Zerif Lite Returns to WordPress.org after 5-Month Suspension and 63% Decline in Revenue

In October 2016, Zerif Lite was suspended from the WordPress Themes Directory after failure to comply with the Theme Review Team’s guidelines. The suspension left 300,000 users (including those using Zerif Lite child themes) without maintenance and security updates.

After five months of fixes and several rounds of review, Zerif Lite has returned to the directory with the same functionality but a significantly altered user experience. Users are now required to install a plugin for the features that were previously deemed to be “faux custom post types,” violations of the content vs. presentation guideline for WordPress.org-hosted themes. These include small custom content blocks that appear on the homepage for things like team info and testimonials.

“We will work on making sure it is all clear for people, but I still don’t understand or agree with the requirement,” ThemeIsle CEO Ionut Neagu said. “I think Torsten phrased it better: ‘Why do the guidelines of the Theme Review Team forbid the usage of Shortcodes/CPTs/etc. due to problems when switching themes, if, in the meantime, the Plugin Review Team explicitly allows those plugins which only work for one theme, which brings the entire idea (function remains intact after switching themes) to absurdity?'”

At the time of suspension, Neagu estimated that Zerif Lite’s unavailability on WordPress.org would diminish the company’s revenue by 50%.

“What was interesting is that revenue continued to decrease for all those months and we are now at around $45k/month instead of $120k,” Neagu said. “That revenue won’t be back as the theme is live. A big part of success/sales before was that we had a great demo, a very easy-to-set-up theme, and ‘better’ upsells.”

Neagu said the company has seen no significant increase in revenue during the first few days the theme has been back in the directory. His team has considered releasing the theme under a completely different name but is committed to supporting the current version for at least the next two years. Meanwhile, they have built newer themes like Hestia to be capable of importing Zerif content seamlessly into its design to avoid the lock-in effect.

Neagu said the experience of losing so much revenue has not changed the company’s strategy for distribution. They will continue to add new themes to WordPress.org but Neagu said they would be lucky to add two per year, given the limitation of one theme per account and a 6-7 month waiting period in the queue.

Zerif Lite’s suspension was a controversial decision. Many who commented on our first post about the issue were pleased to see the Theme Review Team finally throw the book at ThemeIsle after the company had been allowed to skirt the requirements for more than a year without resolving the issues. Others saw the situation as an opportunity to re-examine the directory’s requirements.

“Perhaps the rules surrounding theme submission to the repo should be relaxed for everyone – limited only to security concerns perhaps, let the market sort out the rest,” Bradley Kirby, author of the Wallace theme, said. “Is it possible that absolute data portability isn’t an expectation or desire from most end users? That they expect to do some manual porting of data when they change themes? That they prize other features like site design and built-in functionality over something like data portability?”

Zerif Lite has been at the center of the Theme Review Team’s discussions regarding data portability for the past two years after the team began cracking down on violations of the Presentation vs. Functionality guideline. The spotlight shined on Zerif Lite during that discussion eventually culminated in its suspension, as Neagu was forced to comply or have his theme removed.

“I think our goal should just be to provide the best experience for the users, not just to comply without thinking about what users want,” Neagu said. “At least this is my goal – to build the best products that will help people to build their sites.”

The Risks of Using WordPress.org as a Primary Distribution Channel

WordPress.org is arguably the most effective way for a theme company to reach mass quantities of users with a freemium theme. The directory lends a great deal of credibility to its listings because of the stringent guidelines and rigorous review process. Failure to comply with these guidelines ultimately ended up sinking ThemeIsle’s flagship theme and Neagu is not optimistic that the previous revenue will return.

“During this whole time, a thing that caught me off guard was some of people’s comments wondering if it was even safe to use a theme that was removed from the repo in the first place,” Neagu said. “I mean, in the user’s mind, and understandably so, there must have been something wrong with the theme since it got removed, right?” He said this experience caused him to see things differently.

“Being listed in the official repository doesn’t only get you downloads and/or sales, but also trust and credibility in the eyes of your potential users,” Neagu said. “Unfortunately, most of the users who install themes directly via their WP dashboards are not very experienced, and they have no reason to research the web a bit more to find out what happened to the theme they heard about. In other words, if someone types ‘zerif’ into the search field in their dashboard and they find nothing, they just move on.”

