WordPress.org Removes Active Install Growth Data for Plugins

Over the weekend, WordPress.org meta contributors removed the active install growth charts for plugins, a key metric that many developers and a handful of services rely on for tracking. “Insufficient data obfuscation” is the cryptic reason cited for the charts’ removal, but the decision-making process was not transparent.

In a ticket titled “Bring back the active install growth chart,” RebelCode CEO Mark Zahra contends that this data is useful for gaining a long-term perspective on a plugin’s changes in installs.

“These stats are actually very useful for plugin developers and it’s really and truly one of the only indications of the growth or decline of a plugin over time,” Zahra said. “These graphs at least give us an idea of the performance of a plugin before and after we make certain changes, helping us get a better idea of how helpful they are for WordPress users.”

Plugin developers were left to speculate on the reasons for the removal and took to the #meta Slack channel in search of more information. Feedback from plugin developers indicates this was an unpopular decision and a failure of communication.

“I want to echo disappointed in that chart being removed,” Equalize Digital CEO Amber Hinds said. “I hope we’ll hear something soon. In an ideal world this commit should be rolled back pending community discussion.”

Zach Tirrell, product manager at Liquid Web, said, “We get very limited metrics from the plugin directory and this one was very important to plugin authors.”

WordPress Executive Director Josepha Haden-Chomphosy joined the discussion in the channel but had very little information to offer about why this change was made without any public discussion.

“The data shared is always a bit obfuscated so that it’s harder to ‘game the system’—the same reason we don’t have running leaderboards for contributions,” Haden-Chomphosy said.

“Suggestions are welcome for how to get some data for you all while doing our best to stick with a ‘co-opetition‘ mindset.”

Co-opetition is a term coined to meld the concepts of cooperation and competition to create a system where different vendors cooperate for the benefit of the system while still competing. Haden-Chomphosy did not elaborate but it seems that obfuscating data had been deemed a necessary sacrifice for the sake of co-opetition.

Audrey Capital-sponsored meta contributor Scott Reilly, who committed the change, said “the implementation made it possible to deduce the stats we were looking to obfuscate.”

Not all plugin authors agree that these stats need to be obfuscated, nor do opaque decisions like this one inspire trust in those who are cutting off access to the data.

“The real data exists,” Yoast founder Joost de Valk said. “Automattic is one of the companies buying plugins and has access to the exact data and now even more than before, others do not.

“The whole coopetition nonsense is all interesting, but I would say this is an unfair advantage. Literally every other open source system out there just opens these numbers publicly, and so should we.”

It has still not been confirmed whether this decision was rooted in a security issue, but de Valk and others are imploring WordPress.org’s decision makers to bring the data back until a suitable alternative in available. Participants on the ticket have also urged WordPress’ leadership to open a discussion with the plugin developer community about what would data would help them in the creation of an alternative.

“Thank you for the feedback, and I do realize that there were a number of third party commercial and free services scraping these data en masse and using it,” Matt Mullenweg commented on the ticket.

“If someone has reasons to bring it back that haven’t been presented above already, please add it to this thread so we have the best possible presentation of that side of the argument to consider.”

After a 10-month hiatus from his WP Trends newsletter, Iain Poulson returned today with an issue titled “Second-Class Third-Party Developers” that identifies this clawback of active install growth data as “a symptom of the wider issue that WordPress doesn’t really want to support third-party developers who build freemium plugins.”

“Because of this, the data insights for developers is severely lacking and it’s one of the reasons I created Plugin Rank and why other solutions like wpMetrics exist and both will be impacted by this change. That’s not to say other platforms and marketplaces are perfect, but they don’t seem to work against developers like WordPress.org does. As a plugin developer trying to grow a business, data is everything and the data from the directory is poor and requires a large overhaul to improve what is collected.”

Poulson contends WordPress.org could even go beyond the previously offered data and add new installs per day/month, how many existing sites updated per day/month, and the search terms leading to the download.

“Freemium Plugin developers shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens in the ecosystem,” Poulson said. “Even developers with just free plugins should be able to see decent statistics. There’s no incentive to keep developing plugins if you don’t know people are using them.”

Beyond the lack of meaningful data for developers who are trying to monitor the trajectory of their free plugins, the non-transparent decision from the meta team seems to be the greater issue at hand for many participants in the resulting discussions. The sting of another closed-door decision cannot easily be explained away with a fancy portmanteau that promotes cooperation without adequate communication.

If plugin developers cannot be trusted to act “co-opetively” with this data, will WordPress continue collecting it? Who has private access to it? Why weren’t alternatives explored before silently removing access? These questions need to be answered in the process of finding a way forward for improving plugin data after this decision.

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