13 September 2023

WordPress Plugin Developers Renew Call for Better Plugin Metrics

WordPress Plugin Developers Call for Better Metrics: Uncertainty on Immediate Response from Matt Mullenweg, but Community Pressure Could Lead to Changes.

WordPress Plugin Update

It's been almost a year since WordPress has quietly disabled active install growth data for plugins hosted in the official plugin repository, a key metric that many developers rely on for accurate monitoring and making product decisions. “Insufficient data obfuscation” was cited as the reason for removing the charts, but this unclear decision was made without any communication from those who made it in a private discussion.

In a ticket originally titled “Bring back the active installs growth graph“, RebelCode CEO Mark Zahra made the initial call for thousands of plugin developers asking for the return of this data. From the hobbyist who simply hosts plugins for the sheer pleasure of seeing people use the software he created, to business owners who need this data to make critical decisions, the general consensus was that this data is valuable and should be available for those who contribute to WordPress through plugins.

In an appearance on the WPwatercooler podcast last year, Audrey Capital-sponsored meta contributor Samuel “Otto” Wood confirmed that the decision was made through private channels via direct messages on Slack in a discussion started by Matt Mullenweg. He also revealed that the active install growth graph was removed because it provided inaccurate data:

“I read all that discussion and we worked, they worked on it for a long time, Scott and other people tried various things before they removed it. They adjusted the values, the numbers. They went through a ridiculous number of iterations and in the end, none of them worked. People continued to use it even though it provided essentially garbage. So in the end, removing it was the only thing to do. We had a plan to replace it. We just didn't have a plan to replace it immediately. However, providing incorrect active install count numbers is more harmful, we thought, to both users and developers than simply not providing them at all.”

Wood offered an explanation on the podcast that should have been provided weeks earlier by those involved in the discussion on official channels. Even though previous data was flawed and “insufficiently obfuscated,” developers still want access to the raw data, not interpretations of that data.

During the culmination of this discussion, the developers made many proposals for different data points that would be meaningful for tracking their efforts, and Matt Mullenweg responded that he was willing to show plugin authors more statistics about their plugins. Since then, no progress has been reported in this effort.

StellarWP Director of Product Marketing Taylor Waldon reopened this discussion nearly a year later, asking Mullenweg to stop restricting access to plugin data from people who host themes and plugins on WordPress.org.

“I talked to a bunch of people at [WCUS] contributor day,” Paid Memberships Pro co-founder and CEO Jason Coleman said in response to Waldon's tweet. “As far as I know, there is no other current effort to update or replace the install count numbers or the old 'growth graph'.”

Coleman put together a preliminary proposal with some ideas from his conversations. The document describes a common scenario where plugin developers are left in the dark about the growth or decline of active installs of their plugins:

Imagine a developer with a plugin with 150.000 active installs. That developer effectively has zero quantitative feedback on whether his plugin's users are growing or decreasing. The download count has a trend, but there is no separation between new downloads and updates. Download counts track the pace of development as much as user growth. A spike in downloads could be due to a patched security vulnerability or an influx of new users. The current active install count is heavily rounded and offers no feedback until such a plugin gains or loses 33% of its users, which are drastically different results.

Coleman's proposal includes some metrics that would help developers better monitor their plugins, even if this data is only shown to authors:

  • Share a more accurate count of active installs with plugin owners.
  • Share more accurate version counts with plugin owners.
  • Differentiate your download count by type: website downloads, dashboard installs, dashboard downloads, updates, others (zip file accesses).
  • Allow plugin developers to define custom event triggers to be counted and displayed to plugin owners on the plugins.org profile page.

Coleman's draft is still in development. He was not immediately available for comment when asked what the next step will be once the proposal is further developed.

WordPress.org has always been the most popular distribution channel for popular plugins, but the available data has not kept pace with the needs of developers and businesses. Releasing the raw data, while adhering to any privacy restrictions, would allow developers to extract their own interpretations of that data and allow services to present it in creative ways.

At the very least, this data should be available to developers (even if it's not public) to help them better track the trajectory of their plugins and the effectiveness of their marketing efforts. More data can only serve to improve the WordPress ecosystem's ability to continue fueling a multi-billion dollar economy. Without a doubt, there are many technical needs to support the release of this data, and these must be prioritized if WordPress.org is to continue to attract the best products for distribution.

“This is not about vanity metrics or inflating numbers for marketing purposes,” Coleman said. “It's about getting valuable feedback on the relative use of a plugin hosted in the .org repository so that developers can make informed decisions and investments in those plugins.”

Although the call for better metrics for WordPress plugins has been renewed and supported by a wide range of developers, it is not yet clear whether Matt Mullenweg and the WordPress.org team will immediately accommodate these requests. History shows us that decisions in this area are often made behind closed doors, which could leave developers in a position of uncertainty.

However, unity and continued pressure from the developer community could make a difference. If the call becomes unanimous, it is possible that the parties involved in the leadership of WordPress.org will reconsider their position. After all, it is the developers who dedicate time and resources to creating new plugins and features that enrich the entire WordPress ecosystem. Ignoring their needs may not be in the platform's long-term interest.

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