WordPress core developer John Blackbourn sparked a heated discussion yesterday when he posted an image of his WordPress User Switching plugin ranking higher for the WordPress.com listing than the page on WordPress.org.
Blackbourn later apologized for the inflammatory wording of the original post, but maintains that .com plugin listings being displayed higher in search results is not healthy for the open source project.
“This was a frustrated 2AM tweet so I could have worded it better, but the point still stands,” he said. “The plugin pages on dotcom are little more than marketing landing pages for the dotcom service and they’re strongly competing with the canonical dotorg pages. That’s not healthy.”
Several others commented about having similar experiences when searching for plugins, finding that the WordPress.com often ranks higher, although many others still see WordPress.org pages ranked highest.
Blackbourn said his chief concern “is the process that introduced the directory clone on .com either disregarded its potential impact on .org in favor of inbounds or never considered it in the first place – both very concerning given the ranking power of .com.”
The tweet highlighted the frustration some members of the open source community feel due to the perennial branding confusion between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Nothing short of renaming WordPress.com will eliminate the longstanding confusion, but this is unlikely as Automattic benefits from tightly coupling its products to WordPress’ name recognition.
“Duplicate content confuses the human + search engines,” SEO consultant Rebecca Gill said. “Search engines won’t like it, nor will humans trying to find solutions to their problems. There is already enough confusion w/ .org + .com for non-tech folks. This amplifies it. Noindex .com content or canonical it to .org.”
Participants in the discussion maintain that the duplication of the open source project’s plugin directory “creates ambiguity and confusion” but WordPress co-creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg contends it also gives plugin authors greater distribution.
“It’s providing distribution to the plugin authors, literally millions and millions of installs,” Mullenweg said. He elaborated on how the cloned plugin directory is integrated with Calypso, WordPress.com’s admin interface:
.com has its own plugin directory which includes the .org one, it provides more installs and distribution to the plugin authors, which helps their usage and for commercial ones gets them more sales. The plugins are not altered. .com takes no cut for the distribution.
When participants in the discussion suggested that other hosts doing the same thing would create a wild west situation for plugin rankings, Mullenweg said he would not mind if the plugins were “duplicated and distributed by every host and site on the planet,” as they are all licensed under the GPL.
Outrage against distributing WordPress.org plugins in this fashion was not universal in the discussion. A few commenters support this strategy and see it as beneficial for the long-term health of the open source project.
“I’m all for it to be honest,” WordPress developer Cristian Raiber said. “Anyone could scrape those pages but not everyone gives back to WordPress and makes sure it’s here to stay for the next decades. Controversial, I know. But I prefer we build together instead of alone.
“I fail to see how this is not an advantage to anyone who hosts their plugins (for FREE) on w[dot]org ?” Raiber continued in a separate response. “Is it about being outranked in Google’s SERPs for brand kws? Why has this generated so much outcry when the intent is clearly beneficial?
“This FINALLY solves a friction point for potential buyers. Streamlined plugin installation and usage vs ‘here’s a list of 55 steps you have to take to install my plugin.’ Users want options, different uses cases and all. I want wp.com to make money so they keep growing this product.”
XWP Director of Engineering Francesca Marano suggested that WordPress.com has benefitted from the branding and reputation of .org, which is built by volunteers. She also proposed that Automattic “has the resources to do a whole rebranding which would ultimately benefit both projects.”
Mullenweg responded to these comments, defending WordPress.com’s efforts in fending off early WordPress competitors and cited Automattic’s preeminence in contributing back to core, despite taking in less revenue than some larger companies making money from the software:
Since its foundation, .org has benefitted from the branding and reputation of having a robust SaaS version available from .com, including a free version, something basically no other host does. Over 200M people have used it, and countless started on .com and then migrated to another host. The shared branding made it very difficult for services like Typepad to compete. You want to see what WP would look like without it? Go to Joomla.
.com has also been the source of countless performance improvements, we deploy pre-release versions of core to millions of sites to find bugs and do testing, making WP releases way more stable for regular users and hosts. No company contributes more, even though many make more from WP than .com’s revenue. It would have been way easier to fork the software, not merge MU. Most hosts (and many community members) bad-mouth .com while not contributing a fraction back to core. Hosts spend tens of millions a year on ads against .com. I get attacked constantly.
In 2010, when the WordPress Foundation was created, Automattic transferred the WordPress trademarks to the Foundation, after having been the temporary custodian of the trademarks until that time. As part of the transfer, the Foundation granted Mullenweg use of the WordPress trademark for WordPress.com.
This trademark was deliberately secured, and the company does not appear to be open to renaming the platform. This doesn’t mean WordPress.com can’t do anything to mitigate the confusion that scraping the WordPress.org plugin directory creates. Participants in the discussion suggested that WordPress.com forego indexing the pages they created for plugins that developers submitted to the open source project.
“You can control SEO by telling search engines to not index those pages of open source software developed for .org on the .com domain,” WordPress plugin developer Marco Almeida said.
“I have 20 free plugins on the repository and I don’t see how my plugins will benefit if we open this pandora box and normalize cloning these pages and diluting the WordPress.org importance on search engines.”
Developers who are just now discovering their WordPress.org plugins cloned to WordPress.com listings are also wanting to know how many of their installs come from WordPress.com so they can better understand their user bases. Mullenweg suggested developers who want a different listing for WordPress.com users can sign up for the .com marketplace.
Tensions remained high as the heated discussion continued throughout the day and into the evening with criticism flowing across X (Twitter), Post Status Slack, and other social channels, as many developers learned for the first time that their plugin listings have been cloned on WordPress.com. As long as a commercial entity shares the open source project’s branding, these types of clashes and friction will continue popping up.
“Personally, I can’t help but empathize with plugin authors that chose to support OSS and find the directory cloned in a commercial service, albeit free, with no access to stats,” Francesca Marano said. “As I mentioned before, the main issue is the confusion around the two projects.”