The WordPress Plugins Repository is a truly special place. For WordPress users, it is an enormous resource, offering up an unprecedented depth of functionality via its tens of thousands of plugins. For developers, it offers a quick and efficient way to expose your plugins to the masses.
And yet, it is not perfect. That much became clear to me as I contacted a whole host of talented WordPress plugin developers. Although they were all unanimous in their admiration of the repository, they were also all keen to point out ways in which they feel it could be improved upon.
In this article, I want to focus on the suggestions made by the plugin developers I contacted. Collectively, I think that they represent a much brighter future for the plugins repository, and I am hoping that many of their suggestions will ultimately be adopted.
Great blogs have a way of sucking you into their content in such a way that it is very difficult to leave.
With effective interlinking, related and most popular posts widgets and other such devices, a reader can quickly find that they have multiple browser tabs open.
The plugins repository does not offer up that same kind of “tab proliferation” experience. There are few devices to take a user from one plugin to another, to another. Sure – we can use tags, but if you have ever tried browsing through plugins via tags, you might understand why doing so isn’t a great option. You can also click on a developer’s name to browse through other plugins they have developed. However, there is no real overt attempt to “cross-promote” plugins, as you would always seek to do with blog posts.
Both Lester Chan, with over 7 million plugin downloads to his name, and Duane Storey, a co-founder of Brave New Code, suggested that a “related plugins” area would be useful for end users. Logic dictates that if you are interested in one plugin, you might be interested in another with similar (or complimentary) functionality. Why not address that fact by showcasing related plugins?
Right now, it is too easy to miss the plugin you are trying to find because of a simple typo. I think that even simple improvements to the search algorithm would return better and more reliable results.
I couldn’t agree more. Whilst I’m not expecting Google-quality results (although that would be nice), I find the search functionality on WordPress.org to be inadequate at best.
On the other hand, Janet Aronica of Shareaholic has an alternate viewpoint when it comes to making plugins easy to find:
Before I worked at Shareaholic, I’d see a cool feature that I would love to add to my blog, but I wouldn’t know what it was called. But I would know it if I saw it. For a text-driven search service like the WordPress repository, how would I discover the plugin I needed? And how would even begin to know which one to trust? I actually don’t think the WordPress repository is going to change. It’s up to the plugin developers like Shareaholic, who create all-in-one solutions – content discovery, sharing and measuring tools all in one plugin – to earn the trust of their users and offer them more quality choices in one single plugin. We [i.e. the developers] have to be the ones that will solve the plugin discovery issues of the repository.
Ratings and Compatibility
When I asked James Laws of WP Ninjas for his thoughts on the plugins repository, he went as far to say that the ratings and compatibility features are “[de]void of any read value”. Whilst I think that might be a little strong, James went on to make a reasonable point:
The problem is that there is no accountability when someone makes these ratings. Users say something is broken simply because it doesn’t work in their particular setup, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes something else is broken in their setup, or they just don’t understand how to use the plugin properly.
The developers of the official Facebook plugin might be keen to back up James’ assertions, given their current rating and compatibility predicament. Whilst volume of ratings and compatibility might provide a more solid basis for judgment, many plugins never achieve the kind of volume that would lead to that situation. Is a plugin with five 5 star ratings really any better than one with none? What if the developer had got his friends and followers to blindly post those ratings?
Rob La Gatta of Modern Tribe offered up a suggestion as to how how we might be able to better gauge the quality of a plugin:
Number of downloads is cool, but the number of active copies is actual current/useful information. Too often plugins get downloads but aren’t actually sticking around on the site (or in some cases ever installed or used after installation to begin with). The information presented now is sort of deceiving, due to this.
The argument here is that plenty of people are actively using the plugin, it must offer something of substance.
