Why WordPress Needs Gutenberg (& the Future of Page Builders)

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WordPress is the largest CMS in the world, powering ~1/3 of all websites.  The WordPress editing experience hasn't changed much in over a decade and Gutenberg now aims to completely reinvent it.  That's a big deal.

It won't be easy, but here's 1) why it's worth it and 2) what it means for page builders.


The Wild West

The WordPress ecosystem has been trying to improve the site editing experience since before plugins entered core in WordPress 1.2 (2004).  There have been page builders, theme frameworks, front-end editors, etc. all trying to improve the WordPress experience.

Like every meaningful advancement, there are these wild west days of churn to find something that works.  There have been a lot of great tools and learnings, but there has also been a lot of fragmentation across dozens of page builders, theme frameworks, etc. that don’t work well together.

If you’ve been around WordPress for a while you’ve seen some cringe-worthy examples of this.  For example, a site with a bloated “multipurpose” theme…using a page builder…and using WooCommerce or some similar monstrosity. It’s a mess.

Why do we have page builders, theme frameworks, shortcodes, custom post types, and more?  All to fill the gap between what WordPress core does and what users want.

What Users Want vs. What WordPress & Page Builders Do
What Users Want vs. What WordPress & Page Builders Do

WordPress is a Broken System

The WordPress ecosystem is built around a broken system with bloated themes, widgets, shortcodes, custom post types, menu items, page builders, etc.  These DO NOT exist because they’re the best way to build a website.  They DO exist because they’re compensating for WordPress’s shortcomings in fulfilling users' needs.

Gutenberg aims to standardize and add these foundational elements that WordPress lacks.

Gutenberg: Everything is a Block
Gutenberg-ization: Everything is a Block

While experienced users may be used to this (like you get used to a bad knee and don’t notice limping), it’s a bad experience for new users and it’s holding WordPress back.

This is why WordPress needs Gutenberg.


Will Gutenberg Kill Page Builders?

This is a question I see asked a lot.  The answer is yes, but not how you think.

TL;DR “page builder” is a description of “how” page builders work, not “what” page builders do from a jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) perspective.  There will always be a market for the what.  It’s only the how that’s changing.

For example, page builders provide a flexible interface (modules, drag & drop, etc.) that gives customers advanced customization beyond WordPress core.  The flexible interface is only relevant because it enables the customization.  The customization is what customers want.

What WordPress page Builders Do
Page builders had to provide a flexible interface in order to provide customization. Gutenberg is changing this.

To reiterate, the only reason page builders provided the interface (via their own frameworks) was because WordPress didn’t.  They had to provide the interface in order to give users what they want.

In a sense, Gutenberg frees page builders to focus on what customers actually pay them for: advanced customization beyond what WordPress core does (or will ever do).


Page Builders Will Evolve into Customizers…

Over the next few years as Gutenberg develops we’ll see page builders migrate from their old (own) frameworks to Gutenberg and evolve from page builders into customizers.

This should provide a major advantage as they can redeploy resources from maintaining (and supporting) their own frameworks to focus on building the best customization experience in innovative ways.

What WordPress Page Builders Did
Gutenberg allows page builders to focus on what customers actually pay for: advanced customization beyond what WordPress core offers.

But will pure customization be a big enough market for customizers (page builders) to thrive in the future?  Oh, yeah!  Here's why:

  1. Gutenberg will be in 100% of WordPress installs 5.0 and later–far that more any page builder today.
  2. A more flexible, easier to use core editing experience will only accelerate WordPress growth, meaning a larger TAM (total addressable market) for customizers.
  3. Customers are divinely discontent.  Their expectations will continue to rise as they always have.  Only page builders customizers that leverage Gutenberg and focus resources on improving the customization experience will meet these growing expectations.
  4. Bloated multipurpose themes will die out as functionality shifts out of themes.

There will be thousands of new opportunities to make money with WordPress. The future is bright for those who adapt.


And Some Page Builders Won't Evolve at All

There will also be page builders that fail to make the transition.  They’ll try to stay relevant by adding “Gutenberg compatibility” with their old page builder frameworks.  This is like adding “electric compatibility” to gas-powered vehicles–it misses the point.  Perfect reasoning from wrong premises.

But we can’t fault page builders for behaving this way.  Switching to Gutenberg when you have a paying customer base using your old framework seems counterintuitive.  Companies are supposed to leverage their advantages, not destroy them, right?

They're sticking to what made them successful in the past, oblivious that it'll doom them in the future.  Sometimes you have to disrupt yourself before somebody else does.  The hard part is knowing when.

