WordPress.org is ineffective for plugin distribution in 2022

We’ve seen sharp focus pulled onto the growth of plugins on WordPress.org in the last couple of weeks. For many years, it’s been possible to see a plugin’s active install growth rate on the Plugin Repository.

Public plugin active install numbers only change at pre-set intervals (1k, 2k, etc) and these intervals get bigger as a plugin gets bigger. The active install growth chart was thus useful for plugin developers to see whether their product was growing or shrinking, and at what rate.

screenshot of the plugin repository stats

My understanding is the charts were removed unilaterally without notice or discussion. This is not good, especially in a data-poor industry like WordPress. Any and all data is precious! We’re competing against the likes of Shopify and Squarespace, who will be all over a phenomenal quantity of data; whilst we work off data scraps.

We believe data openness helps everyone make better decisions, and individual better decisions are good for the future of WordPress. You can see our Weather Report as putting our money where our mouth is on this.

How do WordPress plugins grow in 2022?

We’re good capitalists. We help businesses solve marketing problems and make more money. We thus think a lot about plugin growth, and every week we tackle a Marketing Audit and Strategy project where we’re asked how to most effectively grow a WordPress product business.

It is very rare that we recommend growing your WordPress product business through WordPress.org, and this has been the case for years. Our experience is that freemium is an inefficient and ineffective channel for the average WordPress product.

There are many reasons you might want to release a free plugin on WordPress.org and see it grow. We’re approaching this purely from a business-case and opportunity-cost point of view, and you should understand this as our lens. From this point of view, it is incredibly hard to justify a freemium model of your product on WordPress.org.

Freemium through WordPress.org historically worked:

  1. Create a great free WordPress plugin
  2. List it on the Repository
  3. Leverage the massive organic distribution of the Plugin Repository
  4. Get free installs
  5. Convert a sub-set of those free installs to a Pro version of your plugin

You see this model work very effectively for the most popular WordPress plugins: from Yoast, to Jetpack, to WP Forms.

screenshot of Yoast's upgrade text

It’s common for plugins with this freemium model to convert free customers to paying at 1-2%. This has built many many successful WordPress businesses.

But – this model doesn’t exist for new plugins in 2022. New plugins aren’t able to leverage the “massive organic distribution” of the Repository, because they aren’t being seen or found on the Repository.

New WordPress plugins are not passing the 100k, 500k , or 1m+ install thresholds

447 plugins have over 100k active installs. These are the elite, and they have an outsized impact on WordPress.

Plugins with over 100k active installs make up 0.7% of plugins in the Repository, but are used on at least 60 million websites. BuiltWith says there are 60 million WordPress sites, so we should take these top plugins very seriously.

In 2022, we’re seeing that the top plugins are getting bigger, and new plugins are not breaking through. Data collated from WP Trends and kindly updated for Ellipsis by Dumitru Brînzan shows us that if we sort plugins by the year they were added to the Repo, the # passing the big 3 active install milestones has been declining year-on-year:

graph showing WordPress plugins reaching 100k, 500k, and 1m active installs, based on year they were added to the Plugin Repository

These numbers have fallen off a cliff since 2016. New plugins on the Repository are not breaking 100k, 500k, or 1m active installs.

Which plugins are breaking through? The biggest plugin from the last 2 years are:

  1. Classic Widgets
  2. Creative Mail by ConstantContact
  3. SiteGround Security by SiteGround
  4. WooCommerce PayPal Payments by WooCommerce
  5. WooCommerce Payments by WooCommerce
  6. Google Listings & Ads by WooCommerce

These plugins aren’t solely being organically found through the Repository: they have a marketing machine powering the growth from elsewhere.

It’s no coincidence there are 3 from WooCommerce above: WooCommerce heavily recommends additional plugins through its onboarding wizard. The screen below is the “set up payments” for new WooCommerce stores. This will install WooCommerce Payments for you automatically if you accept. Any other payment options are buried under an “Other payment options” dropdown.

screenshot of the WooCommerce setup wizard

You’ll see something similar from SiteGround, for its speed and security plugins.

Active install numbers aren’t the be-and-end-all. You can have a healthy business off 1,000 active installs, and 1,000 true fans of your product.

From a performance marketing point of view, the only conclusion we can come to here is WordPress.org is ineffective as a distribution channel in 2022.

The Repository isn’t giving plugins organic reach

Our take is you should only be considering starting a new free plugin if you are confident you can get a massive # of installs from another source. This is only likely to be true if you’re very well funded or have a large pre-existing user base. This is not going to be true for the vast majority of products from the community.

The idea of “build a great free product, and they will come!” is long gone. The data shows this is not happening for free plugins. Archive.org helpfully lets us see the # of plugins in the Repository, going back to 2007.

Curiously the total number of plugins has evened out in recent years, but there are still more plugins than ever:

graph showing the number of plugins on the Repository over time

I see the Repository search as an area of interest here: a significant ranking factor is # of active installs, and plugins with a high number of active installs will generally outrank plugins with fewer installs. It’s easy to make an argument in favour of this: plugins with over 100k+ installs have a lot of people trusting them! We want to recommend good products, and this is a reasonable ranking factor.

search results for form on WordPress.org

The challenge I see is that the bias towards active installs creates a closed shop for the most popular plugins to get even more popular. The average install count for plugins if you search form is 800k. Even with a great free product, it’s incredibly unlikely WordPress.org is going to do anything for you organically, because you won’t be found.

I see it as important for innovation and the WordPress ecosystem that new plugins can break through. I like something like a “rising star” label here. We already have “Featured Plugins”, so a label to promote free plugins users love would go some way to solving this problem.

Businesses hire us to solve problems for them now, and in 2022 it is incredibly difficult to make the business case for launching a free plugin.

As we’ve discussed, the Repository isn’t offering distribution for new plugins. Thus, you have to bring your own distribution. If you’re going to do that work, why would you put marketing resources behind a free plugin, when the same work can get you paying customers?

The resources and work required to market a free WordPress plugin are so significant, that unless you’re a huge business, in 2022 you get vastly better ROI from offering a paid-only plugin.

I am a good capitalist, and as a good capitalist I think that freemium performs badly as a marketing channel for WordPress products in 2022. Other channels, such as partnerships, SEO Content (especially powered by our FALCON AI), and even paid ads are much more profitable.

The removal of the active install chart isn’t making a significant difference to our work, because we’re not recommending using WordPress.org as a marketing channel. From a pure marketing and business case point of view, it just doesn’t make sense.

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Alex Denning

Alex Denning is the Founder and Managing Director of Ellipsis®, a world-class SEO Content agency. Alex is the inventor of FALCON AI®, the next-generation AI SEO platform that helps you predict how your content will perform – before you create it. Alex is an international speaker and publishes regularly on the future of SEO. @AlexDenning on Twitter