Here is my exchange on this subject with support staff at WordPress.com. As a solution to the described problem of misleading advertising, I suggest user ratings of premium themes.
Dec 2, 2011, 11:50 AM
Now that WordPress.com is selling themes, it needs to be aware of misleading advertising and adopt a policy concerning whether it will tolerate such advertising. It has come to my attention that one of the major vendors of the premium themes on WordPress.com (it has six of the 23 premium themes available as of 12/2/11) is stripping out a lot of functionality in the themes it is selling on WordPress.com without any public disclosure of that fact. I don't know if there is a technical explanation of this stripping. But there is clearly a significant difference between the same advertised theme sold on WordPress.com and for traditional webhosted site. In at least one case, the differences include stripped out SEO, sidebar manager, custom widget, and options panel. Given that until someone actually purchases the theme there is no way to find out about these omissions, this appears to be a classic case of bait and switch (as in thinking you're buying one product and then discovering you're getting a very different one).
Undoubtedly, the vendor has a good excuse for these omissions. But I'd like to point out another related misleading aspect of the vendor's advertising. When you purchase the theme on the vendor's website, there is no indication that if you want to use it on a WordPress.com website there is an additional fee; that is, that the vendor is really selling two versions of the theme: one for self-hosting and one for WordPress.com. Arguably, the vendor is only testing out selling its themes on WordPress.com and doesn't want to publicize the fact or commit to a marketing strategy. But that doesn't negate the fact that its currently marketing is quite misleading.
There is also the question on exactly what terms one is buying the themes on WordPress.com. All this information is omitted. For example, will the themes be updated with future WordPress releases, as is the expectation and clearly stated terms of other theme contracts? Is the WordPress.com version of the theme being used only as a promo, where the theme could be removed tomorrow? Will the purchaser have to pay again every time the theme is updated on the WordPress.com site? These policies should be disclosed. If not, I think WordPress.com may eventually generate a lot of ill will for WordPress.org. WordPress.org has an excellent brand. It would be a pitty to sully it with such misleading marketing practices.
Blog url: http://spectrumbs.wordpress.com/
Dec 2, 2011, 2:20 PM
All themes at WordPress.com follow the same policies. When theme updates are available, they are provided automatically free of charge. You don't have to do anything. As long as a theme is updated for the WordPress.org end, it will be updated here too.
I won't deny that there is a very slim chance that a theme may be abandoned by its developers and no longer updated. That decision is up to the theme's developers, but we have free themes on WordPress.com that haven't been updated for five years and they still work just fine. By that time, you might want to switch to a new theme anyway just to change up your look.
Many premium themes run with code or plugins that we can't allow on WordPress.com for security and stability reasons. This is to both keep you safe, and keep things running smoothly without fatal errors, memory limits, and other such annoyances that you can experience when self-hosting a WordPress.org blog. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this is that there will be difference in features between the theme available to WordPress.org blogs and the theme available on WordPress.com. This is also true of some of the free themes here as well.
If you're every curious, you can find all of the features and other useful information about every theme on WordPress.com at http://theme.wordpress.com/
Specifically, premium themes are listed at http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/sort/premium/
Dec 2, 2011, 2:54 PM
Differences between the same premium theme on WordPress.com and a self-hosted website should be publicly disclosed rather than hidden, even if inadvertently. There are different expectations for a free vs. premium theme.
Unlike many free themes, many premium themes are not only regularly updated but those updates are bundled into the price. If those updates are not bundled into the price, which they apparently are not, this information should be disclosed.
In short, the disclosure policies appropriate when themes are free can become inappropriate and deeply misleading when they are purchased. It is also unclear whether WordPress.com gets a cut of the revenue (my guess is that it does not). If this information hasn't already been prominently disclosed, it should be.
Dec 2, 2011, 3:10 PM
As mentioned above, the features included in the WordPress.com version of the premium themes are disclosed in their specific pages at http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/sort/premium/
As mentioned above, all themes are updated on WordPress.com when their WordPress.org counterparts are updated.
Dec 2, 2011, 3:32 PM
Yes, the themes are listed and some of their features are described at http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/sort/premium/. But no, none of the omissions I described to you are included there.
I appreciate your quick responses, but it's frustrating when the gist of my questions are ignored.
Dec 2, 2011, 4:00 PM
You're right, we don't list the feature omissions there, but we do list every available feature in the theme. If a feature is not listed there, it's not in the theme.
