is in the same “boat” as the other issues at hand. As of last week Woothemes = Automattic , do they nix their own non-abiding listings?

    I completely GET where the WP Theme Review standards are coming from. The ability to switch to a new WP theme without worrying “OK, what am I going to lose this time?” makes WordPress a better solution for many. It would only take one time for some clients to build a WP site using Theme A and switching to Theme B to find 20% of their content/setup GONE before they would very likely issue a “we are DONE with WordPress” mandate on the project.

    That said, not being able to build in turn key functionality for complex solutions addressing specific verticals takes away HUGE POTENTIAL of what a WordPress Theme can be. Maybe the WordPress Theme framework/standards needs to think about a more tightly integrated option for themes to include a “works best with” feature for plugins that extend the theme and make it a “one click package install” that is readily presented to anyone installing a theme.

    I also think it is time for WordPress to fully embrace the premium market. Many great developers cannot afford to give away all of their work for free. The plugin and theme market would be a viable career opportunity for many if only WordPress would engage the premium WP products community.

  24. My comments on demo content and previewing a theme (other than the proposed theme review process on w.org theme directory) as follows:

    As long as we think a theme is a Blog Theme (only), a curated demo data and Customizer Preview is the great addition and well enough.

    And then there’s the concept “WordPress as a Site/CMS”- niche theme needs different data-sets, along with default settings and those who want to practice the best- needs (free) plugins enabled to display the Theme’s full potential (i.e Post Formats, Extended Features like testimonial, portfolio etc).

    I think:

    – Current Author Lin/Theme Homepage Link points serve as ‘Introduction of the theme and Documentation’ (The Doc)
    – Allow authors to include their hosted demo link (The Demo)

    That will open the possibility to build-up a ‘very interesting’ or ‘out of the box’ theme, and make it to theme directory. Yes, it’ll boost up-sell, too.

    What I see is the opportunity to:

    – Take a peek in org demo and get the idea of settings/play with settings
    – Take a peek in author hosted demo and taste it’s optimum view/features

    I would suggest to at least open door for author hosted demo for a while (3-6 months) and see how bad it goes, and/or track how many users clicks on org/hosted demo links.

  25. More than fair in my opinion. Most often functionality is just a way to lock users in by having them, for example make extensive use of shortcode. After a few months of blogging it becomes very time consuming (and thus hard) to change to another theme


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