Written by P.J. Aitken
In his 2018 State of the Word address, Matt Mullenweg estimated the WordPress economy to be worth over $10 billion. As the founder of this content management platform, he’s certainly well placed to make such an estimation, but how much of it is based in truth? And if it does really generate an 11-figure revenue, where does it all come from?
Gaining Some Perspective
But let’s put that statement into context. WordPress is used by nearly 75 million sites, but none of them pay a licensing fee for the pleasure. 3 There are no subscription or signup charges — it doesn’t even have a premium membership unless you are on the hosted service of WordPress.com.
So, how could they possibly generate over $10 billion? To put that into perspective, it would make the WordPress economy more profitable than LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest combined. 4 5 6 It’s more money than the entire GDP of Haiti and over 50 other small nations. 7 8
Can a free and open source piece of software really generate that much money?
How WordPress Makes Money
The WordPress project or WordPress foundation do not make anywhere near $10 billion a year, but there is a very good chance that it could facilitate the transfer of such a colossal sum. There are several ways in which it does this, some are more direct than others:
WordPress.com is owned by Automattic, who hire over 700 employees and were founded in 2005. They are a private company, so information on their finances isn’t readily available, but according to Glassdoor they hire experts for around $90,000 to $120,000 a year. There will also be a number of lower-level staff working for a fraction of this amount and board-room staff working for a lot more. 9 If we assume an average of $100,000 to cater to this group, that’s a payroll of over $70 million.
Themes and Plugins
WordPress is built on themes and plugins, both of which allow the user to customize their site and to increase its accessibility, relevance, and usability. The best way for an outsider to understand themes and plugins is to think of them as skins and apps for a mobile phone, with the former dictating the layout and basic functionality, and the latter offering all kinds of additional features. And just like skins and apps, themes/plugins have developers working around the clock to create and update them so that those on the other side are never short of choice.
Themes and plugins are either created by individual developers or by teams, including WordPress themselves. Millions of these add-ons are available for free, but there are also premium versions, many of which are sold through the Envato marketplaces, with others available direct from the individual developers.
There are over 44,000 themes and 28,000 plugins currently available on Envato’s ThemeForest and CodeCanyon, with prices beginning at $2.
If we take the ten bestselling plugins (valued at $265) and calculate the total sales, we get a figure of around $270 million. The total sales of the eleventh bestselling plugin are around 15 times lower than the bestseller and the figures continue to drop beyond that, averaging in the triple figures, but it’s fair to assume that these plugins have generated in excess of $1 billion over the last half-decade and are comfortably generating $200 million+ a year.
Themes are even more popular and more expensive, and there are also more of them, with the top 10 costing $440 and selling what amounts to over $700 million in their lifetime.
We can’t know the exact revenue, but it’s fair to assume that Envato is generating close to $1 billion in WordPress related sales every year, and that’s before we factor in the other marketplaces and the individual developers.
WooCommerce is an e-commerce plugin that was created by WooThemes and acquired by Automattic in 2015. It is used by around 5% of the top 1 million sites in the world, in addition to nearly 3 million other active sites. 10
The top three e-commerce sites in the world are said to generate over $100 billion a year in sales, a significant percentage of the more than $2 trillion e-commerce industry. 11 If we include all of these sales, then that $10 billion figure begins to look like an understatement. But of course, Matt Mullenweg likely wasn’t factoring them into his equation.
WooCommerce doesn’t cost anything either, but it does, however, offer a number of add-ons that cost upwards of $300 a year, and these are popular with premium sites, no doubt helping to turn this e-commerce plugin into a cash cow for the WordPress economy.
Ads and Affiliates
WordPress is favoured by affiliate sites and content sites that are created solely with the intent of selling ad space. These sites range from the large-scale listicles and viral sites, right down to niche affiliate sites. They account for a significant percentage of the websites created every day, and also make up a large number of the failed sites that are deleted, neglected, or left to expire.
It would be impossible to get an exact figure of how much these sites generate, but there is a workaround that gives us a rough estimate. We know, for instance, that online ad spend is over $200 billion a year and that WordPress is used by 30% of websites, which suggests that WordPress websites generate around $60 billion a year in ad revenue. 12
It’s an impressive figure, and it’s one that is made possible by WordPress. But while these sites rely on this content management system, for the time being, they don’t necessarily need it to survive and could simply switch to a different platform if needed. As a result, it wouldn’t be fair (or feasible) to include their turnover in any profit estimation.
WordPress Agencies and the Freelance Community
There are many WordPress companies out there charging in excess of $5,000 to develop custom themes for businesses, while also offering SEO, optimization, troubleshooting, and other WordPress support for remuneration that can stretch into six figures and beyond.
These agencies work in a highly specialized niche and there aren’t as many of them as there are WordPress theme and plugin companies, but what they lack in size they make up for in value and expertise. They turnover large amounts of money, help big brands to build profitable enterprises and give employment to a plethora of professionals, including developers, designers and writers.
Experts working on a freelance basis can expect to earn anywhere from $25 to $300 an hour depending on their experience and level of expertise. One look at freelancing sites like Upwork will tell you that there is no shortage of WordPress experts earning a very respectable wage. We found over 125,000 developers specializing in WordPress and charging an average of $60 to $120 an hour, in addition to over 75,000 designers, 100,000 SEO experts, and 25,000 writers.
An expert working for an agency may not earn as much per hour as some of the high-end freelancers, but they’ll rarely be short of work and will typically earn a similar salary.
It’s hard to know exactly how many professionals are working in this sector, but WordPress experts have a reputation for being plentiful, and no doubt contribute a significant sum to the WordPress economy.
So, How Much is WordPress Worth?
If we include the industries that profit directly from WordPress, whether by selling themes/plugins or by utilizing various WordPress related affiliate programs, then the number we arrive at probably isn’t far off $10 billion, although it’s nearly impossible to get an exact figure. If we include WooCommerce sales, ad revenue, and basically factor in all of the money generated by WordPress sites, the figure is far greater and likely extends into the hundreds of billions.
The “$10 billion” statement that Mullenweg made seems to be rooted in truth. But there was a bigger and more important quote made at that State of the Word address, one that we quoted at the outset of this article and one that we’re sure millions of WordPress developers, writers, coders and webmasters will agree with:
“WordPress is both free and priceless” — Matt Mullenweg
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