Dec 3, 2011, 2:07 AM
People of good faith may disagree on what it means to "list every available feature" in a theme. But I don't believe that a single paragraph description of a rich, versatile theme (the type of premium theme description on WordPress.com) can possibly be characterized as comprehensive.
Dec 3, 2011, 3:37 AM
Which premium theme are you referring to? I can't find a single one with just "a single paragraph description."
Have you looked at any of the specific theme listings at http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/sort/premium/ yet? They're full of feature descriptions, screenshots, specific image dimensions, and links to other blogs using the theme.
Dec 3, 2011, 10:31 AM
Let's take Fresh News by WooTheme. When you go to the Premium Theme section on WordPress.com (the way the vast majority of people will find out about a premium theme on WordPress.com), you get the following text:
"A fresh and popular news/magazine theme for WordPress, by the team at WooThemes."
That's it. Just one sentence, not even a paragraph.
The longest premium theme description (of the 23 on WordPress.com) is indeed a fairly substantial paragraph. It is for Funki:
"Funki is a funky theme with some artsy flare. It has a responsive structure and offers multiple layouts, either one, two, or three columns, based on the widget areas you choose to show. It also comes with many background choices, with different motifs and patterns, and a primary color chooser. It has a featured section for sticky posts, supports custom menus, featured images, background image, and optional footer widget areas. Funk up your site with Funki now!"
You are correct that on the independent Theme Showcase page there is additional information--if you know how to find the page and avoid clicking the "details" link, which contains only superficial information about the premium theme's features.
Let's take the Fresh News description on Theme Showcase:
"Looking for a clean and sophisticated magazine theme? One that elegantly showcases the best of your blog? With a Featured Post slideshow, multiple color schemes, multiple menus, control over post excerpting, and a clean design, Fresh News might just be it!
Easy to Customize
Fresh News comes with an extensive set of theme options that make it easy to fit Fresh News to your site’s unique personality. From Appearance → Theme Options you can set the color scheme of your site with one click and also take total control of the animated Featured Post slideshow. You can even choose to have your sidebar on the left or right side of your site.
18 Exciting Color Schemes
As noted above, Fresh News has multiple color schemes—18 of them! Just one more feature that can help make Fresh News the perfect fit for your site.
Two Customizable Menus
Fresh News also has two menu areas: a traditional page menu and a second menu that lists your categories. You can take control of these two areas in Appearance → Menus by creating your own custom menus and assigning them to either menu location."
I'll agree that this is a lot better than what's described on Theme page under the Appearance tab on WordPress.com. The several screen shots accompanying the text are an additional improvement.
However, by comparing similar information on the WooTheme website and this website, I defy you to find information showing that some of the SEO optimization was dropped in the WordPress.com version. That's because the SEO optimization options are not displayed at the top level menu; you need to dig down the menu options to find them--a key area where the publicly displayed information falls short.
Even if all this information were publicly disclosed in a display---which it is not--it would still have the feel of a fine print terms of service disclosure, like those privacy policies on every commercial website that no one reads and vendors design so no rational person would read. I don't think WordPress.org, through its close relationship with WordPress.com, should be identified with such practices
Dec 3, 2011, 3:21 PM
Well, we aren't responsible for policing how vendors sell their themes.
You're more than welcome to always ask before purchasing a theme, and you have 30 days to request a refund.
Dec 3, 2011, 3:49 PM
"Well, we aren't responsible for policing how vendors sell their themes."
Exactly my point. But perhaps you should be.
At the least, there should be a prominent caveat emptor disclaimer on the WordPress.com theme page stating that WordPress.com allows vendors to make whatever implicit or explicit claims they want about their premium themes. Note that other software platforms, such as ipad, xBox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii, may have more rigorous standards either for vetting who can sell applications on their platforms or allowing customers to provide feedback on their experiences. Adding customer star ratings for themes, as is done with WordPress plugins, might be a good way for WordPress to address this problem while preserving the wonderful openness associated with WordPress.
Dec 3, 2011, 3:53 PM
Well, if you want that change to happen over on WordPress.org, they're an entirely separate entity, so requesting it here won't help much.
Much like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, etc, we are very picky about which premium themes we offer here.
If you want to see changes made on the WordPress.org end, you should be posting at http://wordpress.org/support/
Dec 3, 2011, 4:07 PM
Thank you for being willing to engage me in this conversation and giving me that advice. I think our understanding of the facts are now similar, which is a valuable outcome of this conversation.