WordPress Theme Review Team Votes on New Guidelines to Ban Obtrusive Upselling

photo credit: Post no bills - (license)
photo credit: Post no bills(license)

One of the main items on the agenda for the Theme Review Team this week was to finalize what type of upselling is allowed in themes hosted on WordPress.org. With the requirement of using the customizer for options, theme authors have gotten creative with upsells and will sometimes include panels and sections that are inoperable unless the user purchases the commercial version.

The team voted on a set of guidelines previously discussed. The counts shown below represent votes in favor of each individual guideline, and no members voted against any of them, according to the reckoning Justin Tadlock posted in the meeting notes:

  • No global nags at top of admin pages. +12
  • One top-level link in the customizer (other unobtrusive links in sections allowed). +8
  • Allow one Appearance sub-page. +11
  • No options or panels/sections behind a paywall. +11

Overall, team members agreed that any upsell links should be unobtrusive and the new proposed guidelines favor keeping the customizer clean and the Appearance menu simple. Although the majority of Theme Review Team members are in favor of the items above, their inclusion in the handbook is not yet set in stone.

“Note that we might change some of the wording for clarity if/when these become guidelines,” Tadlock said. “The admins will review these items for inclusion as guidelines and have further discussion if need be.”

Theme Review Team Considers Adding a Tag to Designate Themes with a Commercial Upgrade

Contributors are looking to add a new designation for freemium WordPress.org extensions that have commercial counterparts available elsewhere. In a recent Meta Team meeting, Matt Mullenweg proposed an agenda item for consideration in the redesign of the Plugin Directory.

“I would love for y’all to figure out a tagging system that will help people know better what’s behind the installation of a plugin,” Mullenweg said. “Does it connect to an external service? Is there a premium version? Is it useful without those things?

“If we can figure out a way to classify those three as examples, it’ll cover a lot of business models people are attempting in the directory,” Mullenweg said, referring to the original examples of Akismet, VaultPress, and Jetpack that he mentioned previously.

“This can be separate from the 3-tag limit,” he said. “It’s really a special tag, and honor system is fine to start for self-classification.”

This hasn’t yet been implemented in the new Plugin Directory, but Konstantin Obenland has the item on his list for when the Meta Team moves forward with an overhaul of the tagging system.

As a result of this discussion, the Theme Review Team is also considering adding a “pro” designation for themes that have a commercial version available. Tadlock said that the team will be following up on the plugin directory discussions and will look to implement improved tagging in line with what the Meta Team decides.

The Theme Review Team ran out of time during this week’s meeting but will discuss the possibility of a “pro” tag next week. If you want to be part of this discussion, make sure to join the #themereview channel on WordPress’ Slack.

37 Comments


  1. As a user who has tried out numerous themes on the repo, I am insanely annoyed by customizer setting options that say pro only.

    I’m all for paid themes if they get me what I want, but a free theme with upsells is not freemium. It’s a puzzle piece model. Have you ever almost completed a puzzle with one or two pieces missing? It’s insulting.

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  2. I’m just subscribing to comments, to see what the Tavern readers think. I was unable to attend today’s meeting, but likely would not have said much during the meeting, anyway, because I hold fairly strong views and don’t want to bias the discussion.

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    1. Well, with one experience on Nightly( which Jeff and Matson need to start up again), I expressed my frustrations with a theme and reported it to the theme team based on the crowd’s recs. Nothing came of it, but totally agree with the customizer aspect of it.

      I think the best route is to have the author link point to their website where a person can purchase a pro version.

      Upselling isn’t wrong. It’s the obtrusive upselling that is wrong. Don’t give me a checkbox I can’t check because I don’t have the pro version.

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  3. This could gladly be added to plugins as well since it’s a much bigger issue there than anywhere else.

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    1. The issue of going overboard with upsells is far more prevalent in plugins than it is themes. It’s also going to be more of a nuisance to end users because they will see them more often.

      With themes the upsells are typically only seen when you first setup the theme and after that if you are editing the design/layout of your theme. Most users aren’t editing the design/layout of their theme on a daily basis.

      Plugins are a different matter. Major plugins that provide a lot of functionality (ecommerce, etc.) will get way more admin UI usage in the Dashboard by users. Which means those users are going to be navigating around those upsells far more regularly than with theme upsells.

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      1. Carl, I totally 100% agree with you.

        But I’ve learned through experience it’s devs who purchase the pro versions or premium versions. It’s one aspect Cory Miller instilled in me, and I think it still rings true.

        Show a dev or an agency that your plugin or theme will save dev time. It’s an easy sell to a manager or PM.

