Theme Quality and Downloads

There’s been a common argument that sponsored themes are higher quality because they were paid for and removing them from the theme directory will make it suck. While I find this argument insulting to the designers who have put their work out there without sponsorship, and having personally looked at hundreds of them I had a general feeling that most sponsored themes were junk, I didn’t really have any data.

Well I ran a few queries against the theme viewer DB a few minutes ago and found out some interesting stats:

  • We’ve removed 2,107 themes so far, or a bit under 60%. Those themes had 2,243,735 downloads total, or about 1,064 downloads per theme.
  • There are 1,737 themes still in the directory and those had 3,480,244 downloads, or about 2,003 downloads per theme.

(There may be some spam themes still left in the 1,737 number, but I think we’ve gotten most of them. The reports have slowed to a trickle.)

So if you assume downloads are a measure of the public interest in a theme, then non-sponsored themes are about twice as popular as sponsored ones.

Of course you might not accept that assumption, and the data is fuzzy, and there are certainly a handful of sponsored themes that are very high quality, but overall the indications are that they were a net drain on the site. Rather than making one-off exceptions to the no-sponsored-themes policy and being accused of favoritism or of having ulterior motives* I’d rather spend time doing things to reward and encourage the people who are making high-quality themes without embedded advertising.

* Which we get enough of already.

52 thoughts on “Theme Quality and Downloads

  1. A few ideas for encouraging good behaviour:

    * More integrated promotion of the site on
    * A theme update checker similar to the plugin checker we’re building.
    * Author profiles with picture and bio.
    * A weekly prize for the “top” GPL theme uploaded in the last week, as chosen by judges.

  2. I’d like to thank you for removing the sponsored themes. I’m new to WordPress (started just last week) — I came from Textpattern which has few, if any sponsored themes. When I was looking for my first theme, I hated plowing through dozens that I would never use because of the sponsored links. Thanks!

  3. I liked the points mentioned by Matt in the comments, implementing those points will surely encourage more people to develop non-sponsored themes.

  4. Thank you for removing the sponsored themes. In my experience the really good themes are carefully crafted by skilled individuals. Individuals with a passion for good design as a driving force, not profit.


  5. WOw, more than half of the themes in the Theme Viewer were spam themes? That’s a lot!

    I like the ideas you mentioned for promoting good behavior. I hope this would be a start of something good. More power to you guys! 🙂

  6. Matt,

    Thank you very much for all the work you have done lately with I personally appreciate it very much; it was in dire need of fixing. I’m very excited to see where it goes from here.

    Thanks Again!

  7. To suggest ‘sponsored’ themes are higher quality is to suggest spam email is better than regular email.

    There’s no good argument for them – pleased to see you pruning them out.

  8. Perhaps this is unworkable, but following your logic in the post, wouldn’t a rating system for the themes be a more democratic way of smoothing out the controversy? Then make the default sorting by popularity? Downloads are certainly one way to determine popularity, but if you download it and hate it (like, if there’s a sponsored link you can’t ace), that’s not a measure of your satisfaction.

    I’m sure my suggestion would be a colossal pain (its a forte of mine! 8{D> ), but it would provide a vehicle for the community to provide feedback to itself. Maybe even a system allowing for a “Report Abuse” outlet for eggregious abuse.

  9. @matt:
    re: “A theme update checker similar to the plugin checker we’re building”
    Are you refering to the Wp-update Plugin i’m doing for Google Summer of Code?
    If so, I’ve looked into that, and it would be a very simple modification in the code, however, I’ve not yet touched it due to not having access to a version number via the wordpress site (Other than in the Theme name, which doent help really).
    If you’d like to chat more about options there, give me a yell and we can have a talk about the options available.
    (Same for any Theme authors who see this post)

    Contact me:

  10. those stats are less impressive than the hype surrounding the issue would have suggested. It’s certainly not long-tail shaped. it’s probably worth figuring out what themes really comprise the lower half of the downloads, sponsored or not. there are definately some quality sponsered themes, and a whole lot of terrible themes that aren’t.

    re: your points
    3. would be great for both plugin and theme authors. it’s great to have an idea where things come from.

