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The High Price of Free WordPress Plugins

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High Price of Free WordPress Plugins

As far WordPress is concerned, two of my favorite things are blogging – obviously – and extending the core application through the use of plugins.

Yes, I’ve done work with themes and even built a couple of web applications on top of the platform, but I often come back to working on plugins. They’re kind of like apps for WordPress, right?

And right now, there’s a mad dash for building apps for a variety platforms: be it iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, and any other major platform you can imagine – WordPress included.

But just as it is with building anything, building for WordPress presents its set of challenges. If you’re interested in getting into building plugins especially for fun, then here’s a run down of what you should expect.

What To Expect Building Free WordPress Plugins

The development process is much different from building software for any other framework or platform:

  • You’ve got the core application layer – that is, WordPress – and its set of APIs
  • You’ve got dependencies – that is, your JavaScript, stylesheets, and any third party libraries
  • And you’ve got a set of coding standards
  • …and more

But the important thing to note is that if you’re just starting out with this, or if you’re coming from another platform, language, or community, then just because you’re going to offer your plugin for free doesn’t necessarily mean you get to develop it like its the wild west.

Specifically, whenever you submit a plugin to the WordPress Plugin Repository, your codebase is audited before it will be approved.

This is a fantastic way to ensure a certain level of quality for what’s made available through the WordPress repository, right?

But There is an Exception!

I said that you couldn’t develop as if it were the wild west, but the truth is if you’re planning to release it on your own blog, on your own site, or whatever other property you may own, then you’re practically free to build it as you see fit.

The thing is, over time, people have become a bit cautious of using free WordPress themes and WordPress plugins that aren’t hosted by a reputable source or that aren’t premium because of their lack of quality.

It’s not necessarily that the feature set is bad, it’s that the level of code quality is poor and often results in far too many hacks, compatibility issues, or general user experience issues. Though your work may not result in this, it’s likely to develop that reputation simply because of the reputation that this type of work as developed.

So do yourself a favor and get a free audit from WordPress.org plugin review team. You’ve got nothing but quality to gain from this.

Freely Available Tools

Additionally, if you’re looking to release a free plugin and are committed to following the guidelines for working with best practices, then the WordPress plugin repository offers a variety of free tools to use to support your plugin.

wordpress-repository

Aside from source control, you also get:

  • A homepage for the plugin
  • The plugin is indexed and searchable from within the WordPress dashboard
  • The repository homepage includes a free support forum so that you can support your users
  • A rating system for others to report how much they like (or dislike) your work
  • Installation instructions
  • A way to manage frequently asked questions
  • Statistics of how many people are running which version of your work
  • …and more

Sweet, right?

But here’s the thing that few people discuss or even know when getting into this game: If you have a plugin that gets particularly popular, support can become extraordinarily challenging.

You’re one person maintaining a project installed across tens of thousands of blogs, and these people all have the ability to share issues about your work.

Now, whether or not you have an obligation to help these people is a gray area for a lot of people. Some people say that because it’s free, there’s no obligation; others say that since you’ve released it, then you should be prepared to support it.

This is not the post for that debate.

Wherever you fall, don’t underestimate the amount of time that support can take. To that end, I also urge you guys to read a great post by Chris Lema on differentiating between customers and users.

A Word About Support

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure that I emphasized the aspect of support enough. As absolutely great as the WordPress plugin repository is, it can breed a lot of negative feelings towards a project that you once started out loving simply because of the sheer amount of requests that come in for support (be it features, requests, or genuine bugs).

I’m not saying ignore these requests – after all, some people will be taking the time to report on things that will only make your work better; however, if people are typically compensated for their time, and you’re spending an exorbitant amount of time addressing support questions, then it may be time to consider introducing some type of business model into your plugin.

Though that’s out of scope for this post, I do think that it’s worth mentioning offering a free version of a premium plugin is a way to go. If people enjoy your plugin and find value in it, they are often willing to pay for support for it.

“Your Plugin Sucks!”

One of the biggest challenges of managing a product is dealing with the level of complaints that you may receive.

The truth is, people rarely call customer support centers to say “thanks” or to say “great work,” right? I mean, how often do you really let your cell phone company know that you’re glad you didn’t get a dropped call with your last phone call?

Exactly.

To that end, shipping a product in any capacity – including a WordPress plugin – is subject to this, so if you’ve not yet developed a plugin or are on the brink of releasing one, then be prepared for complaints.

It’s not that users don’t praise plugins that they use. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t happen, but the number of complaints will often far outweigh the number of praises.

That’s simply the nature of how people and, thus, the market work.

I think we’re all built differently as it relates to receiving criticism. Some people have thick skin and can take it, let it roll off their back, and go; others, not so much. But it’s something that can be learned and developed over time.