        Regarding themes, I think you underestimate how much customization is needed. Switching themes is not an off and on switch. So switching to a theme on the repo and finding there are things you need in a pro version is extremely frustrating. Give me the feedback up-front. Don’t sell me on a free version with caveats. I’d rather you tell me up-front what theme xyz had up-front.

        I realize that .org plugins are free and volunteer based. But I think consideration should be placed on the author that perhaps a free version is not the best route for an upsell.

        I highly recommend premium themes and authors adapt your model. Yearly with support. And with a good marketing campaign, a good product, good QA, and good word-of-mouth, your product will succeed.

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      2. And that is why you oughta use a plugin, NOT a theme for your “pro” version. Solves all those issues like a charm.

        When I was still working for ThemeKraft, this was the way to go. And a cool one too; one just has to add proper action / filter hooks and off you go :)

        If you do it right, you might even open up options for different add-on plugins, not just a simple generic “pro” version.

        cu, w0lf.

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      3. I’m not a developer but I have purchased some premium versions of plugins. Sometimes the extra features are worth it and, when something is really good, I want to support the plugin developer.

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    2. *cough*Yoast SEO*cough*

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      1. Yoast SEO is great, but lately I’ve been so annoyed by the nags that I’m really close to switching plugins. Persistent nags on the admin panel for every new release (weekly!), that never go away until you dismiss them!

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      2. Yoast SEO is great?

        Its a resource hog, slows your site down, is often not tested sufficiently before a new release, and the support is a joke. Which, along with the overly aggressive advertising makes it far from what I call great.

        If I were you I would take a look at The SEO Framework. The new 2.6 version is due out shortly and that, I promise you, really IS great.

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      3. I will take a look at The SEO Framework, thank you Terence. At first glance, the number of PHP files in The SEO Framework is literally ten times less than Yoast SEO (autodescription is The SEO Framework):

        $ find wordpress-seo -iname “*.php” | wc -l
        246
        $ find autodescription -iname “*.php” | wc -l
        24

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  4. Interesting that some people seem dead against the technique of including options but saying pro only when someone tries to use them. It seems to me that’s very common with the freemium model outside the WordPress ecosystem.

    For example, Feedly has a link in the menu saying “Integrations – New”. When I click it, I’m taken to a page saying “Do more faster” and talking about IFTTT integrations. If I click the link to “Get IFTTT integrations”, I’m taken to the sales page to purchase the pro version.

    This model happens across numerous freemium services and mobile apps. I’d go so far as to say it’s the most common freemium pattern, if not a ‘best practice’.

    You know what? If they provide value to me (like Feedly does), I’ll use them. If they are close to crippleware, I won’t. I think if people are unhappy with how it’s been implemented in WordPress products, then it’s probably because the developer got the balance wrong.

    Personally, I like what the Theme Review Team are planning, except for the options behind a paywall one. I’d leave that to market forces: Those authors that go too far will get bad ratings and people will stop using their products, those that get the balance right and provide value to all their users will thrive and be able to follow the ‘normal’ freemium model. Is that too idealistic for the WordPress world? Seems to work elsewhere.

    Disclaimer: I do have a plugin that has a checkbox that’s only active in the pro version. Most people don’t need it and can use the plugin perfectly well, but the few that need it can clearly see how it’s going to work. It’s in the documentation too, so they know what they are getting into before they install it (if they read the documentation!). I’ve had zero complaints, presumably because the plugin is providing value even without the pro version. But anyway, I have skin in this game, which may be colouring my judgement – so there’s that! :)

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    1. @Stephen you said everything I came here to comment about. I think this issue is similar to a conference talk. Let’s assume that you attended a conference (WHICH WAS FREE) and sat across a speaker who spent the right amount of time preparing the talk, flying out to the venue and has given a bad talk (as per your perspective, not the speaker’s). At the end of his talk, and two more times during the speech, he told you about how you can hire him or buy his services/products.

      Now here’s what your options were. You could have gotten up and left the talk since you didn’t seem to enjoy what he spoke about. Instead, you stayed, you listened to all he had to offer, some of it might even have helped you, and since it was all for FREE there was no harm done was there? But now you are speaking against his talk and being vocal about why he is a bad speaker, why his talk was crap, why he oversold himself and blah blah.

      This is just my perspective, but I think that speaker (however bad his talk was, however, cheesy and obtrusive his marketing skills were) he spent a good deal of time on his talk, he is a human being (we tend to forget this part), he’s gotta pay his bills, he’s trying to make a living there. You don’t like what he did for you for FREE (Expenses in the form of his time and the flight/hotel bills) sure, get up and don’t listen to his talk, go home, don’t care about his cheesy marketing.

