How not to advertise in WordPress Plugins

man standing on road infront of high-rise buildi

Ask most users what they hate most about what WordPress plugins do and they’ll say “banner ads”. Drill down further, though, and you’ll find that it’s any kind of advertising within WP Admin.

Used to up-sell an audience to a premium version of the product, it’s understandable. But what if it’s to a different product entirely? What if it’s a free one? Then it REALLY does get annoying, particularly when it’s outside of the individual plugin’s pages and is splashed across the whole of WP Admin.

In this post I’m going to show some examples of behaviours, what the issue is, and suggestion some alternatives for developers as well.

Advertising within the WordPress dashboard should be avoided, as it is generally ineffective. Users normally only visit settings pages when they’re trying to solve a problem. Making it harder to use a plugin does not generally encourage a good review, and we recommend limiting any ads placed therein. Detailed Plugin Guidelines

This is advice only, so no action is taken about those who do it, even those that abuse it.

There are 2 areas that we normally see advertising…

  1. Admin notices (which is what most people refer to as “banner ads”)
  2. Within the plugin’s settings page

And there’s a 3rd that I saw recently too, which is injecting your ad specifically into the settings page of a rival plugin…

I found the code in the plugin that did this and, yes, it was identifying certain other plugins and then adding its own banner to them. And this IS against the guidelines and the plugin was reported as a result.

But, ignoring the banner, the screenshot above is a good example. This plugin only has one setting – an API key. Some of what you see on the screen, other than that field, is help (the bottom right section), but this should be tucked away in the top-right under a Help tab, as you’ll see in most other screens. The rest of the page content is advertising, including the line under the “Save Changes” button.

How many times will this be seen? Probably once, when the API key is entered.

All of that text makes, what should be a simple screen, cluttered and confusing. Is it worth that one shot of advertising? And, let’s remember, it’s to an admin, not necessarily the person holding the proverbial “purse strings”.

Banner Advertising

But, back to banner ads. There are levels of annoying that they can be and I think, during testing, I hit the mother lode…

I had 3 plugins installed by the same developer and, as a result, each put up a near-identical advertising banner. Each is big and each is promoting, not an up-sell for what I have installed, but other free plugins of theirs.

Oh, and you can only dismiss them for 12 months. This is against the spirit of the guidelines (which say it should be dismissible but don’t explicitly say it has to be for all time) but the plugin review team doesn’t have the resources to do anything about this one. But that’s fine, as it adds an extra level of annoyance to these banners which will piss off users even further.

This is how NOT to do it.

Menu advertising

Here’s another way that advertising often takes place with a plugin – in the menus…

As long as this isn’t being used to support an unnecessary menu then it’s not too bad (and I’d argue the above example is being used in this way – which is frustrating but not as bad as a massive banner).

Update: Plugin recommendations

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, so I’d forgotten about the ability to inject your own recommendations into a plugin search…

And some people weren’t happy to learn this.

But it was discussed in 2019 when Jetpack did the same thing. Indeed, the Plugins Review team discussed it again briefly last year when it was asked if this was “hijacking” WP Admin…

Using a filter WP core has, so people can show off their other plugins, instead of making their own messy calls back, is what I consider appropriate placement, not hijacking.


Needless to say, discussion on WP Tavern, as well as Remkus’ only response to it above, shows this is really not liked. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be, and this is a perfect example of product placement that nobody likes other than the people adding them in.

And here’s a second example of something similar, but not quite the same.

The plugin Duplicate Post suddenly added a new “feature” to their plugin recently…

Can you see anything unusual about my recommended plugins screen? It’s the same on the plugin search as well. Next to each is a “Try it first” button – clicking on it takes you to a third party site which spins up a temporary WordPress site with that plugin installed. That third party site is linked to the plugin developer but, otherwise, shares no functionality with what the plugin is supposed to be doing.

It was raised on Twitter, and even with the Plugin Reviews team. They assumed good intentions, and that the button was only supposed to appear next to their plugins. Mika even told them what code to change. They then pushed out a new version… which did the same thing BUT had the feature turned off by default. Go into the settings, turn it on and, yep, the same button against every plugin listing.

As it’s now off by default, it’s not breaking any guidelines (and, let’s remember, they are just that as well – guidelines, not rules) but it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth. It’s obvious the developers did this on purpose to push another product of theirs.

What’s the answer?

If you’re trying to promote other plugins, particularly unrelated, free ones, then I don’t have much of an answer for you. Whatever you do is going to be annoying to any other users and, let’s be honest, advertising isn’t necessary, so why do it?

But, for when you want to up-sell premium features? You have a business to run and need to promote your product, so it’s necessary. But, actually, I find the best method is to actually show users what they’re missing. For example, if it adds extra options, show those options in your settings pages, albeit blanked out with an obvious but unobtrusive indicator that it’s premium only. So, when somebody goes looking for a specific feature, they’ll see it’s available but they need to use the premium version to get it. They’ll also see, at a glance, what else it gives you.

Of course, not all features are visible through settings screens and I accept that. I equally accept that there’s not always an answer to not advertising through the methods I mentioned – it’s inevitable. But, if you do, be aware of how it will look to users. Yes, they might prompt some extra sales but how many other potential customers are put off by it? Do it if you need to, but be good about it.

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