Yesterday, the featured themes page was quietly removed from the WordPress theme directory. Previously, it was the primary page users would see when visiting the directory. It has now been replaced with the popular themes list. This change is only reflected on the WordPress.org website and not directly in the WordPress admin for end-users.
This is the first major change with the featured list since it was switched to a randomized set of themes in 2014. Over the past six years, volunteers have presented numerous ideas on what to do with the page that is, in many ways, the face of WordPress, particularly for new users who are searching for their first theme. No proposal has gone beyond a Trac ticket with a handful of participants or a theme review team meeting. It is almost as if every idea was dead on arrival.
Removing the featured list altogether is not a simple matter of hiding the page on WordPress.org. There is an API endpoint that serves the list and core WordPress fetches themes directly from WordPress.org. Even if removed from the software, we would still be dealing with years of backward compatibility for older versions of WordPress. At this point, outright removal is not an ideal solution.
The commit note makes a point that hiding the page from the theme directory is only temporary. The idea is to eventually replace it with a properly-curated featured themes list.
However, such a proposal could languish for years. Given that we have suffered through six years of a randomly-generated list, it is unclear if anyone is motivated enough to push the project forward.
What Happened to the Curated Featured Themes List?
In October, the WordPress theme review team decided to create a system for a curated feature themes list. The initial plan was for the team representatives to work out the finer details and create a path forward. However, the idea seemed to fizzle out before it ever broke ground. There was little public mention of it after the excitement of the initial decision.
“It was really hard to come up with requirements that we wanted the themes to follow,” said Carolina Nymark, a TRT representative. “Like the keyboard navigation and skip link had to be added to the theme, and no upsell. That alone limited the possible themes to a selection that was too small.”
The idea for curated themes was that they would be the best of the best. Seemingly, that meant going above and beyond the standard requirements while being completely free of commercial interests. In hindsight, that level of scrutiny over the list may have been too tough of a sell. Curation does not necessarily have to strive for perfection. Uniqueness may provide more room for flexibility.
“We did not hold any meetings with votes because there were concerns that people would only root for their own theme, their friends’ themes, or even get paid to suggest themes,” said Nymark. “It would be too easy to game it for profit.” Such backdoor schemes have been trouble with previous programs in the team’s past.
The curated list based on their criteria would be too small to rotate regularly on the featured page. The team attempted to find other solutions. However, they were unsuccessful.
“It was a strain that we could not figure out a good solution where theme authors would be treated fairly,” said Nymark. “Then we had a video meeting with [Josepha Haden, Executive Director of WordPress] where she said that the TRT team representatives should not have to select the featured themes. And it stopped there.”
Ari Stathopoulos, a TRT representative, mentioned the elephant in the room that the team was not addressing. “There would be significant drama if the list was manually curated,” he said. “If it’s done by reps, then those who were not selected would accuse reps of favoring some themes. If it was done by a rotating committee, the same. Authors would rather believe that they are a victim of some conspiracy rather than believe their theme is bad.”
A curated themes list is still a possibility. It is unlikely the theme review team will be handling it directly anytime soon. If it does happen, it will likely be another party who makes the call and gets to be the bad guy.