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How Can The Official WordPress Theme Directory Be Improved?

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We have seen some fantastic new features introduced into the WordPress core over the last year such as the new menu system, featured images and custom post types. The vast majority of theme stores have incorporated these new features into their designs however very few free designs are taking advantage of these new features.

I regularly check the official WordPress Theme Directory to see if any good themes have been released. In my list of wordpress themes“>free WordPress themes from 2011, which I posted last week, I listed some fantastic designs which I found via the official directory recently such as MYgRID2, Amphion Lite, Duster, Commune and Codium Extend. Unfortunately, great themes like this are few and far between.

Most of the wordpress themes“>new themes being released through the official theme directory are of a low quality. They are poorly designed, poorly coded and don’t utilise any of the great new features that WordPress has introduced. It’s like going back in a WordPress tim machine to 2006.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at some of the designs that have been released recently through the official directory.

BlueFreedom

BlueFreedom

darkbasic

darkbasic

Orange Grey White

Orange Grey White

When I first started using WordPress 4 or 5 years ago there were very few premium themes available. I believe that the growth of premium themes has been a great thing for the WordPress community. It has encouraged more people to develop products for the platform and has been a major driving force in pushing the boundaries of what WordPress can do.

Perhaps I’m looking at the past with rose tinted glasses on though a few years ago there were more high quality designs being released for free. I can fully understand why this has occurred as designers have bills to pay just like the rest of us. Though I do feel that every year the difference in quality between premium WordPress themes and free themes is getting larger and larger. This needs to be addressed.

We Need Some Sort Of Quality Control

WordPress owes a huge part of its success to being an open platform. Anyone can design a plugin or theme and release it to the community; either for free or for a price. The quality of official WordPress Theme Directory was improved a few years ago when they stopped designs with multiple footer links being listed.

Nearly all themes still have at each one link back, which I something I encourage because developers should get credit for their work. WordPress check every theme submitted to make sure that they are GPL friendly though they don’t seem to place any emphasis on control. It seems that any design will be accepted. This encourages more designers to release bad designs as they know it’s a cheap way to get traffic.

Take the BlueFreedom theme I mentioned above as an example. It was released by a site called W3Wizards. They have developed a promising framework of their own that looks pretty good however their BlueFreedom theme is awful. I doubt they spent more than an hour or so developing it.

Developing a theme in a few hours and releasing it in the official directory is a good way to get traffic cheaply as their website is credited in the footer of the theme however it doesn’t really help the WordPress community grow. Unless some sort of quality control is established, we will see poor designs continue to be released.

Would the situation improve if the WordPress theme directory was a closed system? Would the directory improve if only A+ themes were accepted? I am not so sure as it would discourage a lot of people from releasing designs.

It is very similar to the debate over which is better: Apples closed iPhone app market or Googles open Android market. Due to the open nature of Android the market has grown rapidly though the quality of many applications is questionable. Apple have been criticised for their heavy moderation of applications though I think most would agree the quality of apps on the iPhone is generally higher. There are clearly pros and cons to using a closed or open system as both markets are flourishing.

Moving back to WordPress, how else can we improve the theme directory if the WordPress theme directory isn’t heavily moderated? One way would be to expand their featured themes section. The directory home page lists 10 good themes but it would be great if this was expanded into its own section of say 100+ themes with votes coming from respected members of the WordPress community. This section would undoubtedly get more visits from WordPress users which would encourage developers to spend more time developing a great theme.

A lot of markets us a rating system though it’s been shown that the rating system doesn’t work there as it’s too easily gamed. Due to this, the majority of designs have a rating of 3 or 4 stars and it’s not uncommon to come across awful designs with 5 star ratings.

The official Directory should be the first port of call for quality free WordPress themes so I’d like to see things improve.

I think an expanded featured section would be a great start however perhaps we something more. I’d love to hear your views on this issue. How would you improve the official theme directory?

Thanks,
Kevin

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Comments (8)

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

That’s a very good question. Why aren’t developers like Smashing Mag, WooThemes, ElegantThemes releasing designs through the official theme directory? I assume it’s because they want users to visit their own websites to find information about the theme. I can understand this though I think the traffic they would receive from incoming links via more people using the design would be more.

I take on board that something as subjective as design is difficult to be used as criteria for themes i.e. it’s not black and white what’s good practice and what isn’t like with coding. Therefore perhaps the question is what can be done to encourage top developers to release their designs through the theme directory rather than their own websites.

