Banned for affiliate links in a free WordPress theme

Not to be outdone by their recent 1 million active install celebration, Astra finds itself in some hot murky water.

The theme was recently suspended when the theme review team found affiliate links “cloaked” in buttons recommending other plugins. Friend of the show Ron Huereca shows us a code snippet of how they achieved this, and LayerWP hosted a short written interview with a member of the theme review team.

In today’s episode, I’ll share my take on the matter and where I’d love to see the theme repo move to for small product creators. You can read the theme guidelines cited in the episode, here.

Also mentioned in the episode:

Thanks to our sponsors

SearchWP & Gravity View for supporting the show! Please say thank you on Twitter!

Read the full transcript

Matt: (00:04)
This episode of the Matt report is brought to you by search and gravity more on them. Later in today’s episode, we’re talking about the recent Astro debacle of just some thoughts around WordPress monetization. What it’s like to be a product creator, a product maker in the WordPress space, especially in the year 2020, let’s dive right on in.

Matt: (00:29)
All right, everybody. Welcome back to the mat reports. It’s [inaudible] dot com slash subscribe to join that mailing list. For those of you that know they started a new job a couple of weeks ago over at Casto the makers of a seriously simple podcasting plugin. I’ll be the head or actually no, my official title is director of podcaster success. So I’m gonna help folks get their podcasts up and running over at Casos. If you’re thinking about starting a podcast yourself, send me an email, Matt at [inaudible] dot com and, uh, I guess some more videos up on the plugin Tut channel Tut, check out all of my WordPress plugin theme tutorials. I’m going to get into some no-code stuff that just, uh, those are the things that, that really excite me. So some know code stuff that’s in and around the WordPress space. So do check out that channel recently, a theme with over a million active installs, one of the most popular, the most installed and activated WordPress theme in the WordPress repo.

Matt: (01:34)
That is not a default WordPress theme. In other words, a theme that doesn’t ship with WordPress by default Astra was, uh, was removed from the repo briefly for something of, uh, going against the theme developer guidelines of by injecting affiliate code links or affiliate links within the code of, of the theme. They sort of cloaked it in a way where you didn’t really know when you hit upgrade. Um, on these recommended plugins that they mentioned six of them, that they were getting an affiliate commission. If, if you did decide to upgrade, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about this stuff. I’m sure you do as well. But first search WP search is today’s first sponsor of the show and they were a repeat sponsor. I really appreciate the support from the folks [email protected]. Looking if you’re building out a website, you’re building out, you know, what’s really popular now, of course, in this pandemic world that we live in, I’ve even thought about it.

Matt: (02:49)
Myself is to start up a new directory site for a particular niche in, in my local area. Right? If I built out a directory site, I wanted to search that content. Cause that’s generally what you do. Search WP is fantastic for that. It searches your eCommerce products, custom field content, custom database tables, PDFs, and documents. I mean, even though it’s the year 2020, and restaurants still use PDFs for menus, you know, you could start a directory service of all these restaurants. And if they’re still using PDs for menu, you could search those PDFs. You do short codes, you can do Gutenberg blocks. You can do taxonomy terms, post titles and contents. But the real shining feature in my opinion is if you’re running one of these content heavy sites and you do need great search, not only consortia BP, do that for you, but they give you stats.

Matt: (03:38)
They give you analytics around what people are searching for. And this is analytics. You’re not going to get from Google analytics. This is going to be analytics on your site. What people are searching for is going to help you make better decisions with the content that you’re producing. Again, if you’re a webmaster for a university and now people are searching for classes and they’re looking for certain, uh, things to download, you can get all of these insights from that. If you’re a publisher high content traffic site, uh, this is going to help you make better decisions. Search You can get [email protected]. It starts at $99 for one website for the year, 149 for the most popular plan. Check it out. Search Search say, thanks for supporting the show. Okay, so I’m going to take you over to a former, a former sponsor of the show.

