When you post on the WordPress repository, you’re competing with thousands of other plugins. Plugins that have had years to gain installs and popularity and thousands that are starting from scratch and fighting to reach the top.
So is it just a game of luck? Is slapping your plugin on WordPress and hoping for the best all you can do?
Even with the hefty amount of competition, it’s not impossible to grow in the search results. There are real SEO techniques you can use to rank higher in WordPress repository. And while some ranking factors are out of your control, a majority of them are entirely in your hands.
WordPress Repository’s Search Functionality Explained
The WordPress plugin repository is a database hosting over 50k+ free plugins and it’s a major acquisition channel for plugin developers. You could put your plugin on Github or on your own website, but chances are you’ll never reach quite the level of popularity you might have posting on WordPress.org.
A few years ago, WordPress unveiled the new algorithm intended to solve problems with the old search functionality. WordPress.org now uses Elasticsearch in the plugin repository.
There are nearly 100k searches per day on the plugin repository. And WordPress plugins have received over a billion downloads, though only 32 have more than 1 million installs. There’s plenty of traffic to go around.
A Bit of Context: How Elasticsearch Works
WordPress.org has long used a simple and outdated search system in the plugin repository, but they replaced it with code built on Elasticsearch, a “distributed, open source search and analytics engine for all types of data”.
The new system, rather than exact matching text strings, uses relevancy scoring that measures WordPress plugins by various components from the title to the last update.
It works in two phases: the first testing to see how much a plugin’s metadata matches a query while the second boosting results based on factors like rating and compatibility. More on that later.
Here are some of the characteristics of how Elasticsearch scores documents:
- Inverted Indexes: Elasticsearch scoring uses an inverted index system. When a document is uploaded, it records terms (like “WordPress” or “SEO”) and tracks their frequency in that document. When someone makes a search, it checks the terms in their search query and matches documents containing those terms.
- Coordination: Search results containing multiple terms from a multi-word search (like “google analytics plugin”) get a higher ranking.
- Term Frequency: The more a term appears in a document, the more relevant it’s assumed to be. This uses a square root, so more term frequency means higher score, but spamming a keyword won’t do as much due to diminishing returns.
- Inverse Document Frequency: This reduces the weight of terms that appear often in a document (like “a” and “the”) and gives value to keywords that appear less frequently.
- Field Length Normalization: Longer documents receive a small penalty due to increased term frequency, to favor the equal retrieval of shorter fields with less word count.
- Query Boost: This is essentially the weight of any field like the title or author. Each of these has a different boost level to indicate their importance.
There’s a lot of complex math that goes into a search algorithm, this breakdown should help you understand how the system works.
Why the New WordPress.org Search?
What exactly was the problem with the old WordPress.org search? In the past, WordPress search only matched for exact phrases, without any fuzzy search in case of typos or missing parts of a phrase. This has been a big frustration for users and developers alike.
WordPress.org’s Old Search Engine Issues
Its largest problem was that factors like last update, parts of the metadata, and active installs often weren’t taken into account at all. Keeping your plugin updated or resolving support tickets did nothing for your score.
WordPress.org’s New Search Engine Algorithm
The new search algorithm based on Elastichcearch was built to solve these problems. The WordPress team’s algorithm philosophy was to streamline the search experience for users and find them the plugins that fit their needs.
This update came with some nice features for developers including a streamlined plugin review process and the elimination of the 7-day rejection period. But unfortunately for new devs, the algorithm seriously favors plugins that have already built up a substantial user base.
Though the old search was flawed and user-unfriendly, using the right keywords in your title and description meant you could end up sorted before the top dogs. That’s no longer good enough: tons of factors go into search repository SEO, and plugins with more installs get an automatic boost.
However, it’s not all for nothing. It’s going to be difficult for new plugins to get off the ground, but optimizing its SEO might give you the boost you need to get your name out there.
