WordPress Theme Review Team Scraps Trusted Authors Program Due to Gaming and Inconsistent Reviews

After several months of discussion, WordPress.org’s Theme Review Team has decided to discontinue the Trusted Authors (TA) Program that launched in April 2018. The program, which was controversial from its inception, allowed certain authors to bypass the normal theme review queue after demonstrating an ability to submit themes with fewer than three issues. Trusted Author theme submissions went to their own dedicated queue that was handled by team leads.

The objective of the program was to streamline the review process and lessen the burden on reviewers. When it failed to deliver the intended results, the Theme Review team leads made a unilateral decision behind closed doors, implementing a change requiring TA participants to join the team and perform a minimum number of reviews in order to continue having their own themes fast tracked through the review process. This was loudly decried by other members of the Theme Review team who were blindsided by the decision.

“We are removing the Trusted Author Program,” team lead William Patton announced in the most recent meeting. “It has not fulfilled the intended plan and has caused more problems than it is solving.”

Fellow team lead Sandilya Kafle outlined the reasons in a post published today. The entrance requirements for the program did not ensure that participants were truly “trusted” authors, as many had to be removed for gaming the system. Reviewers also reported that there was a group of people releasing clones of themes every week.

“We got lots of help from the TA authors – for which we’d like to thank them,” Kafle said. “However, there was still gaming from some of the authors – which resulted in their removal from the TA program. One of the intentions of the TA program was to reduce the gaming by the use of multiple accounts. However, we still saw some authors having multiple accounts so this intention was not realized though the program existing.”

The TA program’s entrance requirements also did not ensure that participants were prepared to review themes at a high level, which resulted in inconsistent reviews.

“We strongly believed that TA members were highly familiar with the requirements but we found that was not the case for all of them,” Kafle said. “Additionally, some authors did not feel confident enough in their own understanding of all requirements to perform reviews and set themes live. Instead many TA reviews went to the admin queue after approval. This was an indicator that the quality of the themes by TA’s may not be as high as expected.”

Most of the Theme Review team members present in the meeting were generally agreed on shutting the TA program down. Alexandru Cosmin, the former team lead who introduced the program, was the only vocal outlier, whose acrid responses to scrapping the program reflect a long-standing frustration with the slow queue.

“Honest opinion, and I could bet on this: by the end of the year we’ll have 5-month queues and multi-accounters,” Cosmin said. “We’ll see how fair it will be when you have guys with 15 accounts and authors complaining in the main chat about how long the queue is.”

Today’s decision to discontinue the TA program restores the natural order to the queue, with all theme authors receiving the same treatment. Tying an incentive program to the review system was ineffective for taming the queue.

Long queues and gaming the system have proven to be continual struggles for the Theme Review Team, but the existence of these problems underscores the significance of the official themes directory for theme shops. Companies continue to use WordPress.org to gain users for their commercial versions, and the directory remains an important distribution channel for WordPress themes.


26 responses to “WordPress Theme Review Team Scraps Trusted Authors Program Due to Gaming and Inconsistent Reviews”

  1. If they REALLY want to solve this, they should not allow companies to use WordPress.org to gain users for their commercial versions. So the theme directory stays free from “crippled” themes. This will never happen of course, because there are many with commercial interests that have influence how things are run, but more importantly, this is a simple and logical solution to this specific problem, so of course we can’t have none of this !

      • I think you are mistaken. Look at how robust the directory was before “freemium” themes came about. Look at how many normal themes are out there currently.

        At worst it might force a rollback of many of the idiotic and burdensome requirements of themes that currently exist.

    • If you spot crippleware please use the report button to tell someone (it’s on every theme page in the sidebar). I assure you that every single report is read and looked into.

      Crippleware is not allowed.

      If you want to help out some more you are more than welcome to join us 🙂

      • They can make their money just like everyone else, use commercial marketplaces, and here is a shocker, from their own websites, instead of cheating, gaming, and giving “lite” versions of their actual themes, that in reality they are almost useless, unless you buy their premium version. There are hundreds, if not thousands of themes in the directory, that are so weak and almost useless, it’s not even funny, it’s embarrassing actually.