Matt: (04:32)
Uh, in the past, Ron, Ron Eureka media, wrote up a piece. If you’re looking for exactly what Astra did from a technical, uh, view media, Iran highlights this in the code snippet, and he shows you exactly what they were doing in the functions file of Astra. And they’re filtering the upgrade buttons to these, to these plugins. And here are the plugins that they were recommending. They were recommending Ninja forms, uh, WP forms, this social uh, plugin, which I have not heard of before, uh, give WP. And, uh, of course HubSpot, and it’s your typical play, right? Like a theme. Doesn’t do everything, uh, you know, most notably like a contact form. So what do they do? They recommend these other contact forms. They’ve provided styles and, you know, allegedly some support probably for these, these types of plugins, these contact forms, uh, styled into the themes.

Matt: (05:35)
So it works and they say, Hey, we recommend this. And by the way, if you do go and buy this, we get a little kickback in the form of an affiliate link. Now the issue is if we take a look at the theme, a handbook here are things that they say in here, and this is what I want to pontificate on themes should not display quote, obtrusive, upselling themes are not allowed to have affiliate URLs or links. Okay? So that’s pretty clear. Themes are not allowed to have affiliate URLs or links. The one before that themes should not display an air quotes. That’s what I’m doing, air quotes, but it’s literally quoted in the article, obtrusive upselling.

Matt: (06:24)
And this is where I, this is where this whole thing from my perspective starts to fall apart. I get the affiliate URL is you can’t do that. But as a small product maker myself, now, I dabbled in themes. I didn’t even know how long ago, six, seven, eight years ago, you can actually still go and get the themes I add. Haven’t had a chance to really see how I can decommission these themes from being downloaded and installed. Cause they’re no longer supported the theme review process. Again, when I was doing it, it was tiring. There was a lot of friction. People were getting away with things and even most notably, if you think back to cyber chimps, there was a time in the, in the theme, repo, uh, annals of history that you could, you could review the most themes. And then if you were reviewer reviewing the most themes you could pick, which theme was featured on the landing page of And for many years, while I say many ways, maybe two years, this believe this is how long it lasted. And, uh, well, Trent from cyber chimps, again, this is just a business play said, well, I’m going to pay people to review themes. And then they will pick my theme as the top theme.

Matt: (07:52)
It’s always been that sort of wild West kind of way. I remember submitting themes to the repo. Uh, and you know, we had a theme that we created. You can still find it. I’m assuming journal was the name that I wanted to submit it with. Now, mind you, there were other names in the repo already that was like paper, you know, rock, you know, these names, right? And I said, well, most people want to write a blog. A lot of people consider this a journal. And if somebody was like, thinking, how do I start a journal with WordPress? Well, maybe that’s going to be in my advantage is see there’s people that think that’s wrong, but it’s not. It’s it’s meat. It’s marketing. It’s it’s promotion. It’s SEO. It’s this is how it works. And I submitted our theme called journal and it was denied. The name was too generic.

Matt: (08:45)
The name journal associated with a blogging platform was too generic. What more on that in a minute, let’s talk about our second sponsor gravity gravity it’s a page builder using gravity forms data. So if you’ve ever used gravity forms, a very powerful form builder, and you submit all this data, you know, people submit data into these forms and you know, days, months, years goes by you get all this data. You want to pull this data out, or maybe you want to create a directory with that data. We just talked about directories of search WP. Now, maybe you want to create a directory using all of that gravity forms data, but you’re not a developer. How do you pull that data out of your database and display it onto your website? Gravity will help you do that. Starting at 55 bucks, 55, a U S dollars.