Perhaps the featured themes area could be expanded. That is to say, more emphasis should be placed on featured themes. An improved featured themes that showcases great themes that have quality coding and design would encourage more people to submit their designs as their themes would get more exposure.

Though we need to be aware that many developers are always going to prefer to release designs through their own websites. I’ve released two themes here in the past though I’m keen to have more designs created specifically for the WordPress community. I don’t want to do it half-hearted though – I’d rather submit one amazing design that 3 or 4 average designs.

Comment by Chip Bennett says:

My opinion then, and now, is that the quality of the design is just not good enough.

I’d love to see more and more well-designed Themes in the official repository. Unfortunately, the only way for that to happen is for very good designers to submit their Themes.

One tactic the review team has used has been to change the reputation of the repository, so that good designers would be more likely to want to submit their Themes. Our primary means of changing the reputation of the repository has been to improve the development-quality standards for repository hosted Themes – and again, I believe we have been quite successful in that regard. I would put the code quality of any given Theme submitted to the repository in the past six months to a year up against most of the commercial Themes on the market.

Aside from that, the repository has many inherent benefits, not the least of which are exposure and built-in support forum through wordpress.org, exposure and one-click install through the WP admin, and automatic updates.

But, as for other ways to entice good designers to submit their Themes to the repository: we’re absolutely open to ideas, if you (or anyone else) has any? I readily admit that I am a developer first, and hesitate to call myself a designer. Thus, I’m sure I don’t think like a designer. I’d love to know what would make designers more likely to want to submit their Themes to the repository.

From a design point of view, obsolete CSS classes etc can make a design fail the W3C validator.

You realize, I assume, that part of the Theme Review process is testing the Themes against the W3C HTML/CSS validator? We’re not teetotalers regarding W3C validation (100% validation is almost utterly irrelevant, in any context), but we do ensure that there are no egregious validation issues. So, a repository-hosted Theme is more likely to produce clean W3C validator results.

In my opinion, the disregard for design is what is making the official theme directory less and less relevant every year.

At this point in time, it would be completely unfeasible for the Theme Review Team to implement design-quality standards/guidelines. We have no objective means by which to measure such criteria, and we simply don’t have enough volunteers to take on the significantly increased workload.

But ultimately, it is less a function of emphasis and more a function of only being able to review and approve the Themes that get submitted in the first place.

You need to look at this from a users point of view. Look at the quality of free themes being released by design blogs such as Smashing Magazine and the free designs being released by WooThemes and ElegantThemes etc and then compare it the average theme from the theme directory. There really is no comparison.

If by “quality” you mean design quality, then perhaps. (If you include code quality, then I would still disagree.) However: you should really direct admonishment not at the official repository or the review criteria, but rather to Smashing Mag, WooThemes, ElegantThemes, and the other developers/designers who choose not to submit those well-designed Themes to the repository. Instead of asking why the official Theme repository doesn’t have higher design-quality standards/criteria, you should ask why the aforementioned developers/designers aren’t submitting their Themes.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Hi Chris,

Thanks for taking the time to give your view on this subject.

With regards to cherry picking the themes for this article, I have to disagree. This article was written a few months ago at a time when the quality of themes being submitted over the few weeks prior was very poor. Actually, a week or so later I posted a review of some good themes that were released through the themes directory and noted that I hoped it was a sign of things to come.

Whilst I did raise points about the quality of coding etc, one of the main issues with the themes I noted in this article was the quality of the design. My opinion then, and now, is that the quality of the design is just not good enough. Taking BlueFreedom for example. There are dozens of similar designs like this in the directory though I can’t imagine myself or anyone else for that matter using a design of the quality in 2011 for any type of website: whether it be a personal blog or a commercial website.

I can understand your point of view that depreciated functions is more important than CSS; though I believe CSS is still very important. From a design point of view, obsolete CSS classes etc can make a design fail the W3C validator.

I do appreciate the effort that you and other people in the review team put in reviewing themes. I hope it didn’t come across in my article that I didn’t.

I do strongly disagree with you about the issue of front-end designs; they are important. The coding should be placed as a higher priority but there has to be some sort of emphasis placed on design.

