Is Deceptive Marketing Ruining WordPress’ Reputation?
September 29, 2022
Flash sales, countdowns, lack of disclosure, questionable recommendations… what’s going on with the WordPress that many of us have grown to love over the years?
It was going so well
WordPress was once a wonderful open-source project supported by many developers and businesses around the world that monetize the platform for their own benefit and that of its users.
This is the way it was for many years and it has helped WordPress become the powerhouse that it is today.
Greed is taking over
So why are we getting greedy and moving away from what has worked so well for practically everyone involved for so long?
Every day now I come across a tweet, a message in Slack, a blog post or even an email newsletter that discusses a marketing strategy that doesn’t sit well with people.
Unfortunately, these strategies are being adopted and adapted by many WordPress companies, often blindly and without any understanding of what they’re actually doing.
According to the WordPress weather report by Ellipsis, WordPress’ growth has hit a speed bump lately. So is everyone just trying to get a bigger piece of the pie while they can?
– Full disclosure –
For some context to what you’ll read here, I am looking at all this from two different perspectives.
The first is that of a blogger and product reviewer here at WP Mayor, which is something I’ve done since 2014 along with our team.
The second is that of a product owner who is responsible for two WordPress plugins; Spotlight Instagram Feeds and WP RSS Aggregator.
Most importantly – to make sure we’re clear from the very beginning – we are no angels and we haven’t always done things perfectly over the past decade. We all make mistakes.
The difference is that we are actively working on making sure we do our work with our ethics and morals at the forefront of every decision. We’re still a business at the end of the day, but we’re not here to deceive or manipulate anyone.
You may still find content and recommendations on this website that don’t fully align with what I say here. If you do, know that we’re working hard to get to it all.
The problem with marketing in WordPress
This has been one of the most popular and controversial topics of discussion for a while.
In the past decade, WordPress has moved away from manual renewals, renewal discounts, and other strategies that simply aren’t sustainable.
That’s the good part.
Now we’ve moved into a stage of, let’s call them – questionable strategies.
#1 Never-ending sales
Fake sales are the one tactic I dislike the most.
Unfortunately, it’s the one that seems to be copied most often within WordPress and it’s quite sad to see what it’s doing to our reputation as a whole.
From “Flash Sale” banners and fake countdowns across the top of pricing pages to a plugin being constantly on sale throughout the year, it just comes across as greedy.
In the article linked in the above tweet, you’ll see a plugin called Smash Balloon (owned by Awesome Motive) publishing an article on the “Best Smash Balloon Alternatives”.
And guess what?
4 out of the 6 recommended alternatives are Smash Balloon itself. That’s like saying that the best alternatives to Facebook are Facebook Groups and Facebook Marketplace.
The final two alternatives? SeedProd, a landing page builder also owned by the same parent company, and a Shared Counts plugin developed by two people who are also associated with that company.
None of these are actual alternatives.
So is this just about SEO or are the readers really that ignorant?
And just to clarify, this article is one example out of many. Here’s another one shared on Twitter:
Unfortunately, it’s the same parent company that kept coming up for this topic, but the same tactic may be applied by others that I haven’t come across yet, so if you’ve noticed any, please share them in the comments below.
#4 No Disclosure
If you thought that was bad, you may have missed the fact that in none of the cases I came across was it disclosed that the product/s being promoted are owned by the same parent company.
Promoting your own products is absolutely fine. If you believe in them, please do. But disclose that you own that product. Be fair and honest with your audience.
If your product really is good enough, you’ll win anyway. Why not disclose the truth?
It’s as simple as this:
And we’re in the process of updating all of our content here on WP Mayor to make sure we disclose as much information as possible to project fairness throughout.
#5 WordPress.org’s hosting recommendations
How can we not mention the infamous WordPress.org Hosting page?
It recommends 3 hosting companies, clearly giving them an advantage over others in terms of first-time WordPress users who are looking to the official website for guidance.
The language on this page leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I read it.
According to the introduction on this page, as seen in the screenshot above: “in our opinion, the hosts below represent some of the best and brightest of the hosting world. If you do decide to go with one of the hosts below and click through from this page, some will donate a portion of your fee back [to the WordPress.org project]”.
Donating a portion of the fee back is a good way to support the open source project, but why aren’t those agreements public knowledge? Are some supporting in different ways than others? Is that “support” a form of buying your way into this list?
Make it clear and disclose how you’re keeping this fair. Don’t expect people to just believe a statement for the sake of it, especially when there’s no face or name behind it.
Moving further down, the page reads as follows: “Note before contacting us: Please don’t send us legal takedown orders or threats, we don’t actually host every WordPress blog in the world. If you don’t understand that, you probably shouldn’t be sending legal notices anyway.”