So if you’re in the latter group and you’re just entering into the market: be prepared, but don’t take it personally. It happens to all of us and, at the risk of making a pun, the words continue to be pressed :).

Now Go Build a Plugin

Basically, this post is a “if I knew then what I know now” about WordPress, then I would’ve shortcut a lot of mistakes, missteps, and learning certain lessons the hard way.

I think everyone appreciates learning from others so hopefully this post has helped shortcut some of the things that typically come with releasing a plugin.

At any rate, talk is cheap. Go build something :).

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14 Comments

  1. AJ Clarke | WPExplorer

    Hey Tom, thanks for sharing and welcome to the WPExplorer community 😉

    Personally I get a great deal of satisfaction when creating a product and releasing it for free 100% GPL. And I especially love to hear people thank me and let me know how great the product is. But I really do have a hard time dealing with “freeloaders”. I have found that the majority of paid customers are much nicer and understanding when it comes to requesting and receiving support, whereas “freeloaders” on average (I know its not all of you!) are much more demanding and ridiculous in this regards. I do think its one of the reasons why I have seen people move away from the public repository or offer support for a premium price (of course their time is valuable as well).

    That said, I do think all plugin/theme developers should give give the public repository a try. Even if it’s just once. It’s always good to give back to the community!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Tom and providing such a nice intro to plugin development. I hope to see you around here in the future 😉

    -AJ

    • Greg Winiarski

      I actually do have quite different experience with my plugin in WordPress.org repository, all the comments on the support forum are either: constructive criticsm (bug reports, improvment suggetsions, etc.) or thanks-yous/congratulations.

      Maybe this is because intended audience are web developers not general public? … Can’t tell.

      • AJ Clarke | WPExplorer

        Thats great! I think there is a huge different also between plugins and themes. People using themes seem to ask a lot more questions like “how do I change my colors” or “how do I add my menu” and very basic questions which can be answered with a simple Google Search. I took a look at your plugins, they look good 😉

    • Jatupon Rattanapanop

      Hi AJ

      Sorry to heard that. I am freeloader too hehe I not a webmaster or programmer. Every time that I got problem I will try to fix it by myself read read read and try a lots. Not easy as i not really good in English but I love computer and how it work so amazing. This is how I can up all day and night to solve it. So funny that sometime it just a small mistake! Like today I start new theme and I can’t bring out the slide show on my site but to read again on your detail about the theme (We know people don’t mind to read it but I do) then I finally found that I have to make the Page and set it template as Home first then go to Set the static front page to the Page that I’ve made. (I used to use Portafolio theme and it is easier and simply to set the slideshow that why I get confused.

      After few hours that I try to play with many thing in your theme. I have try many new thing (for me) such as Font Awesome (my first time! and yes I found the icon-instagram doesn’t work 🙁 ) I play more with your Simple Shortcode 😉 etc. All I can tell is you are amazing and your job is excellent! I always like your theme. Clean, beautiful and very friendly. I Love it! <3

      I read some of blog posts here from many writer. Some I get and some I not get but it doesn't hurt me. I enjoy reading it ^_^

      Thank you very much for You and your team. You are very inspiring! For normal people like me who not a programmer you know you are amazing?!

      Hope everything good come for you and team.
      Thank yo very very much.

      Emily

      • AJ Clarke | WPExplorer

        Thanks Emily for stopping by and leaving such a wonder comment 😉 I’ve seen you around on other social sites and I appreciate your support! I’m starting to go through and update my free themes and release new ones. I think people also forget that sometimes the time spent answering questions, like you said, that can be figured out on your own, can be used by the developer for spending more time on updates/fixes. At one point I was even running a whole forum for my themes – but that just proved to be a disaster. That said, I am also still learning the in-and-outs of the market and whenever possible I do try and help people out and provide for the community. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

    • Tom McFarlin

      Personally I get a great deal of satisfaction when creating a product and releasing it for free 100% GPL. And I especially love to hear people thank me and let me know how great the product is.

      Of course! When you’re solving a problem for someone else and you’re solving it well, there are few better rewards as a developer.

      But I really do have a hard time dealing with “freeloaders”. I have found that the majority of paid customers are much nicer and understanding when it comes to requesting and receiving support, whereas “freeloaders” on average (I know its not all of you!) are much more demanding and ridiculous in this regards.

      Exactly – that’s why I think it’s important to consider all options when releasing plugins. The intended audience can really affect how you’re treated once it’s out.

      That said, I do think all plugin/theme developers should give give the public repository a try. Even if it’s just once. It’s always good to give back to the community!