Matt: (09:43)
That’s a 20% off sale happening site-wide right now. And look at it allows you to display that data in a table and a list. And then you can get more advanced views. Like you can show it in a Google maps. If you’re doing addresses again, like if you’re building out a real estate site and you want, you know, you don’t want to use these off the shelf, real estate plugins from, let’s say a theme forest, maybe you’re afraid of the code quality and the support you start putting together things like gravity and gravity forms, and maybe search WP. And you’re starting to build these very powerful websites without having to do too much coding. You can also edit entries that have been already submitted with gravity forms. I mean, pretty much anything. This is like the frosting on the gravity forms cake, right? You want to be able to do stuff with the gravity forms data, but you’re not a developer or you just want to move quickly. Gravity will help you do that. If anything, if maybe you’re not a gravity forms user, just go to gravity and check out the music video promotion video thing that Zach had produced when he first launched gravity view. This is years ago. And I remember seeing this and it still holds still holds true today. It still holds up. Zach has a unique angle on promotion and marketing that I appreciate gravity gravity a page builder using gravity forms, data, thanks for supporting the program.

Matt: (11:17)
So back to my story about submitting a theme called journal and getting it denied because the name was too wasn’t unique enough is what I was told. And this is the thing like, and, and, and I haven’t looked at the thing that you can watch. You can read all the conversation. Well, all the public conversation in the Slack, you can go to the theme review channel, and you can see all this stuff. This is, you know, for the most part, it’s all public. And I remember having these conversations, it wasn’t Slack back then. It was just all in track and it was nice. It was too generic. You can’t use the word journal. It’s just like, there’s no rules for generic naming. I mean, maybe there is now who sets the rules of it. Okay. You can’t have the name. It’s just somebody’s opinion.

Matt: (12:06)
That’s on the team. And this is where I really draw, uh, a thread of just, you know, who said the themes should not display obtrusive. Upselling. Obtrusive is subjective to some people. And we’ve went through the same thing where it was like, know, boy, we had nothing crazy in terms of ads and upsells and admin notices and all this stuff. It was your typical sidebar. And some people said, nah, we don’t like the fact that you, you know, you have a upgrade now in bold, you’re going to tone it down. No, you can’t have a link out to your social media. Okay. You know, and then, but then it’s like, you get pushed to the back of the line or that’s what it was like back then. And then it was this subjectiveness on your code quality. And my developer, Scott is amazing. Like he does a great job.

Matt: (12:56)
He’s just, you feel like it’s not coded the way you would want to do it. So you’re putting up these red flags, which is stalling, the process. And all of this is to say, make this. And this has been my argument for years. Ever since I witnessed this experiences, make it a real marketplace. I’ve been waving that flag for years now, because if it’s a real marketplace, then a creator like myself, a creator like Astra will be taxed. If you think of Involta. If you think of Shopify, if you think of the iTunes app store, there is a tax to distribute. It is common business practice. And when you don’t go this route, well, then you just say, well, you know, we’re not really about money, but there are people monetizing. And then we have these ambiguous rules. And at any point, somebody can just say something like Astro, you’re going to be shut down for five weeks. There’s no rules. There’s no guidelines that say, okay, if there’s an affiliate link, here’s what happens when we find an affiliate, you know, somebody just comes up with this number five weeks because they was going out to, uh, well, there was six links, but they said it was a link per plugin that they were linking to one, two, three, Oh, it was five yet. So it was five. So five weeks, just random, just a bunch of volunteers just coming up with this. Here’s how we’re going to, uh, here’s how we’re going to chastise Astra.

Matt: (14:35)
If you look over at layer WP, I believe Ben is, is his name. He did a quick interview with William Patton, who was also on a theme review team. I’ll link this in the show notes. And he sort of does a quick interview about this debacle. And he highlights. Why don’t you think that five weeks was, was pretty harsh? And, uh, I’m just paraphrasing here. He says, yeah, we thought it was pretty harsh, but it was a harsh thing. They were breaking the rules. They were breaking the guidelines. Okay, I get it. But still five weeks for a theme that was a million plus downloads. I mean, now you’re, and I should preface this again. astros’ back in the repo is down for a couple days. They removed whatever they had to remove to get the affiliate links out.

