Is Deceptive Marketing Ruining WordPress’ Reputation?

  Introduction
The marketing strategies and tactics being used across WordPress businesses have changed over the years, but it's not all positive. We've seen one-time payments evolve into subscriptions and renewal discounts have been phased out. But, as some folks in the WordPress community have pointed out, there are some questionable marketing tactics growing in popularity, and it's a shame.
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Table of contents

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.

MasterWP’s coverage of pricing strategies in WordPress is just one example.

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.

Not to mention the legal aspect. Just read this article on eCommerce law regarding fictitious pricing through perpetual sales.

Various countdown timers from WordPress plugin pricing pages.
These countdown timers don’t appear to be genuine since they restart every time you visit the page in a fresh browser, relying on browser cookies to know whether you’re a new visitor or not.

Rob Howard at MasterWP is researching more into this topic and is covering these strategies and the tech behind them in more detail over the coming weeks, so I suggest you follow his work.

Do these countdowns actually work? Apparently so. From some private conversations that I’ve had, I found out that removing the countdown timer or perpetual sale resulted in a dip in sales.

Whether that was coincidental or not, we won’t know since no one has run a proper test and revealed their results. I assume that if they’re sticking to it, it works.

#2 *Special introductory pricing, renewals are at full price

This phrase is commonplace on a WordPress product’s pricing page and we’ve seen it for many years on hosting providers’ pricing plans like the Bluehost example below.

Bluehost pricing plans.
Bluehost has offered this kind of discount on their pricing plans for many years, clearly showing that the renewal price will increase in the future.

There’s nothing wrong with it as such. If you’re disclosing the condition clearly and making it fair to your customers, it can be a good way to increase revenue from year two onwards.

The problem arises when companies do their best to either make the condition visually missable on the page or in some rare cases, not show it at all.

Keep in mind that, psychologically, we’ve started to ignore these little notices and asterisks since, as consumers, we think they’re harmless or don’t want to waste time reading them. 

Think T&Cs. We just want to buy and move on. 

But the truth is that the customer will only get to know what’s going on in year two. 

By that point, they’ve invested quite a bit of time and money into this solution, so would it be worth switching to another solution and doing that work all over again? 

Probably not, so might as well pay a little extra and just get on with it.

Everyone wins, right?

#3 Questionnable recommendations

Content or SEO networks are not new. Google might not be a fan of them but they exist and they can be incredibly powerful. 

The idea is to build a network of websites that all link to each other, building up each others’ reputations. 

But this isn’t the problem. 

Although it may be frowned upon by Google, it’s effective. 

It has become the norm and Ellipsis has even written about the way Awesome Motive created their own self-perpetuating marketing machine which has worked wonders for them. 

The issue arises here. 

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. 

Smash Balloon alternatives according to their own blog post.
The top alternative recommendation? The actual plugin that the writer is listing alternatives for. How does that work?

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.

WordPress.org’s hosting recommendations have been a topic of discussion for as long as I can remember, and I don’t see that changing.

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.

The positive message around “community” is highlighted on the WordPress.org homepage, but some of the language used in other areas of the website doesn’t really match up.

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.

Notice how the “Add Plugins” page in the dashboard of a Siteground-hosted website is not the default one offered by WordPress. Siteground has built its own solution of some sort.

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.

The featured plugins chosen by WordPress.org.
Who makes the decision on which plugins to “feature”? Why are Automattic-owned products always given center stage?

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. 

Think Typeform. 

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.

Notice the link that appears in the browser when hovering over the badge at the bottom of a web page. At no point did I know or consent to that link.

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.

– – –

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.

Mark Zahra
Mark Zahra
CEO at RebelCode, the team behind WP Mayor, Spotlight Instagram Feeds for WordPress, and WP RSS Aggregator. Follow me on Twitter @markzahra to get my thoughts on running a WordPress business, product design, pricing, marketing, and more.
Mark Zahra
Mark Zahra
CEO at RebelCode, the team behind WP Mayor, Spotlight Instagram Feeds for WordPress, and WP RSS Aggregator. Follow me on Twitter @markzahra to get my thoughts on running a WordPress business, product design, pricing, marketing, and more.
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12 Responses

  1. Something awful will happen soon.

    Almost every recent core and plugin update added undesirable features – or removed feature.

    So people ask me to block all updates.

    1. Hi Mitchell, is it your clients that are asking you to block all updates?

      Updates are necessary to keep projects moving forward, but making sure they don’t make breaking changes, at least without warning, is very important.