    4. weekly might be overkill, but hey, why not.

  11. In all fairness, some of that difference probably comes from people’s philosophical avoidance of sponsored themes, so it’s not all a reflection on varying quality.

  12. I hate to admit it, but now I’m going to have to go back and check all the themes I’ve downloaded for nasty sponsor links! I totally agree with the sentiments expressed here, and elsewhere, about sponsored themes. The bad seems to far out-weigh the good. And, ultimately, like all “black-hat” SEO or monetization techniques, the folks temporarily benefiting are engaged in self-limiting behavior. Eventually, all the tricks are known and fought against. Better to just design great stuff and let the work stand on its own.

    Thanks for taking a stand!

  13. it more interesting to use non-sponsored themes. Thanx to Matt for removing sponsored theme. I’m sorry if my english not good, I’m Indonesian…

  14. Hey Matt,

    I read about your stoush/debate, over this vary matter at shoemoney, and indeed have been following the debate/developments with great interest.

    What fascinates me is the flow on effects on the wider community of what final decisions, you make and implement re sponsered themes. I wish we could fast forward to a year from now, to see what has occurred to the WP Eco-System, after the dust has settled. Could be nothing at all…who knows…

  15. Thank you I put my work out there all the time without sponsorship and I like to think the quality of my work is better than the majority of sponsored themes. My latest release “blush” I think is one of the nicer themes out there. 😉

  16. It may look as a technical aspect, but I think that sponsored themes are also a matter of ethics. Since I blog, I have seen that the world of blogging is much more different in ethics and morale than the standard web world.

    I have experienced that blogging world is deeply based in cooperation and teamwork. There is a community, a very open one, I must add. Maybe, and I am saying this from my point of view, when someone tries to implement something in that community that is not so open, such as sponsored themes, it produces a bad reaction.

    I certainly don’t like sponsored themes. They do not blend in the WordPress community so well. Besides, I have always believed that there are much better and open ways to do things right. The single fact of creating a good theme, an open and completely free one, gives an incredible reputation to the designer and, viewing it from a more economical point of view, a huge amount of visits to the author’s blog.

    I am glad that you removed sponsored themes and I thank you for that. Open community, open standards.

    Antonio Bustamante

  17. While I agree with the decision to pull them, I feel your interpretation is a little off.

    I had no desire to put sponsored links on my site, and turned away from some quality themes based on that fact alone. Had they been link-free (or unobtrusive) I might have preferred some of them – and I imagine many others would have been motivated by the same.

  18. And will the themes in this GPL-only competition be genuine GPL themes, rather than pretend GPL themes where you have to retain the author link or so-called GPL themes using non-GPL material without permission?

    I see a lot of designers claiming their stuff is released under GPL, then whining when people copy their themes and delete their links. Is that really so much better than people making an informed decision to release their work under the licence which suits them best? Wouldn’t you prefer people to release under the GPL because they’ve thought it through, understand what it entails and want to use that licence, rather than because Matt says it’s best and they won’t be eligible for promotion on otherwise?

    I actually think that someone who releases under CC is being more honest and responsible than someone who releases under GPL without having the faintest idea what it is; but your goal is clearly ‘get them to use GPL any way we can’ and when argument doesn’t work you resort to bribery. If you’re going to do this, post a plain-English guide to GPL licensing on so nobody can accuse you of exploiting people’s ignorance. 🙂

  19. I agree that having people do the right thing for the right reason is better than having them to the right thing for the wrong reason.

  20. Thanks for taking the time to weed out the sponsored link themes, and three cheers for the theme designers who are continuing on their non-sponsored way!

  21. I could have told you they were junk and I didn’t have to run not one query. Many sponsored themes were rip-offs of other themes and just thrown together. I have seen only a handful of (less than 10) sponsored themes that were of high quality while others were just laughable. Thank God you all finally removed them.