Matt: (15:30)
But what you’re going to shut down auto updates for a million users for the fact that they were trying to make money. And this is what’s going to transition me into my next thread of thought. Here is because it’s not a true marketplace because we cannot monetize the transaction as creators, as builders, product makers. When you don’t give us this one way to make revenue, then we’re left to make revenue ourselves. And then because there’s no true guidelines and this is a team of volunteers, no one’s getting paid here. It’s just this massive gray area. So of course, things like this are going to happen. Astros, running a business, they have a million active installs, good for them. They build a great product. I’ve used it. I’ve recommended it. It’s awesome. And Oh, by the way, the plugins that they’re recommending most of which are my friends, Ninja forms give WP science companies.

Matt: (16:33)
Everyone should be held accountable. My friends aren’t going to buy me beers. The next time they see me at word camp, if that’s ever a thing anymore. But all of these plugins should have got a little slap on the hand. They were benefiting as much as, uh, Astro is benefiting. And I would say they would probably benefiting even more because they all have free plugins. So Astra of their million active installs in whatever it is, 2 million of these, maybe even more people who have tried Astro and have now been introduced to these other plugins through their recommended page, they’re benefiting from it brand exposure, traffic, upsells using the free theme, maybe eventually upgrading. And Ashwin never got a dime of that affiliate link, but they should be held accountable to on the other side of the coin, these are not bad plugins. It’s not like Astro was routing off to some Bitcoin, uh, mining service that you didn’t know was happening.

Matt: (17:39)
They were recommending great plugins from friends of mine. This is the game we play. This is how we make money, but because it’s the word affiliate. Oh my God. What about if it was called revenue share partner agreement? Well, maybe it wouldn’t sound so bad, but it’s affiliate link. Well, that’s the only way we can make money. If I was Astra now I would then turn to give WP and my friends, sorry, friends, but this is what I would say. It’s business. Hey, I I’ll recommend you in our million plus active installs for $5,000 for the year.

Matt: (18:21)
Now, Astro has to make that disclaimer, these are sponsored updates. Maybe they say these are sponsored, uh, plugins that work great with Astra. They’re also great companies. So find a way to be transparent with that. But it’s also another way. I mean, they were making money with it. This is not, this is not illegal to, to have these types of deals in place. Maybe it’s illegal not to, uh, display it to you uses, okay, I get it. But they’re trying to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, not in my eyes. What about you? What do you think about that?

Matt: (19:08)
You know, my friend, maybe he doesn’t want me to call him a friend. Maybe he doesn’t even want me to loop him into this conversation, but Ben Meredith, Ben Meredith, uh, at Ben, UNC, he tweeted recently every word of this tweet down to the all text on the image remains true more than a year later. It’s a shame that this is still allowed in WordPress and he’s citing a tweet or he’s re tweeting a tweet that he posted last year, April 2nd, 2019. And this tweet reads, I make a bit of site income off of better click to All folks who purchased come from free users of my, hosted plugin after years of hard work, it shows up first in the list. When you search the word tweet, good for Ben, this is his way of ranking. And this is his way of making some site income, presumably paying for his mortgage and his family’s needs unless you have Jetpack installed. And he shows an image of when a user has Jetpack installed Jetpack, still hijacks search results page on

Matt: (20:21)
So if you were searching for the word tweet, jam pack is going to show you publicize their feature in Jetpack called publicized first, right next to his better click to tweet. This is akin to, you know, your brand or somebody Googling for your brand on Google and you get all those ads above, right? And then somebody’s buying against buying an ad against your brand name. And then it becomes like a pay to play thing, but you can’t even pay to play in the WordPress repo unless you’re Jetpack. You know, and this is like, this is what drives me nuts. It’s this sort of double standard of the wild wild West. Is that a thing it’s like a double standard, but there’s no standards as the wild wild West. And then there’s this group of people. God bless them. I’m not saying that the theme review team is bad.