In my opinion, the disregard for design is what is making the official theme directory less and less relevant every year. If you look back to a few years ago, whenever a blogger published a list of their favourite 50 themes, the majority of them could be found in the official directory. Today I would estimate that only10-15% of the themes in such a list would be available from the theme directory.

You need to look at this from a users point of view. Look at the quality of free themes being released by design blogs such as Smashing Magazine and the free designs being released by WooThemes and ElegantThemes etc and then compare it the average theme from the theme directory. There really is no comparison.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Whilst I disagree with you on the design issue, I respect the job you guys are doing and appreciate you making the effort to give your side of the story :)

Kevin

Comment by Chip Bennett says:

Please allow me to present my opinion from the perspective of a Theme Review Team member:

The first thing I notice is that you construct a bit of a straw man, by using examples of poor design of free Themes to argue that free Themes are poorly developed and coded. You state:

Most of the new themes being released through the official theme directory are of a low quality. They are poorly designed, poorly coded and donâ€â„¢t utilise any of the great new features that WordPress has introduced.

Previously, you list these three features as exemplary of “new features” in WordPress:

the new menu system, featured images and custom post types

It is my contention that Themes intended for mass, public consumption shouldn’t be implementing Custom Post Types to begin with. So, I’ll ignore that one. But let’s consider the other two, with respect to your (rather cherry-picked) selection of “recent” approved Themes.

Ironically, the first Theme you reference – BlueFreedom – does actually incorporate both Custom Nav Menus and Post Thumbnails.

The other two Themes don’t incorporate navigation menus, and as such, they are not required to implement the Custom Nav Menu feature. Even so: both Themes also incorporate Post Thumbnails.

So, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve not demonstrated a lack of support for modern core WordPress features among free WordPress Themes.

Moving on to your second assertion, that free Themes are “poorly coded”: I beg to differ. In fact, the vast majority of the Theme Review Guidelines deal with quality coding practices.

You mention inefficient CSS selectors as an example of “poor coding quality”; but IMHO, inefficient CSS is one of the least important things for us to consider. I’m more worried about avoiding use of deprecated functions/arguments, elimination of PHP notices, proper use of WordPress functions and template tags, proper file including methods, proper data security, and proper use of WordPress APIs such as Settings, Widgets, Hooks (including proper script enqueueing), etc.

On these matters, the current state of recently approved Themes in the repository absolutely blows away the current state of the overall commercial Theme market. Hands down. I’m not going to throw any commercial Theme shops under the bus here, but I’ve seen – and shuddered at – the codebase of Themes from many of them. Far too many commercial Themes are well-designed, but use coding practices and standards from two or three years ago, and implement advanced features at the expense of extreme code bloat.

It is telling that the theme-reviewers mail-list can discuss with the free Theme developers the subject of considering enforcement of official WordPress Coding Standards, while many commercial Themes will white-screen merely by enabling WP_DEBUG. Also: how many commercial Themes fail to render the Theme Unit Tests – tests that comprehensively challenge front-end rendering – properly?

So, I’ll move on to your third assertion, that free Themes are “poorly designed”: in many cases, that may be true. But it becomes less and less relevant, as more and more repository hosted Themes are coded in ways that facilitate end-user modification, either through core theme_mods (background, header image, etc.), or through facilitating Child Theming.

Regarding the matter of footer links as incentive for submitting low-effort Themes: believe me, we are highly sensitive to the incentive provided by the footer credit link in free Themes. We are quite strict about the implementation of such links, and spend a great deal of time ensuring that such links are appropriate. But again, we can only spend so much time and effort in this regard, and such effort cannot, except in especially blatant cases, extend to assessing the intent of the developer who submitted the Theme.

And I take personal affront at this assertion:

Nearly all themes still have at each one link back, which I something I encourage because developers should get credit for their work. WordPress check every theme submitted to make sure that they are GPL friendly though they donâ€â„¢t seem to place any emphasis on control.

Clearly, you define “control” within the context of Theme design only. Apparently, you have no appreciation for the effort required to establish what were, at the time, fairly high quality standards for Theme code/development, and which initially was met with often heated resistence – much less, the effort required to review each and every submitted Themes against the Theme Review Guidelines. To say that we place no “emphasis on control” is to discount entirely all of that effort, merely because we don’t emphasis front-end design.

