There's a ton of discussion going on around the WordPress.org theme review incentive program right now. The incentive program was structured around a concept of rewarding reviewers for their work by allowing them to choose which themes get featured on the WordPress theme showcase, based on how many themes they review and approve in a given month.
As you may expect, the program has had some issues, mostly because it essentially encourages pay-for-play. Review themes? You can feature your own. With the size of the WordPress.org audience (not to mention the in-dashboard audience), that's a huge incentive.
With the popularity of the freemium model and the power of the WordPress.org theme directory's traffic, the program appears to have been gamed, to the point that the program has been temporarily suspended.
The discussion around Jen Mylo's post announcing the suspension and future of the program is mostly positive and very educational, if you have a while to check it out. It's fascinating to read the various motivations and concerns of different folks.
However, to me, the impact of WordPress.org on freemium business models is more interesting than this particular debate.
WordPress.org is a hugely popular website
Unfortunately, stats for WordPress.org are very difficult to come by. The team that manages WordPress.org does use Google Analytics, but to my knowledge there isn't any sort of advanced metric for tracking stats on the WordPress site. Also, WordPress.org is big enough that the Google Analytics data (which is limited for free accounts) is practically worthless beyond generic trends.
Alexa ranks WordPress.org 70th globally, but that's probably innacurate. In other words, WordPress.org is really big, but I'm not sure how big. When contacting individuals that manage WordPress.org, I was unable to get back any form of reliable or relevant statistics for the theme and plugin landing pages.
But you can be certain, themes and plugins that get featured on WordPress.org are rewarded with increases in downloads. The math is simple. There are nearly 2,500 themes on the repository, and nine that are featured. Where would you start looking for a new theme?
Interestingly, I don't know who chooses what plugins are featured on that landing page, but the list has pretty much looked the same to me for a couple of years.
And as commercial themes and plugins are now a very big deal, as many WordPress centric businesses generate multiple millions of dollars per year, the impact of these featured plugins and themes pages can have real monetary impact on business.
The impact of .org on freemium products
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.
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. But things may change over time and impact your business. It's part of the deal. Given this, I'd also encourage you to be creative about a variety of ways to market your freemium products, and (as much as possible) be thankful for the exposure WordPress.org offers, not dependent on it.