The popular themes page on the WordPress theme directory usually displays a mix of default themes and those that meet a certain criteria. While the criteria to reach the page is not publicly known, download counts are one form of measurement.
Since September, the Swift theme has routinely shown up on the popular themes page. According to download stats, Swift was downloaded between, 2,000 to 3,500 times a day in September and early October.
However, the stats drop off abruptly on October 15th and have yet to reach previous levels. On October 18th, a few members inside the Theme Review Team Slack channel shared suspicions that something was not right with Swift’s download stats.
Ionut Neagu discovered that Swift does not appear on the GoDaddy Hot 100 while other themes on the popular page do. While not conclusive, the evidence points towards some sort of anomaly.
Samuel ‘Otto’ Wood, who helps maintain WordPress.org looked at the raw data for Swift and discovered that a lot of the downloads appeared to be automated.
The swift theme is indeed getting an exceptional number of downloads, so I took a closer look at the raw data. It appears that a lot of these downloads are automated in some way. However, there’s no evidence that it is malicious, nor does the pattern apply only to the swift theme. Perhaps it is included in some installer system that auto-downloads themes for newly installed sites. It’s hard to say.
In any case, I made a way to detect and block these types of automated downloads from appearing in the stats, and retroactively applied it for the last three days of data (which is all we retain). Going forward, automated downloads will not appear as downloads and will not affect the popular listings.
Once the changes were implemented, Swift’s download stats significantly decreased. The changes also apply to all other themes hosted on the directory. Otto declined to comment on the specific changes made but tells the Tavern, “If we can detect a case where downloads aren’t being made by users, then we will try not to count it in the results.”
Swift’s Side of the Story
Satish Gandham, founder of Swiftthemes, explains what Swift has gone through the last few weeks which may account for the high download numbers, “Swift was featured for a couple of days and we spent money on Facebook ads to promote the free version. Also, there were a couple of hosted WordPress providers who asked permission to include Swift on their platform.
“The premium version of Swift also had the same slug URL as the free version. The WordPress theme directory saw v7.2.48 to be higher than 7.2.6 and premium users downgraded to the free version thinking it was an upgrade. It was a support nightmare,” Gandham tells the Tavern.
Swift’s support forums confirm that some customers of the commercial version were automatically updated to the free version in early August.
Download Counts are Almost Irrelevant
When the plugin directory was redesigned earlier this year, download counts were removed in favor of active installs. Active installs are more accurate and difficult to manipulate. On the other hand, when the theme directory was redesigned, download counts remained.
It’s possible that the theme directory will one day show active installs but the data gathering aspect is not ready yet. Also, the numbers are lower for themes than for plugins, which may lead to incorrect conclusions in regards to relative popularity.
It Happens More Than You Might Think
In this particular instance, there’s no evidence that points to a malicious intent to inflate stats to manipulate the popular themes page. In the years I’ve written about WordPress, I’ve heard rumors that certain plugins and themes automate their download counts to appear more popular than they really are. However, I’ve yet to write about a theme or plugin caught in the act.
According to Otto, it happens more often than you might think. When he or other volunteer moderators for the plugin and theme directories notice fishy download counts, they contact the author and the process usually stops. If it continues, the author risks having their themes and plugins suspended or banned from the directory.
If you notice suspicious activity with a theme hosted on WordPress.org, you can voice your concern in the Theme Review Slack channel during non-meeting times. For suspicious activity related to plugins hosted on the directory, email plugins at WordPress.org.