How to Do SEO on WordPress.org for Your WordPress Plugin
Thanks to the plugin search algorithm and the entire plugin page source code being available to the public, it’s easy to see how the new search works. But if you don’t read PHP or just don’t have time to sift through a thousand lines of code, let’s break it down.
Rather than just finding a text match in your title or other metadata, the new search uses advanced relevancy scoring that combines a variety of factors:
It works in two phases:
- The first checks your query against the title, excerpt, description, slug, tags, and author/contributor names to find a keyword match.
- With the results compiled, the second phase examines last update, WordPress version compatibility, active installs (up to 1 million), average rating, and percent of resolved support tickets. It scores each plugin for these and sorts the search result page accordingly.
Each of these elements has its own results scoring or weight in the search results. For instance, title, content, and other metadata fields get a boosted score when they match with your search query. High active installs also gets a boost.
Out of all of these factors, everything except rating and downloads is something you have control over. Yet, in this three-year analysis of 18k WordPress plugins, 68% of plugins had less than 100 installs, and 57% had 0 reviews.
These statistics aren’t exactly good news but active developers may be pleased to note that almost 20% of these plugins had never been updated, and these stats from 2015 state that nearly half of all plugins hadn’t updated in two years.
That’s to say: if you’re willing to put in the work on your plugins, help your users, and keep optimizing your WordPress.org rankings, there’s a good chance you’ll rise above the competition.
WordPress.org SEO: What You Need to Do to Rank Your Plugin in the WordPress Repo
Here are the elements of a WordPress search result, roughly sorted by impact on SEO ranking. Again, you can find this info in the plugin search source code.
- Excerpt and description
- Author and contributors
- Active installs
- WordPress compatibility and last update
- Number and percent of resolved support tickets
Your first focus should be on metadata. The plugin’s title has the largest impact on your ranking as it gets more of a boost, followed closely by excerpt and description, then other metadata. The boost may be smaller, but don’t neglect them. A killer title isn’t enough.
The higher your installs, the bigger impact it has on your ranking, and it can have a huge impact on SEO. But remember that metadata determines whether you rank at all: active installs won’t matter if your title and description don’t match for any keywords.
Fresher content ranks slightly higher and the penalty you get for having a plugin older than six months, or incompatible with the latest WordPress version, makes it the next highest ranking factor. This makes keeping your plugin up-to-date a big priority.
Rating and quality of support rounds it out. Resolved support tickets has the smallest impact on SEO but it still counts.
In short, optimizing your readme and metadata, keeping your plugin updated with core WordPress, resolving support tickets, and earning high ratings and installs by creating a well-made plugin is your ticket to ranking up. These optimization strategies have helped several developers but you can use them as well to get an edge on the competition.
Let’s go through every step in detail so you can fully understand how to score higher in this new search algorithm.
If you want to increase your ranking, improving your metadata is the quickest way to get there. You’ll need to format your readme correctly and optimize each element.
Unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed way to do it right. It’s up to you to figure out how best to write your readme (or ask for help). But just like with website SEO, you should identify a few solid keywords to target, and include them naturally throughout your slug, title, description, and excerpt.
The plugin title is going to have the highest impact. Notice how almost every plugin in the repository is named some variation of “BrandName – WordPress xxx Plugin”?
It’s perfectly fine to create an interesting name for your plugin (and “Yoast SEO” is certainly more attention-demanding than “SEO WordPress Plugin”), but you should integrate your most important keywords into the title as well. Just avoid using WordPress as the first word in the title, as it’s against the guidelines.
A match in the title bears more weight than in the description, but don’t underestimate it. Your description is where you get to take advantage of the exact match and term frequency boosts.
Exact match means it’s a good idea to include a wide variety of relevant keywords in your description, as you’ll get a higher rank when people search for those phrases. Elasticsearch also uses term frequency to rank searches, so focusing on the strongest few keywords is a good bet.
As for tags, you might think you’re clever by including 50 of them, but only the first 5 are used in search. Dedicate your 5 tags to the most relevant and important keywords you want to target.