      Absolutely. I wouldn’t intentionally dissuade anyone from trying it – just to be aware of what may happen.

      There are always pros and cons to both.

  2. Phillip Flores

    Hi, just wanted you to know that what you wrote applies also to other digital products released for free as well e.g. desktop software applications.

    Several years ago I released a free version of my time tracking software and experienced the increasing amount of support issues ranging from installation to migration to another computer. And yes, very few people write back to express their satisfaction and quite a large number write back complaining about it.

    Thanks again for an insightful piece.

    • Tom McFarlin

      Love hearing your input from another type of software, Phillip.

      Thanks a lot for the kind words!

  3. Denice Juma

    Hi thanks for coming up with this critical post and offering to share it in the end of helping other upcoming WP developers, Having well tested and approved plugins with support being offered is the word. Great work

    • Tom McFarlin

      Thanks Denice! And you’re right – “well tested and approved plugins with support being offered is the word.”

      Straight up.

  4. Herb Trevathan

    Great post, thanks Tom. I have started checking out authors of plugins and themes before I use them for anything. I have found that a lot of authors are starting out, and use the creation of plugins or themes to gain a kind of ‘street cred’ with potential employers or clients. They can point to the plugin or theme in the wordpress repository and look like a seasoned professional to the untrained eye. I have seen support links go dead or gone back to pages not found, only to check the authors linkedin page and they are now working at xyz corp as head of internet whatever leaving myself and the rest of the users in the wordpress community for the long haul hanging.

    I read a great article here: http://pippinsplugins.com/why-loading-your-own-jquery-is-irresponsible/ regarding your support piece. In this article he mentions people installing the plugin and the theme breaks, and users fireball the plugin author thinking it must be the fault of the plugin…when actually the theme author loaded static jquery and rolled his own instead of using the wordpress version.

    Sadly I see this a lot where a client clicks update and everything goes haywire. I too have found that a shortsighted developer had used the latest version of jquery at time of development and that version is now causing conflicts.

    I have thought about building some plugins and themes in the past to either sell or give away depending on the application but since I am a one man show I know that providing support would be a challenge.

    • AJ Clarke | WPExplorer

      Definitely. And actually another issue is sometimes not the developer itself. For example there are some free themes I created years ago that I no longer provide/support, yet somehow people get a hold of them (via pirate/spam sites) then complain that the code is “wrong”, when really its just an old theme that shouldn’t be used in the first place. I’ve since learned that when releasing a theme I should really plan on supporting it as long as possible. This comes back to the whole “jQuery” issue, because I remember a few years back it seemed like everyone was loading jQuery from Google and not WP (because the version in WP was outdated).

      Support can be challenging. Maybe you can try out first creating a commercial item for a marketplace and see how that goes. Then later if you get some time or extra help make some “freebies” that you know you can support.

      Currently, I don’t have the time and resources for any new free themes to release here at my site because of a new site launch. So the plan now is to go through my old themes and fix them up, redesign them a bit and improve them. Also working on making some video tutorials, which I have found to be one of the best ways to lessen support questions 😉 Spending a few hours on good documentation and one or more videos can prove very useful!

    • Tom McFarlin

      I have found that a lot of authors are starting out, and use the creation of plugins or themes to gain a kind of ‘street cred’ with potential employers or clients.

      True! I haven’t actually thought of that – people do the same thing on GitHub as well – and I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it can come back to bite them and may even hurt the community a bit.

      Even still, I believe that WordPress is so new as far as the enterprise as larger corporations are concerned, when people look to hire WordPress developers, they have to go with what with appears to be quality.

      Thank goodness for plugin submission guidelines – this is why the repository reviewers exist, and I think they do a particularly good job (Pippin is on that team, actually – so that’s neat. Major props to him.).

      I read a great article here: http://pippinsplugins.com/why-loading-your-own-jquery-is-irresponsible/ regarding your support piece. In this article he mentions people installing the plugin and the theme breaks, and users fireball the plugin author thinking it must be the fault of the plugin…when actually the theme author loaded static jquery and rolled his own instead of using the wordpress version.

      Sadly, yes. This happens more than it should and it’s going to take some time for a reversal (and I’m not sold that it’s 100% possible).

      I have thought about building some plugins and themes in the past to either sell or give away depending on the application but since I am a one man show I know that providing support would be a challenge.

      Yes – it’ll be a challenge, but don’t let it dissuade you from releasing something! The freemium model is always an option and it works :).

  5. Nicola Ballotta

    Great article Tom. If you have time, give a look to my startup: wpxtre[dot]me

    We are working hard for letting people build high quality plugins and themes; there is still more we have to do, but I hope we are on the right way. Let me know what you think about our project.

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