But, I do agree with you that the repository would benefit from better ways to highlight well-designed Themes, even as the Theme Review Team has raised – and continues to raise – the bar for code quality. But, aside from assigning Themes as “featured”, any other changes to Extend/Themes is largely out of our hands. Also: we represent an extremely limited resource, and IMHO any time that we spend toward curating on the basis of design quality is time taken away from efforts toward development/code quality. And beyond that: I don’t consider myself qualified to set objective criteria regarding design quality. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Rejecting Themes solely on the basis of front-end design aesthetic would be an entirely-too-subjective endeavor, and would not be in the best interests of the WordPress user or developer community.

Comment by Ken Hood Jr. says:

There are two distinctions that need to be made when discussing the topic of “quality free themes”:

1) Code quality. This can always be debated but by-and-large most devs will know good code when they see it. A minimum standard is enforced by the theme reviewers, which I greatly appreciate. Still, an average user has no way of differentiating between the code quality of a Theme A & Theme B. They usually just want something that looks pretty and fits their style…they aren’t able to figure out what technical limitations or problems might occur down the line if they want to have that theme modified.

2) Design quality. This aspect is much more subjective. How many thousands of blogs still use (and love) Kubrick’s simple minimalism? Those first two themes you highlight look hideous to me, but for an amateur blogger they might be exactly what they want (plus a logo). Restricting themes based on “look and feel” will invariably lead to certain segments choosing to go elsewhere.

Solution? One possible solution is to improve the theme discovery process. Right now the only way to “find” a theme in the directory (when you don’t already know the name of a specific theme you want) is to use the filter method. You check a handful of boxes and hope that your “perfect match” comes back. I’d like to think that the WP.org folks have more creativity and are still playing with a better process.

Possibilities:
– bigger, clearer thumbnails (this isn’t the 90s)
– Show an example of a “static home page” and a “traditional blog page” for each theme (many people who hear about WordPress think that they will be stuck with blog posts on the front page, it doesn’t help that this is the default preview mode)
– Allow users to, gasp, *review* themes and provide some basic feedback without having to file a problem in the forums
– Peer review system. Other theme and plugin authors should have more weight when rating/reviewing a theme.
– Enhance the WP.org user profiles. Let people easily highlight/bookmark/tag their favorite themes and plugins when they are logged in (you need to be logged in anyways to rate a theme, report compatibility, or file a bug report). These very easy and informal recommendations can show up on user’s profiles and help create “popular themes” sections (popular this week, most bookmarked, etc).

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Hi Ken,

Thanks for taking the time to write such a great comment :)

I do agree that code quality is something that beginners find difficult to spot. I know the basics of CSS and PHP so the one thing that I always find is redundant code i.e. classes in that stylesheet that aren’t being used and divisions being linked to classes and ids that don’t exist.

Some coders still don’t comment their stylesheet or their templates which can make modifying their design a real pain in the butt.

I do agree that the quality of a design is subjective. I’m a huge fan of minimal themes myself. That being said, it’s not secret that the official directory was used for years as a way of getting cheap traffic. It has been improved but many themes are very very outdated.

You’re 100% correct about the theme previews. That’s something I haven’t touched upon as yet. They really need to show more pages in the demo area for galleries, blog pages, sitemaps etc. I appreciate that would be difficult to setup but currently the preview option is useless for a lot of good themes i.e. gallery themes show nothing.

A peer review system would be good. We need more user feedback on themes so that good designs are promoted more than poor ones.

Thanks again. It’s always great to hear from readers :)

Kevin

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Hi Ravi,

I agree they won’t get much traffic directly but they will get a lot of incoming links so from an SEO point of view it is a very cheap way of advertising your site.

I don’t think removing themes that haven’t been updated for a year. There are some A+ themes that have not been upgraded in a year or two and I would rather they remained in the directory than themes of a poor quality.

:)

Kevin

Comment by Ravi says:

WordPress.com is a closed system which ensures users get quality themes. This can be compared to iPhone App market. But moderating in WordPress.org might not go well with the spirit of open source. Even though there are lots of low quality themes, they do help to keep people out of insecure unofficial WP themes out there.

I doubt if getting cheap traffic is the motivation for awful themes as they won’t get used much anyway. . May be most of the pros moved to premium theme market and WordPress.org became a starting place for amateurs.

One way to trim the theme list is to remove themes that aren’t updated for a while, say one year, which obviously won’t have latest WP features. Another way is to get rid of themes that have low download count over a period of time.

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