      No harm was done, ain’t no body forced you to sit through his entire speech (i.e. use his free theme) and get offended by his cheesy marketing(i.e. those obstructive nags and paywall options). You have the choice to just not use it if you don’t like and he will start to figure things out for himself or will stop speaking (building themes for free) once in for all.

      IMHO this would be a decent way of dealing with a bad speaker and his marketing efforts. But to cut off the speaker’s marketing hand and to ask him to pay all those bills and not talk about anything that could lead him to earn a living with his talk (i.e. theme/WordPress), I think it is every bit against the concept of diversity and openness of that community.

      Again, this is just my perspective and an opinion about this whole thing. Buyers dictate what they want, if it is not good for them, it doesn’t sell, and what doesn’t sell doesn’t exist for long.

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  5. I’m just a ‘user’ so I realize my feedback is insignificant. However, I’m really annoyed that it’s super hard to find totally free plugins and themes in the wash of freemium things. It seems as if nothing is totally free anymore, nothing decent at least. That’s cool, but it really puts off new users, especially young people just getting started who don’t have any money. I feel like WordPress is going to see it’s population age and die off because it’s becoming too commercial. Most can’t even get support without paying. And things are always breaking, especially freemium things. Like hey, I just got Sensei which was a giant investment from a reputable company and guess what, it takes 1500MB and crashes my whole shared server. Things like that are annoying. Refund? Never. I’m okay with developers getting some money around WordPress. But it really began as a resource. Now it’s becoming monetized, commercial and capitalistic. And what stinks most is out of it all, WordPress itself is still free and really not making anything itself. So it’s like someone bringing a cake to a party and not getting a slice.

    I think the themes and plugins should use: Free (Totally Free, no paid upgrades), Lite (It’s good, but there’s 1 Pro Version Upgrade of the whole thing) Ext (Extendable- meaning it’s what it is, but has purchasable extensions.) Free extensions can just ride as free. Otherwise, nothing not-free to some extent should be allowed in the repository, it kind of defies the spirit of the way everything’s licensed. Unless .org wants to try to compete with something like codeacademy but with lower fees, then it’ll really need a system to weed through to find free plugins. There really needs to be free plugins is my point. Because NEW people and young people haven’t the investment. Or else the userbase is going to age- slowly, but it will.

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    1. Thanks for leaving your thoughts, Omi. This is some really interesting feedback. I like the idea of tags to indicate Totally Free, Lite, etc. It is becoming difficult to sort through which plugins are really free and which have a catch.

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    2. Great feedback Omi. And it’s not just young people who will struggle if they’re trying to avoid plugins/themes with an upsell. Many people outside wealthy countries have far less disposable income and would benefit from an easier way of finding 100% free plugins/themes.

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    3. Nice classification suggestion. I get the sense that WordPress.org admins give more weight to user feedback than developer feedback. I’ve seen comments from them several times to the tune of “we’re not here for the developers.”

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    1. I would like this as I am more likely to try a product that has a pro version, because I know the author is more likely to continue to update and support the plugin or theme.

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      1. Yep, that’s why I proposed it for themes. But we will wait and follow up plugins just to stay on the same page.

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  6. I have only ever purchased one premium theme and one plugin neither of which I use now.
    I prefer to use free plugins and themes w/o extensive GUIs.
    CMB2 is a perfect example of a free plugin that maximises user benefit w/o a UI and with the additional plus of encouraging me to learn and understand the underlying technologies.
    In light of the points raised here, WordPress.org should reconsider the ban on frameworks. Since there are risks to all approaches – frameworks, premium plugins – WordPress should follow the path of maximum benefit rather than try to determine minimum risk.

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    1. I’m in a similar boat on the paid plugin/theme front too. I generally find the free stuff is considerably better than the paid stuff. I think the problem for most people, is that they don’t know how to find the good free stuff, and fall for the marketing diatribe from the paid products.

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  7. Now that’s a good thing.

    I have tried some of the magazine style themes from the official directory, and the developers seem just to force you to buy the premium version. Their’s banner in the control panel, there is a link the customizer and their’s a dofollow credit link back in the footer. Adding the support for a tag to distinguish the theme which will allow its users to upgrade to pro version is really a great idea.

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  8. I hope this is implemented. Not just in the theme directory, but in the plugin repository, too.

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  9. Just pulling up a chair and grabbing some popcorn.

    This is going to get interesting….

    I’ve already said my piece on this many times.

    Freemium SUCKS! Flashing ads at me all the time SUCKS (I’m looking at you Yoast!). Free or paid – get off the damn fence.

