One of the most controversial companies in the WordPress ecosystem is Envato, the company that owns the theme and template marketplace, ThemeForest.
ThemeForest’s best selling product category is WordPress themes, and they are a behemoth in this space. As Envato’s blog states: “In September 2014, ThemeForest was the 88th most trafficked website in the world (according to Alexa.com), at the time ahead of Netflix.”
But in a poll run by Jeff Chandler of WPTavern.com, only twenty-eight percent of respondents said “ThemeForest is a great place to find a variety of good looking themes.” Fifty percent said “it is a marketplace with good looking themes but are poorly coded.” And twenty-two percent said “stay as far away as possible.”
So, did Envato find a hole in the marketplace, and build a business to provide customers what they want? And are all the developers who complain about it just whining? Or is ThemeForest really a marketplace for bad themes?
Like many things, the answer is not a simple yes or no. So let me present both sides of the argument.
The case for ThemeForest
Here are the arguments in support of ThemeForest.
1. ThemeForest gives consumers what they want
It’s become rather apparent from ThemeForest’s success that most consumers love what ThemeForest provides: inexpensive themes that provide everything they need to build an entire website, in an easy-to-browse interface.
An article on BlogEx explains exactly how ThemeForest solved the issue in the theme marketplace. If you do a Google search for WordPress themes, you’ll see an endless list of free and premium themes. For new WordPress users, this endless list is extremely overwhelming. How do they know what theme to pick?
On ThemeForest, however, they can browse through thousands of themes, all from different theme developers or companies, organized by different industries, with reviews and comments. It makes theme shopping easy than ever.
As Ren Ventura stated on EngageWP, “For new and novice WordPress users, Themeforest seems to be a gold mine. Why wouldn’t it? It’s got thousands of themes that look nice and incorporate all types of functionality.”
2. It can be difficult to sell themes without being on ThemeForest
While Array’s decision “was not motivated by a lack of sales,” they did realize that ThemeForest is an important distribution channel. Array founder Mike McAlister said, “The thing is, ThemeForest dominates when it comes to market share. With all of the various avenues we tried, none came close to the reach or revenue that ThemeForest has provided in years past.”
But Array is an already established theme shop. Imagine a theme author who is brand new to the industry. It’d be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to try and sell themes without using ThemeForest.
Array also discusses trying to sell on other marketplaces, such as WordPress.com and Creative Market, and not seeing nearly the same success as on ThemeForest
While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it seems that if you want to sell themes nowadays, you need to be on ThemeForest.
The case against ThemeForest
I want to preface this argument by saying, this does not, by any means, apply to ALL themes and theme developers in ThemeForest; but it does apply to the majority of the ones I’ve worked with and that many other developers have worked with.
1. Poor coding practices
The number one issue that most of the WordPress community has with ThemeForest is that many of the themes on the marketplace have low quality code that does not adhere to industry best practices.
One of these practices is to separate themes and plugins. However, many themes within ThemeForest come bundled with a number of plugins, or include plugin functionality within the theme itself.
Sadly, this is one of the features that attracts many users to ThemeForest themes: you can pay $50 for an automotive theme that has a built-in slider, automotive listings, portfolios, and more.
Some people may say, “Oh, it’s just WordPress developers whining…give the people what they want!”
But there are many issues with this.
Foremost are security issues. WP Tavern noted that last September, many of the top selling themes on ThemeForest were affected by the Slider Revolution security vulnerability. WP Tavern notes: “This particular debacle was fueled by theme authors who were lax in patching their products, as well as Envato’s poor standards, which continue to allow authors to bundle plugins with themes.”
WP Tavern says that many of these security issues would be solved “If Envato required theme authors to adhere to industry best practices by clearly separating their theme and plugin products.”
On top of this, many themes on ThemeForest, by not adhering to industry best practices, cause issues with many other plugins. As Japh states on his blog, “The problem is essentially WordPress theme developers include code that removes or overrides core WordPress functionality that WordPress plugins may rely on.” This causes popular plugins like Gravity Forms to not work properly.