Why is there a need to be so negative, especially so early on in someone’s WordPress journey?
If I were new to WordPress and read this, I’d turn away immediately and find a platform where confrontation isn’t the first item on the agenda.
Make it an FAQ and educate the readers, don’t insult their intelligence.
And finally, “We’ll be looking at this list several times a year, so keep an eye out for us re-opening the survey for hosts to submit themselves for inclusion. Listing is completely arbitrary, but includes criteria like…”
How often has this list changed and where is this “survey for hosts”?
I’ve been involved with WordPress for a while now and I don’t remember coming across any surveys related to hosting recommendations from WordPress.org. Maybe I’ve missed them.
Overall, the language and format lack any sort of empathy or onboarding experience.
How about we go from being ambiguous and speaking down to people, to being clear and speaking of ways we can help each other?
#6 Manipulating the WordPress dashboard
I hadn’t been aware of this one until recently but it definitely caught my eye.
SiteGround redesigned the Plugins page of any website that’s hosted with them and has their SiterGround plugin installed.
As you can see, the “Browse…” section hides many of the important details that users base their decisions on, so why would they do that?
You also see a “Must Have Plugins” section up top, which is actually the first tab. Going to that tab, you’ll see recommendations for certain plugins.
Some of these are owned by Awesome Motive, the same company that recently collaborated with SiteGround to offer a managed hosting service with Easy Digital Downloads’ free version being pre-installed.
One would assume that there is some sort of promotional agreement in place, both for these and for the other plugins being recommended by SiteGround.
Why else would they go to the trouble of creating their own Plugins page that overrides the native WordPress one?
And keep in mind that SiteGround is one of WordPress.org’s recommended hosts. On the “Hosting” page mentioned in point 5 above, the WordPress website states: “in our opinion, the hosts below represent some of the best and brightest of the hosting world.”
Considering that the majority of SiteGround’s users aren’t even aware that what they’re seeing in their dashboard is being manipulated, does this recommendation still hold water?
Update: This point has been updated to address the fact that this Plugins page design change only happens when the SiteGround plugin is installed on the website, which is not something I was aware of at the time of publishing.
#7 WordPress.org promoting Automattic’s products
The connection or lack thereof between Automattic and WordPress.org is something that has been discussed countless times.
Nevertheless, the Featured Plugins section of the Plugins page on this oh-so-important website lists Akismet and Jetpack every time.
Both of those plugins are monetized by Automattic, the same company behind WordPress.com and run by the co-founder of WordPress.
Is that disclosed anywhere? Are alternatives also shown? Do these featured plugins ever change?
No. No. And I don’t remember not seeing Akismet or Jetpack being featured.
#8 News coverage
There are only a few news sources in WordPress with WP Tavern being the oldest and largest, at least as far as I know.
But considering that I’ve never received a reply from their team when reaching out and after finding the below tweet, sometimes I wonder what goes on behind closed doors.
The tweet talks about WP Tavern picking up a news story about SiteGround’s launch of eCommerce hosting that simply pre-installs a free plugin called Easy Digital Downloads (EDD).
That hosting launch happened around the same time that WP Engine and GoDaddy launched managed WooCommerce hosting solutions.
Now, isn’t WooCommerce a much bigger eCommerce solution than EDD?
So how is one story worthy of coverage but not the others?
Aren’t the new managed WooCommerce hosting offerings more complex and involved than what SiteGround has started offering with EDD’s free version just being pre-installed?
#9 A new-ish backlink generator
This is a new one that I came across just before publishing, but I’ve seen the idea applied elsewhere, outside of WordPress.
A few days ago, MonsterInsights published a blog post about their new “MonsterInsights Badge”. My first thought was that this is probably an idea taken from many SaaS solutions where they ask their users to include a badge to show what product they’re using.
Typically, a company would implement this with an option to have that badge link back to their product’s website as a way for the user or customer to show their support and for them to gain more backlinks.
Or, in some cases, it’s a condition to have that badge/link on your website if you choose to make use of their service.
Or even, a user can optionally show a link/badge and include their affiliate link to generate commissions for themselves. I know that RafflePress does this, for example, which is fine.
So I installed the plugin, enabled the badge, and it turned out I was half right.
The badge does link to the Monster Insights website with some campaign tracking parameters, but at no point in the blog post announcement or settings page is there any mention of the link.
So I looked for the documentation thinking that it would at least include a mention there, but there isn’t even a documentation page about this badge yet.
The idea is a good one, and it’s something I’ve thought about myself for our own plugins, but to include a link to your site, essentially generating thousands if not millions of potential backlinks without the user’s knowledge or consent is not something I’d recommend.