Finally, Takayuki Miyoshi (developer of the enormously popular Contact Form 7 plugin) had a unique and interesting suggestion:
If I could do one thing to improve the WordPress.org Plugin Repository, I would make it a venue for donating to the developers and spotlighting the donators. [This would not only motivate] users to donate more, you could also use it to know the real reputation of plugins. Even if the plugin have not gained so many downloads yet, if many well-known donators have actually donated it, you can assume that it is a reliable plugin.
In theory this is a wonderful idea, although in practice, I wonder if enough donations would be made to make the system practically useful. The fact that the popular Widget Logic plugin has only received a few hundred pounds of charitable donations in several years highlights my concern.
Screenshots are very important when it comes to making the decision to download plugins. When I am browsing plugins, the screenshots are perhaps the most pivotal element in convincing me whether or not to download. As we have covered above, ratings and compatibility are somewhat flawed metrics, but screenshots give you a graphical representation of the functionality of a plugin.
With that in mind, Eric Mann suggested that screenshots be made mandatory. I am not however convinced that such a rule would benefit end users. We might find ourselves in a situation where people are just uploading a blank screenshot in order to meet the demand. It’s a shame, because I agree entirely with Eric’s sentiments.
So if we can’t enforce the usage of screenshots, perhaps we can make them more integral? Jason Amunwa of Digital Telepathy had the following to say on the topic of screenshots:
Screenshots play a crucial part in the decision of whether or not to install a particular plugin, but they’re relegated to a “Screenshots” tab, and embedded inline in the content. If you want to expand them, you have to view them on a dedicated page, instead of a lightbox or (biased answer alert) a slider.
It’s a fair point – in my opinion, screenshots should be featured more prominently. It is the tab I almost immediately flick to when I am checking out a plugin.
Support is getting better and better on WordPress.org, especially with the introduction of at-a-glance support thread resolution in the sidebar:
However, more can always be done. Rob La Gatta had an excellent suggestion when it came to improving the support system:
From a support perspective, it would be nice if people got some kind of credit for being moderators for their own plugin. When I’m hitting a batch of support threads and helping users out I should not be showing as a “Member” just like they do. That’s confusing for both that user (who is this guy helping me? Can he be trusted?) and to anyone else coming in to review the thread after. A simple “Plugin Author” or “Plugin Support” title for users supporting their own plugins would go a long way. Along these same lines, it’d also be nice to see how many times someone has posted into that plugin’s forum – to also help users better gauge their importance/trustworthiness.
To me, this is plain common sense, and would offer a far better support experience for the developer and end user.
Rob also commented that better statistics regarding upgrades and WordPress versions would be helpful:
It would be nice to see how many users are new downloads versus updates from previous builds. For a plugin author, knowing how many people actually upgrade and what version of WordPress they’re running would be very helpful in knowing your users and improving the product down the road.
The plugins repository is already a great environment for the publishing of plugins, but if the responses I received from plugin developers was anything to judge by, there is room for improvement.
Dale Mugford, the co-founder of Brave New Code, made the following suggestion:
I would like to see the ability for people to submit patches directly on the repository page itself. Keeping in line with the community around WordPress.org, it would be great to see the ability for more collaboration and user participation in improving the plugins available on the repository.
Donncha O Caoimh would like to give endusers a clearer opportunity to work with development versions of plugins:
[I’d like it to be] easier for users to grab the development version of a plugin. I ask users of WP Super Cache to use that version all the time and I had to create a page that answered the most common questions about it. There is a link to the ZIP file on the Developers page, but when someone uses that version it’s not clear to them that they are. The version number is the same, for example. It would be great if WordPress detected that a bleeding edge development version of a plugin was installed and warned the user.
Finally, Rob La Gatta had three brief develop-centric improvement suggestions:
- Moving it over to GIT.
- Allow a readme outside of the current tag.
- The option to change slugs or remove plugins you own.
What Do YOU Think?
First of all, thank you to all of the plugin developers who took the time to respond to my question and offer up their opinion.
As you can see, they are all keen to see the plugins repository improved in a number of ways. But what is your opinion? What improvements do you think should be made? Let us know in the comments section!