      Are there any WordPress features or plugins in particular that have been the most troublesome for you lately?

  2. Very, very good post (and comments) 👏 Thankyou!

    Succinctly puts together a lot of the things that float through my head on a daily basis.

    The sad fact of the matter, though (and as you say), is that these methodologies *do* work (for a lot of reasons, google being one of them), and so it’s really hard to compete in the market without resorting to them… so it screws the market 🙁

    1. Thank you, James.

      A lot of people have reached out with that same sentiment in the past week.

      It does screw the market. Although the business’ reputation within the industry starts to get tarnished, the end-user has practically no knowledge of it at the end of the day, so the business wins.

  3. Well, there is more than this. I see Boldgrid bundles installed on hostings, Any plugin offered by Awesome Motive install extra plugins because they are already checked by default with getting started window. I see multiple client sites where they install one plugin and got 2-3 plugins extra installed. When i ask them, do you use this plugin, they say NO.

    I have already lost faith in these big guys.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Aryan. What does Boldgrid install by default? Are they also not used or required by your clients at all?

      Guiding users, especially new ones, is a great idea, but there needs to be context to it, not just random recommendations.

      1. Dreamhost comes with pre-installed boldgrid themes and plugins, also inmotion if i remember which most of use not use. I don’t remember but there are services that have wpforms pre-installed too, maybe siteground.

        1. Pre-installing or recommending plugins and themes is a really good idea IF it’s contextualized. Let the user tell you what they want to do and then recommend the best solutions for that job. Throwing in tools just for the sake of it or because of a marketing agreement is ruining the experience for everyone involved.

  4. The licensing and pricing of most WordPress software products (plugin and themes) is delusional anyway. No matter what they say, they all inherit a legal obligation to protect your GPL freedoms. Any restrictions they place upon their code and how you can use it (nonsense such as per-site licensing) contravene an inescapable contract they agreed to the minute they decided to build upon and benefit from the work of others.

    If a vendor of GPL-licensed code uses dishonest marketing tactics, or becomes predatory in their pricing, they clearly feel contempt for their customers. No problem. In that situation, users with self-respect should not hesitate to find one of the many, many other reliable sources of that code.

    The primary benefits you get by buying from the original vendor are:

    A) In theory, you support the further development of the product

    B) In theory, you gain access to knowledgeable support if you should happen to need it.

    The code is not what you are actually paying for and you remain free, always, to get it elsewhere. That is not only 100% legal but is actually the whole point of the GPL. There is no piracy in WordPress. The entire WordPress industry would be more competitive, more honest, more innovative, more fun, and far healthier if more users understood this core reality.

    1. Always good to have you back on WP Mayor, Donnacha!

      You bring up a good point that hasn’t been discussed in a while. I myself still struggle to really understand how the GPL should actually apply to premium plugins and themes in WordPress specifically. There has never, to my knowledge, been someone from the WordPress team who has come out and explained how things should actually be.

  5. I don’t think I agree with “If your product really is good enough, you’ll win anyway”.

    I think you need a good product and strong/competitive marketing and sales efforts.

    Eg I’m sure all of the most popular page builders are good, but I bet the ones who do the most marketing make the most sales, even if they’re not necessarily the best.

    It’s an arms race! And if as you say, the pie is shrinking, or not getting bigger then its only going get even more competitive and aggressive.

    We’d need a joint agreement from everyone to drop the shady marketing at the same time. Otherwise if just a few companies do, the ones that don’t will eat their lunch.

    I guess maybe it’s WordPress moving out of the open source mindset and into the capitalist era where anything goes in the pursuit of profit! It’s a shame but was probably inevitable.

    Maybe ethical marketing is possible but I’m sure those doing the shady stuff have the data to show what they’re doing is more effective.

    1. To clarify this… “If your product really is good enough, you’ll win anyway”

      What I was referring to there is the lack of disclosure. Yes, promote your own product as hard as you can, I completely agree, but be honest about it. In the example that I was referencing with that quote, there was no need for that article to be written in the first place.

      I tend to agree that WordPress has moved into a capitalistic era and I don’t see it coming back any time soon. As we’ve mentioned, there’s too much money at stake at the end of the day.

      A joint agreement is a wonderful thought, but it will remain just that and we all know it.

      With the way things are going, in the next year or two, we’ll quickly find out whether sticking to only “nice guy” marketing works or not. I definitely know of a few examples that are managing right now, so I hope that we get to see them thrive by just doing things their way.

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