  22. I’m all for more choices, not less.

    I would have just separated them into a different category/page…let the user decide.

    Keep in mind that sponsored themes are a relatively new phenomenon…naturally there should be less downloads due to their age alone. In this light, the download numbers for the sponsored themes are quite healthy…it doesn’t mean that the non-sponsored themes are twice as popular.

    I’m not a theme writer…I’m just leery of “Big Brother” telling me what’s good for me.

  23. I have not kept up to date with this issue and I must thank That Girl Again for pointing out that GPL is a required license in order to submit themes to the Theme Viewer. I, for one, did not realize that.

    I create WordPress themes because I love to design them. But to be honest, I put some of my designs out there for free not only because I wanted to contribute to the WP community but to also promote myself as a designer. It seems to defeat the purpose to create a theme and then have someone use it, strip out my copyright and go about their business as if I didn’t exist. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair but maybe I’m being selfish.

    I agree. There needs to be a clear statement and link to a simplified version of the GPL somewhere on the Theme Viewer so that designers know what they are agreeing to when they submit their templates.

  24. Hey Matt,
    I feel very privileged to get to go to wordcamp this weekend, and even more privileged to get to use wordpress.

    Is there anything I can bring, or do to help this weekend? I will be arriving Friday night, and leaving early Sunday afternoon.

    If I don’t hear from you, I will see you there!

  25. Small problem with your logic:

    The argument is that you should be judging themes on quality, not on sponsorship.

    The stats are skewed because of two reasons: Enormous amounts of sponsored theme spam (which is definitely a problem) and the extreme popularity of many free themes.

    The basic idea put forward (by me on Performancing and others elsewhere) was to avoid throwing out ‘good’ themes with the trash when you threw out sponsored themes completely.

  26. i have admired you guys for developing wordpress as an open source. now i admire you more for taking a stand against sponsored themes.

  27. Daria,

    Checking up on the licensing requirements is your job as the copyright holder. Explanations, simple and complex, of the GPL are easily found through some google magic.

    More importantly, you don’t have to license your theme under GPL. You only have to do so if you want to be listed on . You licensing your theme as GPL is payment for hosting, advertising, and bug fixing that being hosted by gives you.

    I am pretty sure you aren’t one of those people who would just take resources without giving resources back.

  28. It’s been awhile since I had to update my theme – but of course I waited until doing something lovely like deleting my old one (or whatever).

    Anyway, I’m in panic mode trying to find one that will suit the graphics I’ve created.. I need to get my ads back up before moving cross country and losing internet access.

    *now I am rambling*

    I am THRILLED to know most of the themes with embedded links are gone.. is there a way to see if the remaining ones are compliant with the latest release of wordpress? Or are all the ones out there compliant?

    Sorry if I’m not making sense. I’ve been sitting at my computer so long I’ve just about lost the use of my legs.

    must. fix. blog.

  29. Samir

    Thank you for your response. However, I’m not sure you understood my original comment.

    I said:

    There needs to be a clear statement and link to a simplified version of the GPL somewhere on the Theme Viewer so that designers know what they are agreeing to when they submit their templates.

    Please point to me on the Theme Viewer where it says that a GPL license is required in order to submit themes. If you are going to take me to task, please be sure that you have understood my original comment. Thanks again.

  30. Not sure I’ve commented here before, but I couldn’t let this one go without adding my voice…

    While I certainly have no issue with sponsored themes being removed from the WP Theme Viewer, I do have to take just a bit of an issue with the query method described in your post as a measure of “popularity” — mostly because you don’t mention the element of time.

    I think a more accurate method of inferring quality by popularity would somehow account for the passage of time…after all, a given theme that’s downloaded once a day for two years would have 700+ downloads; and another theme that’s been available for only a few days could also easily get 700+ downloads. Which sounds to you like better one? This has always been in the back of my head as a nit to pick with “download counters” on various sites, but your post actually brought it to mind with much more clarity.