On top of all this information about coding practices, the most surprising statement comes from Slobodan Manic:
“There’s no way around it, some of the stuff sold at ThemeForest would never, ever make it into WordPress.org repository of free WordPress themes. Let me say that again: Some of the themes sold at Envato are not good enough to be given away for free.”
2. Data portability
The themes that are making the most money on ThemeForest are the ones that offer the most features. These are themes that are marketed as complete website solutions.
Many theme authors begin competing over who has the most features. So more and more features are built into their themes.
But by building these features within the theme, it creates an issue that Ren Ventura calls “Theme-Lock”:
“Theme lock occurs when a WordPress user cannot change his or her theme without gutting most of the site’s functionality. Once the theme is deactivated, it deactivates things like shortcodes and custom post types that were registered by the theme.”
Let’s say you purchase a theme that has a visual builder functionality built in to its interface. You create an entire website using this visual interface, which outputs shortcodes on to your page. Everything looks great.
But when you switch themes, none of those shortcodes work, as they were tied to the previous theme’s code. So all visual customizations you made are lost, unless you go back to the original theme.
You are now locked in to that theme.
3. Hurting the WordPress community
The issue of poor coding standards and lack of data portability may not seem like a huge issue for most consumers, until you take a step back.
Imagine a user who buys a theme from ThemeForest, sets it up on their site, and a month or two later, either runs into a security issue, or has problems moving their site to another theme.
For the average consumer, they don’t differentiate the WordPress core software, themes, and plugins as separate entities. To them, it’s all just WordPress. So if a theme is having issues, they see this as a WordPress issue.
As Slobodan Manic says, “when everything falls apart it’s WordPress they will blame. Who wants that to happen?”
These poorly coded themes hurt the entire WordPress ecosystem, as a whole. In one of my previous articles, I discussed how cheap themes from ThemeForest discourage end users from wanting to use WordPress anymore. If they have a bad experience using a poorly coded theme, why would they risk it with another theme? Remember…it’s all WordPress in their eyes.
How to improve ThemeForest
As Patrick Rauland says in his “ThemeForest Theme Case Study,”
“The real issue with ThemeForest isn’t that they always have crappy work it’s that there’s no incentive to create quality work. I’m sure there are authors who put out really high quality themes but unfortunately there really isn’t much of an incentive to do so. You could make more money by spending that extra time making a brand new theme and selling more. Standards be damned.”
Since many theme authors don’t have an incentive to create higher quality themes, Envato needs to step in and enforce more stringent rules regarding coding practices. They had made efforts to enforce higher quality coding standards, but as Justin Tadlock said, Envato was quick to start caving in to some of the complaints from its community of theme authors.
In my eyes, Envato and its authors look towards the short term profits they can rake in, rather than the long term gain, which can create a real issue when looking into the future.
Looking into the future
I don’t want ThemeForest to disappear. I think it’s a valuable asset to the WordPress community; but it does need to make some changes. It needs to up the quality of the themes it allows in its marketplace. It has the ability as the most powerful theme marketplace to lead these changes.
Yes, it may lead to a slight drop in revenue in the short term, but in the long term, it’ll build it as a stronger and better company, and improve the WordPress community overall.
I like the analogy Slobodan Manic uses. Right now, theme authors are adding more and more features that don’t belong in a theme, driven either by competition or customer demand. But what they are making is essentially a faster horse.
It won’t be long until someone comes along and builds a “car” (staying with that analogy).
A new marketplace may come along that only allows themes that follow industry best practices; and consumers may start purchasing from this new marketplace as they realize the importance of coding quality to their business.
Or, which may be even worse, so many consumers become disillusioned with WordPress because of the issues they are having, they may just leave WordPress all together for another CMS.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think about ThemeForest? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.