Matt: (21:17)
In fact, I say, turn it into a real marketplace so that the foundation WordPress foundation makes money. And then they can take that money and support word camps and pay people to [email protected], pay people to [email protected]. Maybe turn it into a travel fees, paying off you. If you contribute to, we’ll buy your flight to work camp Europe or us, you know, when that’s a thing anymore, or maybe they can use it as education, right? Uh, all the money collected, uh, will be doled out in some kind of scholarship. And you know, if you’ve, if you’ve committed time to, uh, we can buy your books for school. We can buy you an online course. Hey, maybe Matt can leverage some of his, uh, authority in the, in the tech space to, uh, you know, whatever, some of the big online education course where sites are, uh, maybe, uh, I think or LinkedIn learning, whatever it might be called nowadays, you know, maybe we can sponsor people and then they can get free access to education, right?

Matt: (22:36)
Something, because it’s not fair for, for us to be upset at some, because there are Audrey employees that also, uh, are paid to work on and admin, some of this stuff, but the volunteers, we should not be coming down on them hard again, the gray area of, uh, other folks who are paid, who do sit in the way of some of these decision makings, uh, without any accountability or transparency, those folks should be held accountable. But I say, make money so that we have clear defined lines. We don’t need to randomly tell, say, Oh, you’re five weeks now out of the game, pay people to review these things. Everyone is happy. Everyone is making money. This is what Shopify does. This is what iTunes does. It makes sense. It makes sense in my eyes. What do you think? What do you think about this whole debacle?

Matt: (23:41)
Look, if I’m, it’s hard to create a product, it’s hard to think about a product it’s hard to get your first product off the ground. It’s hard to monetize that product. It’s hard to support that product. It’s hard to market that product in the face of the competition. Although foolish people like myself still wake up every day and try to do it because we have a passion for it. Uh, we’re sort of masochists in that sense. We liked the pain of doing this stuff, you know, and it’s a challenge, but sometimes the, the deck is stacked against you again, in the, in the face of jet pack, everyone thinks like I simply don’t like jet pack because it’s automatic. It’s incorrect. I have absolutely no problem with jet pack monetizing. I have absolutely no problem that jet pack has, you know, three or four plans.

Matt: (24:39)
I don’t even care that jet pack stuffs the, uh, you know, when you install Jetpack and his premium plans, and then it stuffs it down at the bottom and you, and you don’t see it anymore. But what I don’t, what I don’t appreciate is how, you know, people can go against other small product creators, even large product creators. That’s unfair that you monetize. I don’t want you to pro plan. I don’t want your admin notice. Okay. I get it. Those things can get annoying. I don’t want your affiliate links. Meanwhile, jet pack is just doing it right out in the open. I mean, go ahead, install a w a WooCommerce site, install a WooCommerce site and tell me when Jetpack stops telling you to install their, their services and then WooCommerce external services as well, all in automatic company.

Matt: (25:37)
Then when you look back at Ben’s tweet and you see that not only are they hijacking the search, which would, I mean, why don’t all plugins, do that, all themes, do that. I mean, would it be better if Astra, if you search for, I don’t know, contact form and because you had Astro installed it filtered, uh, Ninja forms and, uh, WP forms, right? To the top of the results I use that is that bad Jetpack, does it, you know, maybe, maybe that’s a thing. Can we get that as an official guideline that you can, you can do that officially without being wrong.

Matt: (26:16)
It’s a fine balance. I know some people, you know, it’s all about the freedom. It’s all about the free more so, you know, it’s more about the free than the freedom of freedom that a thing they don’t like to be paid only be advertised to and only be tracked. I understand a hundred percent get it, but this isn’t unique to WordPress. This is what every piece of software does ever. You know, if you have a free service, it’s collecting all the data about you and sending that data somewhere or selling that data somewhere, or upselling you to another product or feature affiliate links are not bad.

