The theme directory disconnect

In many ways, the WordPress theme directory is an invaluable resource — for theme developers to have access to put their work out there in the wild for a huge audience, and for users to have a relatively safe way to browse thousands of themes they can use on their websites for free.

The notion of “the community” is nearly always a massive selling point for why to use WordPress. The free theme directory is a big part of that.

Ideally, it'd work perfectly. Of course, it doesn't. There are many problems with how the theme directory works today, and they are far from impossible to fix. But it will require finding common ground, and leadership to move forward in a way that takes the proper criteria into consideration.

Talking to theme review team member Justin Tadlock, he says, “There are two big problem areas that theme authors and the review team butt heads on at times. These are nowhere near the most important issues that TRT deals with, but they seem to get folks the most riled up and get us down a path of ‘weed' discussions.”

The two issues he outlined are two I agree with based on my own outside viewing of this ecosystem:

  1. The poor quality of theme previews on .org
  2. Managing theme front page settings

The poor quality of current theme previews on WordPress.org is an understatement. Currently, they are atrocious. There's no way around saying that.

They do nothing to showcase the capabilities of a theme, even for the blog archive template, which they all show by default, much less for custom front page templates.

Let me just show you one example. The popular themes tab on WordPress.org includes “Total“, a theme by Hash Themes. Here's the demo on their live site that they control, which matches this screenshot used on WordPress.org:

And here's the screenshot of what you see when you click “preview” on the theme on WordPress.org:

It is no wonder theme shops like Themeisle gamed the system with non-standard demo content. It worked far better at convincing a user previewing the theme that it would be to their design standards.

Yet, is it really the Theme Review Team at fault, for what Matt Mullenweg recently called, “draconian” standards? No.

They agree it's a problem. And nobody wants to create “lock-in” by hacking the theme preview functionality. I actually praised Themeisle when they first started doing this and blogged about how much it impacted their revenue.

Of course, when you build a business on the back of WordPress.org, WordPress.org can break you. And when Themeisle's top theme was removed from the directory, their revenue tanked.

I asked for Justin's wish list as pertains to theme previews, and he provided the following:

  • Lots of content that looks like real-world content, not test data.
  • Make sure previewer shows off media.
  • Fully integrate the customizer into the previewer.
  • Themes with custom front-page.php templates should show that template instead of posts.

This list is pretty close to what theme authors themselves want.

There have been conversations around these items in the past, but there hasn't been much in terms of going places with those initial ideas. Here are several links to past conversations for particular items that Justin helped me pull together:

Theme previews and the perception of the quality of free WordPress themes is a huge issue for marketing WordPress generally. The preview functionality on WordPress.org is unacceptable. While skirting the rules to get around the preview feature is risky to begin with, it's an understandable thing to do.

Justin mentioned theme previews weren't the most important problem the theme review team deals with. Of course, I wanted to know what was. Carolina Nymark of the theme review team logged the issues associated with the last one hundred themes that were not approved for the directory. Demo content issues was number 41 in the list (affecting two rejections), while security was number one (affecting 23 rejections).

The theme review team is saddled with a lot of labor reviewing themes. It's not near the laissez-faire ecosystem that the plugin directory is, which does merely cursory checks for the most egregious flaws.

It makes me personally wonder, is this time well spent?

I understand it is a difficult decision, but I think there is merit for a more thorough discussion around filtering themes prior to an in-depth review, based on whether the theme is appropriate for the directory in the first place.

  • Will this theme improve the directory?
  • Is this theme by a trusted author?
  • Is this theme well designed?
  • Does this theme showcase WordPress in a new or interesting way?

I think an argument could be made for a tiered directory. Themes that are reviewed and deemed to be of high quality could be prioritized, while other themes can exist on the directory, but not get equal treatment.

Right now, the theme review team has the reputation of taking a very long time to review themes (many months), and is sometimes viewed to be overly strict and concerned about things that should not be the priority they are. I understand this point of view.

At the same time, my goodness, this is a thankless job; I honestly have little idea why they do it. It absolutely astonishes me that so many people volunteer their time for such a punishing role. And they do good work. It truly is amazing that free themes are, on the whole, far better coded and more secure than commercial alternatives — thanks to the stringent requirements set by the theme review team. The process of fulfilling the requirements of the theme review team also educates theme authors with commercial variations of themes.

There are plenty of issues to work out between the theme review team, their policies, and showcasing themes on WordPress.org. Authors will always take whatever advantage they can, simply due to the massive influence the directory can have on a theme business. From what I can tell, the theme review team and the meta WordPress team (that does work on .org) are primarily who need to get together and figure out how to improve the whole process. I understand such a meeting is in the works.

There's no reason the theme preview experience can't be improved for users, and there's no reason the theme review experience can't improve for authors as well as the theme review team itself. They just have to find common ground. It seems like fixing previews is a good place to start. The starter content feature in WordPress 4.7 should significantly improve that conversation.