While keyword optimization is an important part of repo SEO, don’t spam. Tags must be relevant, and abuse of keywords can get your files removed. Make your readme readable first, and then include keywords naturally and moderately throughout your instructions, FAQ, and plugin description.
Keep Your Plugin Up-to-Date
Plugin freshness and compatibility is now a factor in the ranking, so it’s important to keep your plugin up to date. Newer content is weighted a bit higher, so don’t hold off on updating your code.
Plugins that haven’t been touched in 180 days (six months) will get a penalty. Even if you don’t constantly work on development, this should be enough time to add a few small additions or clean up some code.
You get a large penalty if your plugin isn’t compatible with the latest WordPress release, so when a new version comes out, make sure to do some compatibility testing quick. Don’t worry about minor releases (5.1, 5.2, etc); you won’t be punished for not releasing an update for these.
You should also follow the WordPress coding standards. This won’t give you a direct SEO boost, but writing clean code helps you create a better user experience and easily collaborate with others.
Reviews and Number of Active Installs
Reviews and active installs are the two SEO aspects you can’t directly control but that doesn’t mean you can’t influence them.
Number of support tickets and tickets marked resolved is both a factor in your ranking and a great way to get better ratings from users. Plugin authors that provide fast and helpful support are quick to gain a good reputation in the community, and that means better reviews. Answer as many support tickets as possible.
As already noted, many WordPress plugins will never receive a review. Often, that’s because plugin authors aren’t proactive about obtaining them. You can’t just leave a message requesting a review in your description — you need to ask for five star reviews at the right time, like after helping a user solve an issue they’re having.
Be friendly, professional, and proactive, and you’ll see your reputation and rankings rise.
Other Ways to Rank Up
Translating your plugin can provide an SEO boost due to the very small number of translated plugins in the repository. You’re targeting a smaller market and are likely to be one of the only few to appear in a search result in a different language.
Also consider the Block-Enabled Plugins section, located right at the top of the main plugins page. Creating a Gutenberg block/plugin can be a great way to get free exposure if you’re lucky enough to get curated by the developers.
While all plugins rank higher depending on active installs, the new plugin search seems to direct users searching for especially popular terms to the plugins with the most downloads.
As part of the algorithm philosophy, high user searches indicate “demand” while active installs indicate “supply”, and the developers believed that plugins in the most popular categories should be able to support that demand.
In other words, it may be even more difficult to rank up when you’re making a plugin for high-demand categories, as you haven’t proven you’re able to handle a large volume of users. Targeting a more niche group may lead to higher rankings.
Here’s my last SEO tip: Study your competitors, their slug, and their readme:
- What are they doing?
- What keywords are they using in their metadata (title, slug, description)?
- How are they structuring their readme, and what can you do to improve yours?
Don’t just rely on the most popular keywords used by your competitors. Try to narrow down those unique phrases that appear less commonly but are likely to gather traffic. Use research tools to see related keywords. This can draw in some valuable outside information.
With everything finally optimized, you might be excited to finally see your ranking change. It can take from 10 minutes to a week for your plugin’s ranking to update, so be patient.
Improve Your WordPress Plugin Ranking on the Repository
The WordPress repository is a completely free acquisition channel and your most valuable asset in gaining new users for your plugins. Despite changes in the search algorithm making things more difficult for new developers, it’s still a high-traffic platform that you should definitely take advantage of.
Understanding how the search function works and putting it to test is your best bet to keep your plugins from stagnating in the rankings.
Here’s a quick list to remind you of the steps you should take and play around with:
- Use relevant keywords in title, slug, description, and excerpt.
- A match in the title bears more weight than in the description.
- Only the first 5 tags are used in search.
- Don’t spam.
- Plugin freshness and compatibility is a factor in ranking.
- You get a large penalty if your plugin isn’t compatible with the latest WordPress release.
- Resolve support tickets promptly.
- Translate your plugin.
- Always study what your competitors are doing.
There’s no one-way track to success, but a little work on your plugin’s SEO can completely revolutionize how many new users you’re generating on a recurring basis.