        For me, this is extremely simple: If you are serious about reducing the waiting times, stop the gaming and cheating on their tracks, “lite” versions (which I call “crippled”) of commercial themes should not be allowed. The alternative is for the theme reviewers to constantly play cat and mouse games with the theme authors.

      • From the profile link, from your reputation, from serving clients, so many ways. If you think spamming the directory is the only way you make a living, you probably shouldn’t be making themes for a living.

    • An alternative solution would be to add a “really free” tag in the theme repository, so we could filter out all the “lite” themes. Obviously, this tag should be monitored (and managed) by the theme review team to avoid cheats. But, for some reason, the team is not listening.

    • This will never happen of course, because there are many with commercial interests that have influence how things are run.

      This is not true of the theme directory. The companies with the most successful theme businesses (read: commercial interest) have no say in how the directory works.

  2. Too bad, but thankfully this will largely solve itself. The need for so many themes becomes unnecessary when the header, footer and sidebar are all blocks in Phase 2 of Gutenberg. We can already see this when using page builders today with themes like the Beaver Builder theme or the Page Builder Framework–the themes generally act as flexible containers for the page builders.

    We’ll also see this to a much lesser extent with plugins since plugins that purely manifest as content become blocks and generally only things that have management/need an admin settings page will stay as plugins.

    Times are a changin.

  3. At first I thought it was a great way for experienced theme authors to get in as a TA, but it didn’t take long for some authors to take advantage of it which was frustrating to see.

    But, I guess the good thing here is that all themes are now back in a single queue. Although, I would like to see the Admin final review queue removed.

    However, to stop the unfair benefits of the commercial sites benefiting hugely from the popular list, many making 10’s of $1000’s per week in upsells because they solidified the Popular list with their download+active install counts, it’s unfair for other authors who will never really get a chance to reach the upper spots. If I remember reading right, zerif lite was making something like $10,000 per week in upsells. Then you have Godaddy at the top…what smaller theme author/shop can compete with the big traffic entities when they grab a foothold on the popular list.

    Long story short, the review process and the directory needs a major overhaul. The Popular List needs to GO!

      • It is actually very simple: GoDaddy bundles their own themes into every WordPress website that is built by their clients.
        So their themes are used “by default” by hundreds of thousands of empty “under construction” domains, including some real websites too.

        After a year or so, they submit the theme to the free repository, and once it goes live, the theme starts with 20,000+ active installs on day 1. This means that the theme immediately jumps to Top 10 “Popular” themes and stays there for at least half a year.

        Now imagine that every WordPress user in the world, no matter where they are hosted, when they go to their Dashboard > Themes page, the first 10-20 themes at the top are dominated by GoDaddy themes.

        I don’t think it is fair to call this “gaming the system”, as it doesn’t break any existing rules. But it is obvious that the “Popular” tab is misleading and serves a vague purpose.

        Unless you have a big agency and community behind you, real, good quality and focused themes can never reach the Popular tab, which is a huge traffic source.

        Besides being a traffic source, the Popular tab also serves as an entry for new WordPress users. Many of them don’t know any better what is popular or not. And here they see the software itself recommending a list of POPULAR themes, most of which come from the same devs, with the same features and same approach.

  4. I liked the TA very much. If it worked the way the team wanted, then it would reduce a lot of time reviewing themes, which is the most headache problem for theme authors.

    I didn’t expect people using it as a tool to bypass the review process. So sad to see it’s closed. Hopefully, there will be a better way to improve the review process while still keeping good themes in the repo.

    • Unfortunately, just like everything, there will always be at least one person who wrecks things for everyone. I have seen a lot of abuse of the TA program, and it’s unfortunate.

      Overall, there is still rampant abuse even in the normal process; perhaps (as much as I hate to say this), only allow theme/dashboard linking (1 link) to an author’s theme setup docs–no upsells or marketing. Maybe cutting the abuse of marketing (incl. dropping the popular list) will ease the theme queue.

  5. After 15 Years of using WordPress. I did finally find a theme that I use for all customers and on my own site. Yes, it is a paid theme but took me forever to find a competent theme that’s updated almost monthly for years. All too often I have found themes or clients have that are never ever updated again.