Neagu said that in spite of differences Themeisle has had with the Theme Review Team, the company will continue to contribute and be part of the community. The theme’s suspension, re-working, and re-installment is an interesting case of what can happen when a company’s sales strategy is at odds with WordPress.org’s requirements.

“Our products are focused towards beginners, being super easy to setup with built-in demo content, so they are not niched products that we can distribute in different communities,” Neagu said.

“It is obvious that relying on a third-party marketplace is the worst scenario, but WordPress.org is the default solution: if you want to reach a large mass of people, you need to be there.”

25 Comments


  1. What was interesting is that revenue continued to decrease for all those months and we are now at around $45k/month instead of $120k

    Yikes, that was an expensive mistake/lesson learned.

    Report


  2. That will teach them and others to not sell products that lock them into the theme especially those customers who don’t know any better.

    Report


    1. This will teach theme shops to stick with bland unimaginative core–centric functionality, which had got WP themes market into its current boring state in first place.

      Also if “lock ins” are so so horrible then official repositories should allow extensions authors to leave with their users.

      Report


    2. That has nothing to do with the actual post.
      Nothing at all. ThemeIsle has not locked anyone. AS it is clear, when you developer a plugin that works with just one theme, what is the reason of that?

      If we have had generic shortcodes, generic builder or what so ever, then the case scenario would be valid.

      Report


  3. Glad to hear Zerif is back on the repo, but the drop from 120 to 45 a month is insane. Definitely a lesson learned for sure!

    Report


  4. .org is a powerful tool, use it wisely. Glad to hear that Zerif is back, Ionut is good people. Lost revenue will pick up fast. Lesson learned for sure.

    Report


  5. I am too old, and too many beers thought me one thing. There is no actual difference between presentation and functionality with the way the core code is structured. As long as a theme is essentially just one more plugin the border between both will always be blurred.

    Lets talk about content portability between themes if that is the issue instead of using misleading slogans.

    BTW how exactly is content portability works between a theme that supports post formats and those that don’t? Probably not very good for the user…

    Users were looking for portable ways to have blocks of content that they can organize the way they would like to, but seems that even with the 4.8 focus core developers still don’t get the distinction between content and web page, so guess all of us will need to wait for 5.8 release for something to be done about that.

    Zerif’s main fault was that they offered a solution where core don’t want to admit that there is a problem.

    Report


  6. 100% data portability between themes is a myth.

    Report


    1. Exactly. Users who do not know that they do not want to be locked in, and themes that don’t care to warn them … a big problem. Yet, there is nothing wrong with lots and lots of dreamboat functionality. Maybe an import and export plugin between theme and core, then functionality would be served and data/content would have a home. But the current db structure is a bit of a nightmare, so yea, WP v 10.9 maybe.

      Report


  7. I get the goal of keeping content and presentation separate but the fact that presentation is a consumer of content means that even with strict enforcement all this does is make life slightly better.

    Any website above ‘very simple’ requires a ton of work to switch themes. When’s the last time you had a complex site and needed to dial in a new theme and it wasn’t a long, difficult process?

    Furthermore, as long as the customer is well aware they are being ‘locked in’ to a vendor’s theme platform…which means in the future they actually may have an easier transition to varying themes within that platform…then who cares?

    Report


  8. A better approach would just be to have badges / tags for themes, rather than these draconian requirements. A “portable” tag could indicate that it’s easy to switch to and from a given theme, and demos could be shown with customized content and with default content — then let users decide.

    Report


    1. On a lighter note… and IMHO the default content just doesn’t help a user understand the true power of a WordPress theme.

      WordPress has grown a lot; do you think we should maybe start a discussion about making the default free themes content more flexible?

      Report


    2. Absolutely. If data portability was such a big issue people would have paid more attention when Chris Lema started banging on about the Divi theme, in favor of his own favorite. But despite that, or maybe because of it, its gone from strength to strength. Once upon a time it was important… back in the day. To me there are many things — that make the theme a winner — which are far more important now than data portability.

      Report


    3. “A better approach would just be … rather than these draconian requirements.”

      I think this sums up fairly well my thoughts on the current theme requirements and why I chose (was forced?) to finally step back and away from the theme review team … and the WordPress theme repository in general.

      Report


      1. @Cais From what point did you not agree with the theme review requirements? You were part of the theme review team right around the beginning.