I don’t know whether anyone else is applying this idea within WordPress and whether the lack of documentation by Monster Insights is just because it’s a recent addition, but either way, it needs addressing.
Update: After publishing and sharing this article, it was brought to my attention that some people expect the link to be there if they’re adding a badge to their site. It’s also a similar practice to the links that WordPress themes places in their footers that go back to their website, so perhaps it’s my personal perception of the idea that made this stand out as a potential issue.
But this stuff works, right?
I assume so.
Why else would more people be copying these strategies?
The truth is that no one has publicly shown any before and after comparison of implementing these ideas.
I don’t expect them to because they know (or should know) about the ethical and moral questions that come along with them.
The days of the “Year in Review” are slowly dying out. With so many companies and individuals choosing to copy these tactics since they think they can make more money with them, there’s no way that we’ll be seeing any real insight into their inner workings.
It’s a pity because in some cases the product itself is high quality and can stand on its own two feet without any of these dubious strategies being applied.
Are they thinking that it’s not worth testing this hypothesis if things are going well and their bottom line is looking good? Or are they simply looking to get their hands on more revenue while they can get away with it?
Who are the ones that will suffer?
As product owners, it’s affecting us since some people are moving away from WordPress entirely because of these practices or losing trust in WordPress as a whole.
People aren’t dumb – they know when they’re being cheated – so the actions of a few are impacting the many.
As customers, aside from being deceived, keep in mind the impact that these actions can have once that person realizes what’s going on.
Will they trust another plugin company again? Will they blame their developer or agency and think they’re taking them for a ride when their license fees double in year two?
As WordPress developers and supporters, this is hurting our reputation. We’re all part of an open-source community built on collaboration and cooperation, yet in the past few years, that’s all but disappeared.
I’m lucky to still have a few friends in this space who are genuine enough to work in an honest and impartial way, but I’ve also set aside quite a few people who’ve chosen to wander in the other direction.
Legally, well, apparently that’s a grey area at this point because nothing has happened yet. I’m no legal expert so I won’t make any conclusions of my own here, but according to the research being done by others like MasterWP, it’s not all above board.
Don’t just copy, understand what you’re doing
Developers and product owners with minimal or no marketing experience often look at the biggest names in their industry and copy what they’re doing.
It might work sometimes, but they usually don’t look into the nuts and bolts of it all.
I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past – not of the deceptive strategies mentioned above, but of blindly copying what others are doing without really understanding it.
Experience has taught me that copying a strategy that is potentially successful for others does not guarantee that same success for you.
Do your research and do what’s right for everyone involved.
We must come together as a community
No one person will make a difference alone when such large entities are involved.
If we want to ensure the longevity of WordPress and that of our own businesses built on top of it, we must come together and do what’s right.
From speaking to a few people within the WordPress “elite” over the past few weeks, I noticed a sense of fear and unease when this topic is discussed.
So many questions have been brought up…
Will we lose advertisers because of this?
Will our products stop being promoted by certain sites?
What if we receive legal threats because we speak out?
For a community that prides itself on fairness and inclusivity, the fact that people have these questions even when they believe in something is a serious worry.
If someone speaking up on a topic that is worth discussing results in that person getting shunned by a few people, then the problem is not the person who spoke up. It’s the few that turn on them.
Everything I’ve spoken about here is public knowledge and I am not sharing anything that you don’t know or can’t find out for yourself.
All I’ve done is compile everything I’ve come across from other sources in the past few weeks and months that I don’t feel has a place in WordPress.
This goes to show that we’ve gotten to a stage where we’re not scared or even hesitant to behave in dubious ways. Why would we? There don’t seem to be any repercussions anyway.
Is WordPress’ future compromised?
I really hope that this doesn’t become the norm in WordPress.
If it does, I’ll be one of those who steps away and moves on, just as many others have been doing in the past couple of years.
Maybe those individuals have moved on due to Covid and their financial circumstances, or maybe it has something to do with the fact that WordPress simply isn’t what it used to be anymore.
Every industry changes and we must adapt with time – that’s acceptable. What I and I assume many others won’t accept is to continue moving in the direction of using misleading and questionable tactics.
So, what next?
For me – I’ll continue doing what I can to play my part in making WordPress a helpful and inclusive industry that focuses on doing good.
For WP Mayor – we will continue to strive to do better and make the necessary changes to bring our content up to speed with what’s happening today, which is only fair to our audience.
For WordPress as a whole – only time will tell.
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Update: In the original featured image, I included a screenshot of the Presto Player pricing table. After Adam from Presto Player reached out, he explained how their pricing works and it was brought to my attention that they actually do disclose their first-year subscription discount clearly at checkout and they are not using deceptive methods in their pricing strategy. They will be addressing the missing asterisk on the pricing page to add even further clarification for the customer.