Just over a week ago, I read a blog post on ManageWP entitled "Is WordPress SEO by Yoast Broken". The post details three issues the author (Tom Ewer) has with the plugin and his efforts to get support for it. I do not support the post content itself and think there could have been better ways to publish it, but if you really want to it it's here.
Taking these issues aside, the post itself received a lot of comments which, to me, raised more important issues of free plugins hosted within the WordPress directory.
Supply + Demand
After reading the post, I did understand the fact that Tom had issues with the plugin, but thought that (even when they were not resolved) a post on a popular WordPress site was not the way to go, especially when Yoast had no notice it was being published.
While I understand frustrations by unresolved technical support issues, one has to think more about the author's dedication to the plugin and the demand by users of free plugins. I am an author of over 10 plugins in the directory and understand exactly where Joost is coming from.
Having a Popular Plugin is a Burden
All of my plugin users combined as of today come to just under 500,000. That's great, but then again it's also small compared to some plugins such as WordPress SEO which has a download count exceeding 5 million. Now, on average, there are over 15,000 downloads of the plugin each day – around one every 6 seconds.
Having a plugin with this many downloads is bound to turn up some bugs, compatibility issues, and other things that require small tweaks. What good authors try to do is ensure that the plugin works for as many users as possible. For me, this isn't so much of a hassle due to the fact that my plugins are quite concrete and are by no means as extensive as WordPress SEO where there is more of a chance of issues.
WordPress' Own Plugin Support Forum
Within the directory, each plugin has its own support forum which was available from May 2012. This was great in some respects, but bad in others. For plugin authors who already had a popular plugin with lots of downloads found this to be another method for support to come in. Some authors don't log in much and some didn't even look in the forums for a while.
One thing that hasn't been done is that there seems to be no "support community" where it is only the author who is responsible for resolving 100 percent of all queries. For someone like Joost de Valk this is a big problem as he explained to me:
"There's no community picking up on [the support areas], the author is burdened with them. As for plugin devs and their time: people constantly misunderstand the scale of things. Millions of users leads to loads of questions. If they're not giving support it is considered bad, whereas the easiest thing to do would have been not releasing the plugin at all…"
This is a problem that I can relate to as someone who has limited free time, and is sometimes used up dealing with issues that have been covered elsewhere in the support forum or on the plugin homepage itself. Unfortunately Joost had no option but to defend himself in the post and was only met with more hostility.
Beyond the Support Forum
Support forums within the WordPress plugin directory are not the only way authors solve issues. My primary method of support is email. I receive a small amount of support related emails and answer them all; and takes up about 2 hours of my time each week. Rhys Wynne, another WordPress plugin developer spends about a day each month supporting the free version of WP Email Capture said
"Whilst I welcome the support forums for WordPress, it can be frustrating at times dealing with the volume and nature of requests for support on the forum, particularly when questions asked are answered in the FAQ section, or installation instructions. Free plugin support should be seen as a privilege, and plugin developers should be there to fix bugs or answer general questions to the best of their ability, not hold your hand through installation or integrating with your template."
Please Have More Consideration
I have known Joost de Valk for a few years now, met him in person quite a few times, and have also had the honor of working on a professional basis with him. It aggravated me somewhat that Joost received the hostility he did knowing how much work he commits to the 38 plugins he is a contributor to. What more users have to realize is that we are all doing this (supporting free plugins) out of the goodness of our hearts and nothing else.
For me it's hard to find those 2 hours every week to support those plugins. You may think that it's lazy but it isn't. I have a full-time job as a director of a company with two offices, I develop new WordPress plugins (both free and paid) and am involved with other startups. I also like to have some free time with my family.
Knowing that maintaining my own plugins is only a fraction of what someone like Joost has to deal with, I think that a plugin that popular is lucky to have that much support for it, even though less than 0.01 percent are unresolved after a couple of weeks.
It's Not Always Me, It's YOU More Often Than Not
Over 80 percent of my plugin support emails are resolved because of a conflict with another plugin or theme that has not been developed well – and the another 18 percent of emails ask questions that have been answered on the plugin homepage. This leaves 2 percent left for genuine support requests that require my attention.
Note that, if you're a user requiring support, please read all documentation from the homepage, FAQ, instructions or even previously resolved support threads within the plugin directory and you'll most likely find your answer. If not, then try disabling plugins one by one and then swapping themes to TwentyTwelve to see if that plugin starts to work. If it does, it means there's a conflict somewhere that needs to be addressed.
So, when asking for support on a free plugin, please consider the author and their time – they aren't just twiddling their thumbs waiting for support requests. Most are probably too busy to read this post.