Though the REST API has been hogging the headlines over the last 12 months, there’s also been significant recent work on two areas traditionally at the heart of WordPress: the Theme Directory and the Plugin Directory.
With version three of the Plugin Directory marching towards a provisional late June release, now is an excellent time to look at what’s coming down the pipeline in that regard. It’s a potentially major step forward for plugin authors and users, and set to be one of the most significant changes to the platform this year.
In this piece, we’ll tee up the much-anticipated imminent release, and step through aspects of what’s currently known about upcoming changes to areas such as search, tags, ratings, and reviews.
Let’s kick things off first, though, with a brief recap of the story so far.
The Path To The Latest Version Of the Plugin Directory
The first of WordPress’ big two directories to go under the knife was the Theme Directory back in early 2015 – its first major revamp since, somewhat astonishingly, 2008. As the post-release notes from Konstantin Obenland showed, the changes involved both a fresh facelift and some serious technical rejigging behind the scenes. One of the most significant departures here was undoubtedly the move away from bbPress — a shift that on its own considerably eased future development prospects.
With the revamped Theme Directory winning plaudits, attention naturally shifted over to the Plugin Directory, which was suddenly looking comparatively shabby. A quick design revamp was the first thing on the agenda, with a new theme that cleared a number of long-standing gripes off the table.
A more serious re-architecting was always on the cards, however, and the official proposal for Version 3 of the Plugin Directory was duly unveiled in early 2016, with a provisional release date of late June/early July. As we head into the final furlong of that development push, it’s a great time to pick through what we can expect when it lands.
Introducing Version 3 Of The Plugin Directory
As the project overview makes clear, Version 3 of the Plugin Directory is centered around three broad areas of focus:
- User roles and responsibilities: Incorporating both front-end interface improvements and better systems for plugin authors and reviewers, the goal here is to make usage of the Plugin Directory substantially simpler for users across the board.
- Interactions with other systems: The directory itself currently functions as data storage for the Plugins API and connects, to varying degrees, with the Plugin SVN repo, support forums, and GlotPress. Any changes have to be managed in a stable fashion and remain backwards compatible.
- Replacement of legacy systems: The big change here is moving away from bbPress and ensuring that the Plugins API is entirely powered by WordPress itself.
Even a quick read of some of the detailed feedback that greeted the project kickoff announcement was enough to show that there’s a lot of pent-up desire for major changes to the Plugin Directory, and no shortage of ideas in the wider community for taking it forward.
Work on the latest version has been progressing smoothly to date. Milestone zero, with its aim of being a minimum viable product to kickstart the project, was quickly out the door. Milestone one and Milestone two have also been completed, with a notable emphasis on smoothing out submissions, reviews, and the author admin dashboard.
As the overall pace of the project picks up, there’s also started to be considerably more activity on the relevant tag in the Make channel. Two posts in particular leap out: a discussion about information architecture considerations, and some pointers on possible design directions. We’ll pick up on aspects of both in the following sections.
Search Is About To Get A Lot Slicker
The available search options in the Plugin Directory have long been a source of minor grumbling among both plugin authors and users, so it’s not surprising to see search being a major part of the proposed revamp.
Here’s what we know for definite about search so far:
- The technology powering search is changing. It’s set to move from Sphinx to ElasticSearch behind the scenes.
- Despite a widespread desire to make it happen, enhanced searching of plugin support forums won’t be addressed this time around.
- The primary focus of initial versions is on matching and improving existing search performance, rather than rushing straight into advanced filtering options.
Work around improving plugin search quality is ongoing at the time of writing, and though nothing is fully confirmed, it looks like we can expect significant improvements in relevancy and weighting of plugins by install count, modification date, and a number of other factors.
On the front-end side of the equation, a quick look at the design directions given so far seems to confirm that search is being given due consideration as “the primary action in the directory”, but the nitty-gritty of how that will play out is far from being finalized.
Another navigation element getting a lot of advance play is tags, so let’s move on to what we know there so far.
Tags Will Be At The Heart Of The New Plugin Directory
Tags were flagged as a major part of the revamp early in the process, with three particular bugbears being mentioned up-front:
- Spam risk: The current freeform tag format with an upper limit of 12 entries has lent itself to attempts to game the system.
- Non-localizable: WordPress is an increasingly polyglot piece of kit, and the lack of localization support here is a headache for non-English speaking developers and users.
- Inconsistency: Freeform tags inevitably open the door for misspellings and a certain level of general confusion.
With those points in mind, the general plan was to replace the current tag system with a solution that would be almost category-like in approach, by using a common set of tags and limiting authors to selecting three appropriate classifications.
After a lively discussion of the original proposal with useful contributions from well-known plugin authors such as Josh Pollock and Joost de Valk (among many others), the topic has been surfacing in recent chat summaries from the core team.
Matt Mullenweg chimed in with some gentle nudges around distinguishing between Free, Light, and Pro plugins more cleanly. Ongoing discussions are also raising the possibility of more clearly indicating when plugins are designed to support other plugins (as in the case of many WooCommerce add-ons, for example).
As with search, we’re a long way from the finish line in terms of what tags will become in the next version, but they look certain to be a significant improvement on what’s currently there.
Now, before we finish up, let’s have a quick look at some areas that are being rejigged based partially on previous work with the Theme Directory.
Reviews, Ratings, And Favoriting Are Getting Easier
User feedback is obviously at the heart of a smoothly functioning Plugin Directory, and being able to quickly mark particularly useful plugins is also high on the wish list of many users. Taking inspiration from previous work on the Theme Directory, it looks like both areas will be covered in the upcoming release.
Adding ratings and reviews is being consolidated into one area, with widgets available for both. The Favorites section introduced in the recent theme-level makeover of the Plugin Directory was a hit with users, but the current ticket covering implementation of favorites in Version 3 is a little shy on exact details of what’s to come. It looks likely, however, that localization will be addressed, and that favorites will be more closely integrated into profiles and possibly made more accessible to developers via plugins.
As a quick look at the Future Milestones section of the project overview page shows, there are plenty more items of interest for the next release still floating around.
Though it’s hard to shake the feeling that truly seismic changes are on the horizon for both themes and plugins generally thanks to the REST API, round three of the Plugin Directory looks like it will be a long-anticipated modernization of several core features.
The shift from bbPress to WordPress proper should free the directory up nicely for more active future development, and the search revamp could be a game-changer for user experience. The proof will of course be in the pudding, so we await the final UI and further developments with great interest.
Is there a particular aspect of Version 3 of the Plugin Directory that you’re eagerly anticipating? Get in touch via the comments below and let us know!
Featured image by Stevepb.