Free WordPress themes and the elephant in the room

There has been a big kerfuffle the last few days in the community of theme authors and theme reviewers on WordPress.org. The theme review team discovered that some themes are skirting (knowingly or not knowingly) some old-standing rules around content creation.

What?

It's a long-standing rule that free WordPress.org themes should not create content (custom post types, etc), but the automated checks that run didn't account for content that can be stored in other ways (like the options table). Basically, some clever theme authors invented a way to make WordPress.org theme demos suck less and make their themes look much better than the competition in the native preview.

There has been much discussion around the rules of content creation and their place in theme review. You can check out Make WordPress Themes for posts on adjustments to the review rules and specifics on creating front page content.

WP Tavern also covers the issue, though it came with scorn from some members of the theme review team in regard to how it was reported. Still, that's a good place to get a view of what's happening in regard to the front-page stuff particularly. And for a balancing act, Justin Tadlock responded to the WP Tavern article with his view on the matter.

The elephant in the room

There were hundreds or even thousands of Slack messages debating these updates to the rules, or whatever you want to call them. Basically, some theme authors aren't going to be able to do what they've been getting away with — making their demos look good — and doing it by getting around some rules or flying under the radar.

There were blog posts. There were comment sections. It's really a pain in the ass to keep up with it all. None of it really covers the heart of the matter.

This is about money.

That's it. None of the theme authors that is using this workaround to create nice looking front page content would be debating the issue so much if they didn't have so much on the line.

WordPress.org gets a metric butt ton of traffic. The Popular Themes tab themes (once you get past the default ones) are getting between 500 and 3,000 downloads per day. Most of them have commercial theme upsells available.

Even if a fraction of folks that download these themes take the upsells, big money is at stake. Codeinwp, one of the central theme shops in this debate, has disclosed that they made $60,000+ in revenue in April alone thanks to upselling free themes on WordPress.org. They are using the tactic of dummy content creation to make their WordPress.org demo look better. It's working.

The fancy previews aren't the only thing helping them make so much money; but it doesn't hurt either. And with high stakes, comes high emotions. Balance this with the fact that some leaders of the theme review team are volunteers, and others are theme makers themselves, and it is a crazy dynamic.

WordPress.org holds a tremendous amount of power, and it is not a commercial entity. Matt Mullenweg owns the website personally (it does not belong to the foundation, I don't think), and he can do what he wants with it. But for the most part, he's hands off.

I wrote about the impact of WordPress.org on freemium products in 2014, and I stand by it. Let me reiterate here the big point of that article:

It’s probably accurate to say that a primary benefit of a freemium WordPress product is the exposure on WordPress.org. So when someone can do something to make their product more visible in that arena, they will.

In the theme review instance, the way to get featured was to review themes. So people did. But it could also be branded product banners, or spammy footer links, or who knows what other things repository managers have had to push back against over the years. [new note: the new issue front page content is one of these things]

I tend to like that WordPress.org is benevolent toward freemium providers, but at the same time, managing these pages is a big responsibility. Small changes on WordPress’ website turn into big changes in people’s lives. Yes, that’s their choice to stake their business on another party, but it doesn’t limit the impact.

And WordPress.org is not managed by some giant, super well funded team. WordPress is an open source project and is managed by volunteers or people that are paid by folks like Matt Mullenweg who have a heavy interest or stake in the long term success of the project.

In light of these things, I encourage people that have built businesses on freemium models and rely on WordPress for exposure, keep in mind that WordPress people work very hard to make the website and distribution platform fair and high quality.

The team behind WordPress.org is trying hard. The team reviewing themes is trying hard. Theme authors are trying hard. Conflict happens.

WordPress theme demos suck

WordPress.org theme demos suck. They don't well showcase what a theme can do. They are highly catered toward the traditional blog format and making them look otherwise requires some hacks.

Furthermore, theme pages don't have the same flexibility as plugin pages. Authors' theme shop links are allowed, but custom demos or links in the description of the theme are not. Plugin, on the other hand, descriptions have a great deal of flexibility for descriptions.

So when folks choose a theme, they choose off a number of metrics:

  • The screenshot (which has gained prominence with theme page redesigns)
  • The built in .org theme preview
  • Popular, Featured, and other .org theme page filters
  • Clicking on the theme homepage of the author and leaving the .org website doing so

So there is a huge advantage if you can convince a theme chooser the theme is good without going to the author website. Then you can manage the upsell within the theme after install. The .org demos don't show, right now, very much about what the theme can really do. You can't showcase non-blog style content like portfolios, testimonials, eCommerce, etc.

It would be really nice if you could, but you can't. And the potential for abusing custom demos, setup by authors themselves, is great.

Thankfully, finally, someone stepped up and took at least one step forward. Otto Wood created a draft of new demo content that at least better showcases blog content, even if it doesn't address other content styles. That demo is on his website. It would be a good first step for that to get adopted.

Furthermore, I'd like to see some common post types have available content in the demo, so that themes could take advantage of showcasing non-post display functionality. I think Justin Tadlock's Content Type Standards could help in this arena, and that would further my call to action last year for standard content types as well.

There are pros and cons to changing the demo content and way for authors to create demos.

You could make a good argument that upsells shouldn't be tolerated in free themes at all. Though I think that would be a mistake.

A tough problem

I think WordPress.org fails to be a truly competitive marketplace for business or non-blog themes (compared to ThemeForest, for instance) because WordPress.org is ineffective at showcasing what the themes can do.

The problem is a tough one to solve. And I don't think the solution is with the theme review team. I think it goes all the way to WordPress core and how we define best practice — as well as working with the small team that works on the WordPress.org website.

When so much money is at stake, and such a strong volunteer effort is criticized, it's easy for feelings to get hurt and for people to get angry. In the end, I think we all want to see WordPress improve and for the WordPress economy to thrive.

If you want to get involved in the discussion, the right place is the #themereview Slack channel at 18:00 UTC on Tuesdays. I'd love to see a constructive debate that results in a better theme previewing experience for the official WordPress theme repo.

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