What’s the truth about calculating plugin retention?

WordPress Mobile Speed


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Calculating retention rate is a indicator of usefulness – rather than popularity (active installs). To determine ballpark retention rate: Take “active installation” from the plugin page. Let’s say it’s: 200,000. Then click on “advanced view.” And scroll down. Get the “All-time downloads:” Let’s use: 2,560,081. Do the math division. The result is 7.8 percent plugin retention rate. Less that 8 percent of the people who tried the plugin kept it. Not great. Rule of Thumb: Below 10 percent is low retention. 10 to 25 is OK. 25 to 30 is good, and 50 percent is excellent. – Source

Who’s Dave Baker?

Dave Baker

Dave Baker currently works for Envato (ThemeForest). Previous to that he was a WordPress theme and plugin author under the brand “dtbaker”.

He has no affiliation with Elementor besides having made a few themes and plugins that integrate with the Elementor page builder. He’s page builder agnostic. But finds himself using Elementor quite a bit. Its free version is pretty powerful compared to other options – and his customers love free!

At work, he uses Elementor to build pages such as:

Dave is also the programmer behind this plugin: https://wordpress.org/plugins/envato-elements/

This gives him direct access to download statistics. He knows that a download graph jumps as soon as he releases an update. Daily download counts are reset at about 10AM AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time).  So that’s when the chart updates.

Other details about Dave Baker:

A discussion about erroneous plugin retention calculations between Steve Teare (PagePipe) and Dave Baker (Envato – and plugin author):

Dave: I was just having a read of https://pagepipe.com/how-elementor-page-builder-affects-mobile-page-speed/

I wanted to quickly correct you on something about WordPress stats.

The “Download Count” includes everybody who:

  • Clicks the download button on the wordpress.org page (even those who don’t install the zip).
  • Installs the plugin via the WordPress update panel
  • Updates the plugin via WordPress – this is the important one.

If you have 100 users and they all update the plugin, the download count will jump to 200, but you will still only have 100 active installs.

Retention rates are impossible to determine by WordPress stats, because download numbers include every time someone updates the plugin.

You can easily see this on less popular plugin such as: https://wordpress.org/plugins/envato-elements/advanced/
The “Downloads per day” chart spikes every time there is a plugin update released, because that is all the existing customers downloading the plugin update again without a growth in active installs.

Steve: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about retention calculation.

I’m sorry if I’ve misrepresented Download Count. Where did you get this information about the definition of an “official and unofficial download”?

Dave:  As for how I know about this download counter, I asked Dion Hulse, [WordPress Core Contributor – https://profiles.wordpress.org/dd32] about it when we caught up at WordCamp Brisbane.

I really wanted to see if we could track zip downloads vs installations vs updates separately, as the current numbers are a mess. I wanted to see if he could help nudge that particular feature forward in the WordPress core, as he is a major core contributor.

But unfortunately it’s not going to happen – and everything will continue to hit the same “download” endpoint. Updates / downloads and install numbers will all be jumbled together for the foreseeable future. The only way we can track this metric is using 3rd party analytics, or the (quite unreliable – that’s another story all together!) active install count on WP.org.

If you really want to test it yourself, hit the “Download ZIP” button on a plugin a few times, and then refresh the stats page. The numbers update instantly. You can also install an older version of an unpopular plugin, then update it in WordPress, and watch the download count increase. Repeat as necessary.

So tl;dr, it’s impossible to track retention, even for people like me who create the plugins and really want to know what retention is.

Steve: So I want to clarify something.

If an automatic update is done by a host provider, does that increase the download counter? Or is it actual downloads through the browser that increment the counter? Or in other words, I download and then upload the plugin zip file via the WordPress dashboard.

Can I find a lonely plugin and start pumping up the numbers in manipulation?

If updates count as downloads, that’s really lame and flawed. What good are these numbers for anything?

I’m speechless.

For example, GoDaddy automatically updates millions of WordPress plugins with new releases. So do many MANAGED WordPress hosts like Kinsta and Pressidium (smaller number of users) etc. Are these included in the count?

For example, GoDaddy automatically installs “Limit Login Attempts Reloaded” plugin. And Akismet is loaded on every stinking WordPress install. Those count as downloads?

So can I game the system as a plugin author and make it look like my plugin is hugely popular?

Just trying to wrap my head around this potential weirdness. Also it seems like plugins who do frequent and rapid updates like Elementor would run up the tab – and possibly be an indicator of churning. Frequent updates are indicators of unpredictable fragility more than strength.

Now there’s one company deliberately doing regular systematic updates even when unneeded. That’s Yoast SEO plugin. It’s part of their marketing plan. This triggers ad presentation in the WordPress dashboard. Those have to be dismissed. Anyway, they are definitely gaming – and it works.

Aren’t you effectively saying the number of download counts – reported immediately – double every single time a release is made?

Is there any residual value in “active installs divided by all time downloads” indicating churning, quality, or management practices? Or is it completely useless drivel?

My gut says it’s telling something – even if it’s the shame of WordPress reporting policy.

Dave: Yep. WordPress core will download the plugin update or installation from the same URL (example: https://downloads.wordpress.org/plugin/envato-elements.0.1.2.zip )

This is the identical URL you click to get the ZIP from the WP.org page: https://wordpress.org/plugins/envato-elements/

So yes you’re correct, clicking “Download” on wp.org increases the count, the same way as installing through WordPress, the same as updating through WordPress.

Yes. Managed hosted, managewp, automatic installs, if the underlying system tells WordPress to “fetch an update” or “install this plugin” then that download count will increase.

Numbers do double on updates, that’s why the chart is “Downloads per day” and not “Total downloads”.

You can get an indicator of plugin growth by looking at the top of the “download” spikes. This is a great indicator to how many people are actively updating their plugins. If the top of those spikes are going up, it means more people are engaging with the product over time.

You could in theory “game” the system by increasing your download count slowly over time, but no need to game it if you can just release a plugin update and double your download count the next day.

Yoast is a good example, 143,129,874 downloads and 5,000,000 active installs.

That 5 million is only 3% of total downloads.

Also considering there are only about 75,000,000 WordPress sites running WordPress, that download count is a clear indication of all time installs, updates, and zip downloads.

We’ve found no value in this number for our own product and in competitor analytics. It’s just a nice metric to compare popularity between plugins.

Basically, a higher daily number means it’s a more popular plugin. Automated tools such as ManageWP do increase this number, so take it with a grain of salt for sure.

Steve: Thanks for the plugin tutorial.


Steve Teare
performance engineer
May 2021


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