    What I’d love to see are average downloads per week or something, and also perhaps some indication of developer maintenance over time (i.e. updates/year?). That might provide a better indication of quality (assuming one can measure quality by download rate, which might not really fit for outstanding themes like Sandbox that can be more complex to customize for new WordPress users) as well as a better indication of the long-term “health” of the theme by providing some kind of supportability metric.

    Anyway, just my $0.02 from a user who wishes he had a lot more time to spend on his personal WordPress installation. Thanks for the great product and services.

  31. I changed from my Kubrik theme this week, in the midle of this hype of sponsored themes.

    Firstly I was horrified by this spammers trick, when will we be free of them?

    Happily Matt, numbers don’t lie and non-sponsored themes are really greater. Evenmore, how can we garantee that sponsored themes downloads are realy genuine downloads and not artificaly done to increase its popularity?

  32. I’m agree with Matt. Sponsored themes don’t have to stay in theme collection of WP.
    I think that “A weekly prize for the “top” GPL theme uploaded in the last week, as chosen by judges.” will be cool.

  33. Who said that sponsored themes had better quality? I’m actually pretty happy that all crap got removed from the viewer (even if my themes were deleted together with those). Once people realized they could make some $$ from WP themes, they started making them in bulk, they made only a few changes and had a lot of errors and believe me I’ve seen people creating sponsor auctions every day! That explains it all.. :\

    Oh and one more thing, you removed all sponsored themes, that was your decision, but I know a few people who started making themes with “Designed by” and “Coded by” links in the footer, guess what those links will be, just letting you know. If no sponsored themes are allowed, no should be uploaded.

    Have a good day!

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  35. There’s one aspect of the GPL that hasn’t been addressed here, that’s pretty significant to the issue of themes. The GPL doesn’t just allow for free interchange of a particular work. It also prevents anyone from locking that work down as copyrighted, unchangeable material. In a sense, it protects the author by saying that, since he or she, as the original creator, has decided that the work should be free and modifiable, no one else can modify it and then decide to ‘freeze’ it and prevent further modification.

    In other words, if your theme is a modified version of Kubrick, or you pulled code from a GPL theme that someone else designed, you actually forfeit your right to ‘lock’ that code down. So, if you want to make a theme that you don’t want others to change, you need to at least construct it from scratch, without using any GPL-licensed code. In fact, that extends beyond to anything released to the general public that was modified from GPL code. And honestly, you should probably do it with an engine other than WordPress, since themes are inherently tied into it, and it is itself a GPL work.

    So, like it or not, Matt can really tell us all to just use GPL, or find another lightweight, highly-customizable, 100%-free and completely UN-licensed piece of blogging software. And that just seems kind of fair.

    On the other hand, by all means put up a link to a good explanation of GPL. It is the theme publisher’s responsiblity to understand it, but that’s no reason not to make it easier to understand.

  36. You really can’t tell the popualrity of a theme by the number of downloads. I can’t tell you how many times I have downloaded themes just to throw them in the trash after taking the time to load them and check them out.

    The thumbnail can look really pretty too!!

    Personal I prefer to build my own 🙂

    Glen Barnhardt

  37. Vasken makes a good point here. I can’t tell you how many themes I’ve downloaded and deleted because of sponsored links only to find that they bear *striking* similarity to non-sponsored themes. That always put me in the ethical dilemma of wondering which one copied which? If I use one or the other am I actually going to be blasted for removing someone’s sponsored link when in reality I downloaded (and modified) the non-sponsored one…

    There are plenty of places for paid designers to promote their work. Putting them in the official Themes directory just made life complicated for all of us users trying to stay honest and aboveboard.

    I say, “Good move.”

  38. Matt I really like your 18.07.2007 @ 3:01 am suggestions, especially 2 and 4:
    * A theme update checker similar to the plugin checker
    * ‘top’ GPL theme uploaded as chosen by judges

    I meant to ask about theme and plugin QA process, if any… was sort of answered along the way but, really, adding the now conventional social rating features to theme and plugin will be really helpful. Especially if people can rate raters, too, and highly the ratings of rated raters take precedence over those of lower rated raters.