My word count plugin, WP Word Count, just recently broke passed the 4,000 active installs mark on the WordPress.org plugin directory.
I had been watching this number for months as a simple means to compare my plugin’s performance against similar ones that are out there. Doing a simple search for “word count” shows that WP Word Count is the most installed free word counting plugin in the wild right now.
Then I realized I didn’t really know how this number was calculated.
How does WordPress figure out how many websites are actively using my plugin?
How Active Installs are Counted
After some quick research the answer to how WordPress is figuring out active installs for plugins came up on the WPChat forum. A user there, Samuel “Otto” Wood, from the WordPress development team broke it all down for us.
Whenever a WordPress site is actively used it pings the WordPress plugin database to see if any of the installed plugins have new releases available to download. This is what happens when you load up your WordPress admin to write a post or do another task and you see an alert next to the “Plugins” menu telling you how many plugins you have that need updated. WordPress.org is simply collecting and updating its internal count of installs for each activated plugin you use during this check.
The number of active installs that WordPress.org reports on the directory is rounded to the first significant digit for simplicity. Behind the scenes they have more accurate install figures but they choose not to show those to avoid confusion. This is why an extremely popular plugin like Contact Form 7 shows “3+ million” active installs and not something more accurate such as “3,753,230” installs.
The flip side of this is that plugins with absolutely zero active installs will actually show their download stats until install data is available. The numbers are updated every 24 hours so new plugins won’t have data until the day after their initial release.
The Better Way to Track Popularity: Active Installs or Downloads
A lot of plugin developers can be found online questioning their active install numbers. They’ll usually cite the huge disparity between their plugin’s installs and its download stats (both provided for anyone to see on WordPress.org).
The problem with using downloads as a measure of popularity is that WordPress.org doesn’t discriminate between versions. So the more updates you release the more your downloads are going to grow while your active install number might stay the same or even drop off in some case. That’s why a plugin might report thousands of downloads but only a few hundred installations.
To illustrate this point better, here are the download stats for WP Word Count from a recent day:
Four of the six spikes on that chart are days when a new version of WP Word Count was released. On an average day, when no updates are available, the plugin only gets 15 to 20 downloads. My all-time download mark is going to be over 20,000 by the end of the weekend while my active installs will remain somewhere in the 4,000 to 5,000 range. The bulk of downloads are by people updating an older version and not downloading the plugin for the very first time.
So download numbers aren’t a good representation of how many people use your plugin but the numbers do have some meaning.
The Reasons to Keep an Eye on Downloads
There are two really good reasons to track your download statistics on the WordPress.org plugin directory:
Gauging Interest in Your Updates
If people are using your plugin and actively keeping it updated you will see this reflected in your download statistics on the days following your release. Have you pushed out an update and seen your download numbers remain the same? Maybe your target audience isn’t as interested as you would hope in keeping up to date and trying out the new features you’ve been working on.
Measuring the Impact When Your Plugin is Mentioned Online
I said earlier that four of the six download spikes were from updates. The other two came on days when WP Word Count was mentioned in posts on popular WordPress-related sites. I’m sure anyone with a plugin is religiously monitoring their traffic analytics for any mention of their products by other people and the WordPress.org download stats are a great way to measure the impact of that coverage.
Satisfaction in Numbers
WP Word Count has been on the WordPress.org directory for years now but I didn’t really take the stats very seriously until the 2.0 release came out 17 months ago. Since then I’ve been eyeing the installation figures but I never really trusted them. Now that I know they are actually for real it’s comforting to have concrete proof my plugin is out in the wild and being enjoyed by actual users every day.