    • Did you look for your theme from the WordPress theme directory? I know a few years back, the choice of themes in the directory were really, well, not good. I have seen a lot of themes in the directory though that were submitted, reviewed, gone live, then never updated after that…or absolutely no support is given.

      Quick Note: Sorry, meant to say with your earlier question to my AJ comment, that I am from Rough Pixels, but I know there is another AJ somewhere; guess 1 from Total Theme. I usually go by Andre though.

  6. I haven’t been an active reviewer in a long time, well almost ever since I joined Envato – 4 years now.

    Trusted Author can exist, but it should be earned and not via exchange.

    Anyone that wants to review themes should be trained, like I was on the very first beginning of TRT, even though I was not new to WordPress.

    Someone above mentioned clients and experience, well that has very little to do with Theme Review unfortunately. We see folks that create themes for a decade and still have one too many issues both with code and design.

    I’ve said this years ago and will say it again, once there’s an actual employee, or a contractor that does this 5 days a week, none of this will be an issue. If we can have a paid plugin team that does this (or at least it was), why can’t we have someone for the themes as well? And one person can make a huge impact.

    • It makes way more sense to have someone or a small group of 3-5 people that takes on the role of an official theme review team. Yes, pay them. I’d do that. Important to find people who have years of theme experience. The position would require applications and interviews for the role(s).

      Ultimately you potentially get reliability, a good review flow for speed of reviews, and most of all, consistency. You would also get a dedicated group that can meet up and collaborates on theme/author issues that consistently shows up in reviews; coming up with solutions.

      I’d even go as far as making the design as part of the review process…yes, I know there are people who say that is not possible and that design is subjective, but there really should be a design review in addition to code and security reviewing. I mean, Emil, you do that being part of TF, right?

      • Hey Andre,

        Paid, or sponsored will both work. Some TRT reviewers are extremely knowledgable, i.e. Justin Tadlock and have been doing this for a long time. We also had Chip Bennett that has been with the team since the beginning.

        Back then we had issues, but the review quality was never compromised.

        Things got worse, and this is not just me saying that, is when one too many people with personal agendas and opinions got involved, some of them is with the way we review themes and respectfully the inability to assess the code review correctly. And not to mention issues with up-selling. Pro version/premium themes and plugins are what made WordPress be where it is today, not the other way around, just take WooCommerce alone as an example.

        IMO and I will agree with you is that design should be part of the process, but giving the situation this is virtually impossible to do.

        Yes, TF does review both, design and code.

  7. I would suggest to have a team of full-time theme reviewers who get paid by the WordPress foundation.

    Companies pay people as “5 for the future” to work fully on WP Core – why not alternatively pay/donate money to the foundation so that the foundation can pay good salaries to a team?

    This would take the burden from the current team which does it in their spare time (as of my knowledge…). And then things like such a author program would no longer be needed.

    The queue can then hopefully become shorter and shorter.

    The current team would still be needed to make the “rules”/ guidelines.

    Just a few thoughts on this.

    • In order for that to happen, the Foundation would have to conduct itself as – well, an actual Foundation – meaning a public organisation with transparency in its officers, staff, and governance procedures, all of which would accountable to the community. It would use those healthy structures to raise funds from the community (as the Drupal Association does through its sliding scale of membership dues), as well as from grant-making organisations and philanthropic bodies working on the open web, to support WordPress’s mission and the people who carry it out, whether that took the form of supporting contributors or carrying out special projects reflecting our position of influence.

      Until that day never comes, the Foundation is a paper-only corporation for tax purposes, whose processes are accessible only to people who know how to do advanced U.S. corporate Googling.

      • I know all about the Foundation. And it has been hurting me for years that it is so, and – apparently? – there is no will to change that.

        But it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. It is time to think the unthinkable and say the unspeakable. To be satisfied with the status quo, to be satisfied? Never!

        The question is whether we really want all this.
        It would be possible without problems. Just look, how other foundations work in the Open Source area, for example the Open Document Foundation behind Libre Office or the Mozilla Foundation.

        This pseudo-transparent, pseudo-democratic construct of the current “WordPress Foundation” should be scrutinized and transformed into reasonable, relevant structures, independent of “Automattic”/ “Audrey Capital”, etc.


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