Free WordPress Themes Are Stunning, Awesome, Impressive, So Why Buy One?

Blogs such as this one are about one thing: creating an audience to sell to. And to do that you need posts that get traffic.

The analytics for the first six months of 2014 for this blog throw up some interesting results, interesting dilemmas and a key question.

Are those that write about WordPress driving the free mentality of WordPress users by continuously telling readers how great, awesome, super, impressive and stunning free is?

The WPMU DEV blog is one of the most popular covering the WordPress domain.  Not surprisingly, we always keep an eye on the performance of our content but I was curious about the wider picture: which are the super-performing posts, are there any commonalities across them and what implications might this have for me as a WordPress blogger, the blog itself and perhaps the wider WordPress community.

So, I took a look at the last 6 months of data, a period that saw 286 posts published (a rough average of 3 posts every 2 days), taking the total for the site past the 4,000 mark.

There were 4.8 millions visits to the blog (2.9 million uniques) which generated 8.2 million page views – an average of well over a million per month.

Organic search is our dominant traffic search, some 83% of visits originating pretty much exclusively from Google.

2 Pie charts showing traffic sources and social media traffic sources

Search dominates as a traffic source whilst Facebook is most important social media source

The social media traffic is not as significant as might be expected given that WPMU DEV has reasonable followings on Facebook (30,765), Google+ (24,993) and Twitter (21,976), accounting for a mere 3.5% of traffic.

Facebook accounts for 32.5% of social traffic, Twitter 21% and the next most significant contributor (19% of social traffic) is WPMU DEV’s dashboard feed that gets added to a customer’s site when the WPMU DEV dashboard plugin is installed. Google+ was a disappointing 10% of the social traffic.

The raw numbers are all well and good but this is a blog, it’s about content, so how did the content perform?

The Top 100 Posts

Here’s the top 100 posts for the first 6 months of 2014 plotted by page view rank.

Bar graph of the page views for the top 100 posts showing a near perfect long-tail pattern
A near perfect long-tail of the page views for the top 100 posts

This, almost perfect, long-tail graph is a little unexpected but then perhaps the popularity of blog posts should be no different to the classic example of books (although, of course, there’s no cost – only time – in reading a post).

These top 100 posts account for 13% of traffic to the blog, leaving 87% spread across the remaining 4,000-odd posts.

What can be clearly seen is that the top post is the most popular by a significant margin and has almost 15 times the traffic of the 100th most popular post. What is even more impressive about the top post is that it wasn’t published until March 5th.

Not that all the top performing posts are those written recently. Those 286 posts published in 2014 are only responsible for 9.6% of the total page views for the period (in fact this is fairly consistent on a month-to-month basis), so over 90% of traffic is to the blog’s extensive back catalogue just showing that patience in this game is a definite virtue.

Absolute numbers are only half the story, though. Whilst an obvious goal of the blog is to create the audience for WPMU DEV to put its own products in front of, what that audience is coming to read and engage with is equally important.

What Are Visitors Reading?

Here’s a tag cloud, for terms appearing more than once, constructed from the titles from the top 100 posts:

Tag cloud made from the top 100 post titles
Free WordPress Themes and Plugins dominates the titles of the top 100 posts

This nicely illustrates the top terms: wordpress, plugins, themes and free which appeared in 97, 38, 32 and 27 titles respectively.

Interestingly, best and top frequently featured fairly frequently.

The tag cloud for the top 20 posts is even more pronounced:

Tagcloud made from the top 20 post titles
Free WordPress Themes Plugins are even more dominant in the top 20 posts

Out of the 20 post titles, wordpress appeared in all but 1, themes appeared in 15, free in 12 and plugins in 5.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

It’s What’s Being Searched For, Not Read

With so much of the blog’s traffic coming from organic search, these figures are very much a reflection of the terms and topics that WordPress users, or potential users, are searching for.

To a large extent, this becomes self-perpetuating as new articles will often be based on analysis of site traffic and search queries and trying to attract traffic by matching popular search terms.

Free WordPress Themes Are Dominant

Screengrab of the Google search results for free wordpress themes
This is where the traffic is – WPMU DEV’s top post is the first non wordpress.org entry

This is perhaps the most depressing conclusion from a blogger’s perspective: 15 of the top 20 posts were about themes, 12 of them about free themes.

Apart from the often mind-numbing nature of putting these sorts of posts together, it’s easily the most competitive subject matter in the WordPress blogging market and you’ll often see ridiculous length lists of anything up to 375+ themes (see above screenshot)!

Whilst we don’t go to that extreme – we’re not part of any affiliate programs after all – we do plenty of theme lists here on WPMU DEV, because despite their seemingly low substance they bring in the traffic in often large numbers.

Whilst it might be depressing to spend days on a post only to see it get a 1/5 of the traffic of a theme list post written several months ago – that is the reality.

Traffic Or Interaction, But Not Both

Whilst there’s always the odd exception (the review of Twenty Fourteen, and the subsequent “how to fix” are good performers), as a blogger you have to accept that you can either have traffic or meaningful interaction but rarely both.

Lists will build traffic but its very shallow; an in-depth tutorial will get the interaction but a fraction of the traffic. Lists also won’t help with reputation which is obviously a key aim for any blogger.

A balance is ideal but requires time and patience. On WPMU DEV any new author is extremely fortunate to be able to stand on the shoulders (and no doubt sweat and tears) of literally dozens of previous authors who have built up that bank of content that generates close to a million views a month, every month.

Free Is A Dilemma

It’s difficult though no to come to the conclusion that free is an incredibly important word in the WordPress community. Twelve of the top 20 posts had free in the title; that’s what WordPress users are searching for.

This has repercussions for any commercial organisation in the WordPress domain that’s trying to get noticed because the big search numbers are inextricably linked to that word.

For WPMU DEV it’s a dilemma. A single post having 160,000 page views in 6 months is certainly a cause for celebration but what is it actually worth? How do you sell to visitors who arrive on your site having searched for free this or free that?

More generally, though, what does a focus on free do to the commercial WordPress market in general? The Catch-22 is we know that free brings in the traffic but the more we write about free potentially the more we undermine the willingness of users to pay, or even look beyond a free alternative.

If we keep telling users just how awesome, stunning or great a free theme or plugin is, why would they ever feel that they need to pay for a premium version? By going for traffic are we chipping away at the various business models that keep blogs like this afloat? Are we, the bloggers, effectively biting the hand that feeds us?

Have looked at our analytics and thought about the consequences I find myself asking do users search for free WordPress stuff because that’s what we write about or do we write about it because that’s what users search for? My feeling is that it’s probably the latter (perhaps in self-defence or perhaps self-denial) but if that’s the case, do blogs like this have an obligation to take a breather every now and then in chasing traffic to try and educate users?

It’s a philosophical chicken-and-egg that I’m just too busy to think about right now. I’ve got a The 25 Best Free WordPress Themes and Plugins Ever list post to finish…

What do you think? Are blogs like this inadvertently driving the free mentality of WordPress users by frequently telling readers how great, awesome, super, impressive and stunning the free alternatives are?