        I know that you did not agree with the requirements but I did not get what you did not agree on.

        Report


      2. I was the first member of the review team but that is neither here nor there … and there are more problems than just the requirements/guidelines and what should stay or go.

        Unfortunately this may not be the best venue to discuss the systemic issues of the the review team and its processes.

        Report


    4. FWIW, the theme was not suspended merely because of this single data portability issue. I wouldn’t even call it the primary issue. Nevertheless, that’s not the big fish we need to fry at the moment.

      We have plenty of folks, including Ionut, who have some great ideas on improving the system. The problems aren’t so much about rules/guidelines. The problems stem from not getting changes that theme authors desperately need from .ORG and core.

      Primarily, these issues are around the .ORG theme previewer and improved front page handling in core. I guarantee that if we can address those two things in useful and practical ways, it’ll solve a huge number of issues that theme authors and the TRT have been struggling with for years.

      Report


      1. Second on that.

        Hope the Core (and .ORG) team will concentrate more on things around Theme functionalities/features.

        Report


    5. I second what @Matt and @Cais said.

      Freedom is the best option. Give the users the choice.

      Requirements are important, obviously. But some of them are draconian.

      As a theme developer (operating a business), we have also pulled away from the TRT and now approach the WP.org theme directory with caution when releasing free themes. Certain decisions by the TRT have also lead to this conclusion.

      Report


      1. I am another theme developer with over 5 years of submitting themes, have walked away from .org due to the insane level of rules and restrictions that prevents theme authors from getting more creative. Security reviews are critical, but I think that is where it should end.

        Let the author determine how and what a theme does…as long as it passes security checks and perhaps the basics of code. Don’t tell me I cannot remove the archive title label. Don’t tell me I cannot make page nav different. Don’t tell me I cannot remove a function that is needed for specific theme design….

        I was actually considering contacting @Matt and fill him in on what is going on and especially TRT meetings. I’ve been watching their meetings for a very long time, almost every week. But that is a whole other story.

        Anyway, yes, I am another of several who had enough, and I know many others who are contemplating leaving.

        Report


      2. Don’t tell me I cannot remove the archive title label. Don’t tell me I cannot make page nav different. Don’t tell me I cannot remove a function that is needed for specific theme design….

        That does not sound right. Theme authors should have a right to be creative in their designs. The TRT is willing to make exceptions for special themes.

        Everyone on the TRT is a volunteer and no one that I know get’s sponsored by a company to help out there. The people who have been given more responsibility have shown they want to improve the system.

        At the end of every agenda there is a call for topics. Feel free to add you suggestion of a topic to discuss.

        Report


      3. Yeah, I gotta say that what you posted sounds a bit off (not removing archive title, changing page nav, etc.). I’d love to chat with you about the specifics of your review and maybe get things squared away. Feel free to ping me (@greenshady) on WP Slack.

        Report


  9. Personally I believe we can work on making the requirements better, but without removing big blockers.

    If themes are moving towards being style guides for new content blocks, I don’t see why TRT should start encouraging content creation.

    I also don’t believe that the “Use WordPress functionality if available” and the content creation requirements should hinder designers. If authors can’t work within the guidelines, perhaps it is they who lack imagination.

    Should new features first be tested in the theme directory?
    Is that the best way to recieve backing for your new ideas?
    I would suggest participating in meetings, developing feature plugins and opening a trac ticket etc.

    Report


    1. Authors that lack imagination (and zerif really lacked it from the small time I spent testing plugin compatibility with it) were doing 120k$ a month, so maybe it is someone else that lacks imagination, or at least have zero understanding of his users or maybe just zero interest in serving the users?

      If themes are moving towards being style guides for new content blocks,

      That is just an hipster buzzword filled sentence that have no connection with reality.
      First no user will want to change how he want to edits document because 5 people decided that the developers of word and all other editors just didn’t had a clue in the decades they spent time on it, and those 5 people are so much smarter.
      Second. On a plugin I work on, minimum requirements is support of 4.2. Even if 4.8 was released today and the editor was really a work of genius, it would probably take 3 years until people will be able to start designing themes only for that environment, and current themes used by thousands of sites already will just will not have any incentive to change.

      Report


  10. Glad that Zerif comes back to the directory. This is an expensive lesson for Ionut and other theme authors. Hope it will be back at its position soon.

    Report

Comments are closed.