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    1. I think more attention should be focused on client usage. A client does not want to be bombarded with notices or options they can’t check. That comes back negatively on the dev/agency.

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  10. I like free things. I like paying for not-free things. I don’t pay for free things and I rarely get not-free things for free ;)

    But I don’t tag things, “Freemium.” It’s a fluffy, gooey, buzzy word. If a free theme has free or paid upgrades then it should be marketed as, “upgrades available,” (free or not-free) in a designated area with little or no obstruction to the GUI and UX, e.g. Theme Details, Screenshot, ReadMe, Addons tab, dismissable after_switch_theme once, etc. An ad is an an. Peeps no like ads. #EthicalUpsell

    Marketing points should be incentives, not burdens. #Value

    Freemium face-bloat is an unethical trend-model of imposing irrelevant burden upon a free entity whereby rendering something assumed free as kinda-free-but-not-really.

    A SaaS service can have a free plan, but should never call its service a, “free service.” An App can have in-app purchases, but should never call itself a “Lite” or “Pro” version. That’s just silly talk.

    Market intent/ethics should be acquired at Intake and not via downstream tagging—after the fact. Free is not “Freemium,” and free is not paid. Free is free and is never not-free. #Freelusional

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    1. Your points are good Tada. I like cutting through the BS and calling things what they really are.

      Not directed at you now Tada….

      The problem is that way too many devs of “free” WP stuff have the “it’s free so shut up” attitude.

      I prefer a plugin/theme either be free or not free. No in between crap.

      Put some real effort into your “free” theme/plugin and blow my mind and then I *might* just decide to buy one of your “not free” themes/plugins. Give me one ounce of attitude about it and you get NOTHING from me. I’ll use your “free” stuff until it’s of no further value to me then I’ll move on to the next one.

      Having a freemium product just means you aren’t smart enough to come up with a real sales funnel to get me to buy into the other “not free” stuff you’re doing.

      The bitter devs that can’t make any money should look up Suzanna Theresa of Instabuilder fame. She has kick-ass stuff and makes a crapload of money by being exceptional at MARKETING. I’ve given her more money than any other single dev out there. She knows how to marjet the crap out of something, upsell, cross sell and keep you wondering what she’s going to promote next.

      Blows my mind how so many devs just don’t understand.

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  11. I like the idea of making a way to showcase only themes and plugins that have no upsell action to users. Rank those higher in the listings. Seems good to me.

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    1. Isn’t that really what WordPress.org is all about?

      I always thought so.

      Good to hear you say it though.

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    2. I agree it would be good to make it clear to users whether plugins have upsells or not (ie through labels, yes please, let’s do that), but not sure it should affect rankings.

      The problem with this is where do you draw the line with what’s acceptable? Are you de-prioritizing everything that includes an upsell?

      For example, I have no problem with the way Jetpack upsells and neither would most people (and I can’t really see it being de-prioritized or removed from Featured because of that). But there are some plugins and themes that go too far and probably should be de-prioritized. The question is where is that line?

      Personally I see the existing ratings system as a potential solution here. If authors get the balance wrong and don’t provide enough value or have too much upsell, then they get bad ratings and are de-prioritized accordingly.

      I’d propose a) making it clear to users that items contain upsells through labels; b) having clear guidelines for authors about upsells in global areas; but c) not actually de-prioritizing specifically because of upsells, leave that to ratings instead.

      Hmm, while we’re at it, should we consider labels for Supported and Not Supported? I guess that’s a can of worms…

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  12. Some WordPress themes listed on the .org directory and indeed plugins can be blighted by premium options.

    Personally I’d like a label denoting this as mentioned in this comment stream.

    Also as a consumer information on the themes / plugins can be scant at times.

    I’d be happy to write some physical reviews for the .org site of what you can expect and pitfalls etc.

    Not everyone who uses WordPress is a developer or knows their coding onions.

    I review premium themes as I need to develop revenue to buy more themes to review.

    However thinking about it taking free themes and plugins and writing honest reviews might help individuals on whether a product is right for them or not.

    I know I’ve gone a little off topic but the .Org directory is a go to place for many. If I can help (as I’m not a coder) with reviews and opinions from an end user point of view I’ll do what I can.

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      1. Hey,

        Sorry please email me on ben (at) Wpin.me will fix the contact form thanks for letting me know!

        Cheers

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  13. I would like to see it mandatory that themes (and plugins too) have a very clear and detailed description or list outlining what is included, and what is added with a Pro upgrade.

    Too often its hidden or not mentioned at all.

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