Matt: (26:57)
I use affiliate links myself on my YouTube channel and on Maryport to put food on the table, it’s the creator, or, you know, the, uh, the developer or the creator or the product owner to make the right decisions on what products they affiliate with. So again, affiliate links, isn’t bad. It’s the person who’s wielding the affiliate link, you know, Apple news. It was just shown. I tweeted this out the other day and sort of a parody of this whole thing when you search, uh, or when I actually don’t even think when it happened in New York times anymore, because I think they’re actually getting out of Apple news. Uh, but you know, when a publisher publishes content on Apple news, it’s loading an Apple news and not even going to the publisher. This is like what Google does with amp.

Matt: (27:54)
Everyone everywhere is trying to own the experience, which I think is the only thing that WordPress can do to survive is to own the experience. And that’s a double edged sword. Isn’t it more on that in a future episode? Let me know what you think. This is the second recording I’ve done of this episode, because the first one I felt like if you thought this episode was harsh, the first episode, I kind of ranted a little too much. I feel like I’ve dialed it back a little bit here, but I don’t know. You let me know. You let me know. It’s my Don’t forget to check out the YouTube channel. Let me know what kind of content you want. Now that I’ve been podcasting a little bit more and getting some great feedback. People are telling me that they like the show. Thanks.

Matt: (28:42)
Leave me a five star review on iTunes. If you made it this far, uh, we’re the highest rated WordPress business entrepreneur podcast on iTunes in the five out of 50 States. Now I’m just kidding. I think we have the highest ratings in the U S anyway, uh, for this particular niche, I love to have more, I would love to bro. I’ve been saying it for years now. I’m probably probably sick of it. I’m trying to broaden and get out of the WordPress, just the WordPress bubble and bring in more stuff. Hoping I can do that as time moves on, but life comes at you fast, three kids COVID and all this other fun stuff, changing jobs.

Matt: (29:18)
All right, everybody say thanks to our sponsors, search WP gravity, by the way, 20% of my sponsorship goes to a big orange heart. I’d like to support that, that effort supporting mental health in and around the WordPress space. I only make these, uh, sponsorships available on Twitter at random times. Uh, I don’t want to get into having, you know, uh, sponsors locked in all the time. It’s, it’s probably not good business acumen, but I like to have the randomness. I like to have the sort of lottery opportunity for new people to come in and sponsor the show, but they are available on It’s a hundred bucks. That’s all. I charge a hundred bucks to sponsor the show, to add reads per show in 20% of that. So a $40 goes to a big orange heart, and 100% of all my merchandise profits goes to a big orange heart. So if you buy a hat, a tee shirt, I’ll be releasing more stuff pretty soon with the Maryport logo on it, a hundred percent of the profits go to a big orange heart to support that effort. All right, we’ll see you in the next episode.


2 responses to “Banned for affiliate links in a free WordPress theme”

  1. I completely agree that affiliate links aren’t bad. I agree that marketing isn’t bad.

    But putting affiliate links into an update on a theme that’s in a repository where one of the guidelines is that you cannot include affiliate links is a little different than having affiliate links in the show notes on your own podcast page.

    I’m not going to argue with you about JetPack either. I would note a couple of things, but they don’t take away, in the least, from the idea that JetPack should conform to the same rules as anyone else in the repository.

    That said, it’s a plugin and the theme team has no input on plugins; the rules for plugins are different from the rules on themes in a number of ways, Yoast has done some things with wordpress-seo that I’m fairly certain would preclude a theme from being approved; JetPack isn’t displaying other plugins to buy and or install, it’s pointing out the option the user seems to be looking for that they have already installed – possibly they aren’t aware they already have that feature installed with it. I sure haven’t got a clue as to half of what JP does at this point.

    None of this is to say “you’re wrong,” but I do feel you’re leaving out some nuances in your talk.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Dane!

      Yes, certainly including the affiliate link is wrong *and* against the stated guidelines. I will admit, my own biases get in the way with this one given my experience with being a theme author at one point in my life 😀 There’s still too much left in the margins, however, that make governing these types of situations — tricky.

      Like most things in life, out of the chaos will come some new change (for the better) I hope.

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