This is the classic problem with incumbents.  For example, despite being one of the first to mobile, Microsoft was too focused on what made it successful in the past and ported Windows to mobile (made Windows mobile compatible) rather than thinking mobile-first like Apple and Android.  Sound familiar?


On Resistance to Gutenberg

There’s resistance to Gutenberg in the community, primarily by existing WordPress users used to the way things are.  If you’re an existing WordPress user (especially a freelancer or agency) it can be scary to think about how this could impact your business.  Some reasonable questions and concerns are:

  • Will this make it so clients don’t need my services?
  • I already have tools and a system that works for me, will this break them?
  • I don’t have time to learn anything new.
  • This just creates more work I don’t get paid for.
  • The plugins and themes I rely on won't work anymore.

…and dozens more.These are all reasonable concerns and the uncertainty of not having answers can create fear that manifests as resistance and anger, especially when livelihoods are at stake.

The WordPress team could have handled the approach and messaging around Gutenberg better.  If existing users (especially WordPress professionals and plugins/theme authors) were brought along better, then Gutenberg would have more community support.

But this is very hard work and they’re human.  They’re also volunteers dedicating a nontrivial amount of their limited time on this earth to improving a project we all rely on and use for free…so let’s cut them some slack, appreciate their efforts and contribute through constructive criticism.  This is what makes WordPress great.

The great thing is that the only reason this is happening (people passionate about making WordPress better and people passionate about not ruining it) is because we all care deeply about WordPress.  Remember, this is what makes WordPress great!  Let's get through it together.


Gutenberg still has a long way to go to earn the confidence of the community and it’ll take more than just polishing the experience.  It'll take listening to the community, addressing the concerns around Gutenberg like helping existing professionals adapt to the change, ensuring more plugins are compatible, etc.  Even hosts should be involved and educating their customer bases.

This is a community project and it’ll take the community to make it successful.  When it is, we’ll all have more of the growing WordPress pie.

Here's to 50% and the next 15 years.🍺

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11 Comments

  • Thanks for commenting Scott! This seems highly unlikely (and unsustainable) in the long run. If WordPress were transportation, ClassicPress seems like it would be the “horse and carriage” fork.

    Looking at the project (to which you contribute, which is admirable), the value proposition appears to be 1) No Gutenberg and 2) more user feedback (voting) driven development. Is this right?

    Regarding no Gutenberg, WordPress 5.0 with Gutenberg doesn’t break anything. As a user I’d wonder what ClassicPress offers that just using the Classic Editor Plugin (https://wordpress.org/plugins/classic-editor/) doesn’t since it will be supported for the foreseeable future. The mission may have to be more substantial than that to justify the significant effort in maintaining such a fork.

    Regarding user driven development, I believe this may be more complex than you’re imagining. No successful product or project I’m aware of is the result of pure user feedback via voting. From over a decade in product development, using a product and building a product are different perspectives. At times, you must do things that users don’t ask for or even don’t want.

    What am I missing here? If I misunderstand ClassicPress, please correct me.

    Reply
  • > Over the next few years as Gutenberg develops we’ll see page builders migrate from their old (own) frameworks to Gutenberg..

    No, Gutenberg wants to replace the page builders, see “phase 2” in @photomatt tweet https://twitter.com/photomatt/status/1037843717070057472

    > Gutenberg will definitely be a whole-page builder, that’s the entire point of phase 2. All of the infrastructure is built to support that, so it will happen much faster than phase 1.

    Reply
    • Frontend page builders/block builders will have the opportunity of speed to market with features they know their clients want. WordPress will stay an open market and the demands of markets will remain in place. Core will be able to offer some basic blocks but while hopefully fully vetted and robust, they won’t offer features that clients want.

      EXAMPLE: Add a 200 row table to Gutenberg right now (say for event results you want to add to a blog post)…now that you see there is no real way to do this efficiently go to your code editor and copy a clean table of 200 row/columns into the code block as a clean HTML markup…it will work eventually (200 rows, 5 columns took my page 12 minutes to load in Gutenberg), but there is a page builder that has solved this by offering a CSV upload which parses the table to JSON and even offers clickable settings for responsive, sorting and other desired features.

      One point Matt ha made is that the fidelity required of front-end editor to click and drag UI is not preferable or ‘easy’ for all users, I think he was specifically talking about column width drag at the time. I think that is a really solid point and why the UI of Gutenberg is going to help a ton!!!

      Reply
  • Hey Noah, thanks for commenting!

    There’s nuance here that we should appreciate. A “whole-page builder” does not mean a page builder in the typical sense. Matt means that it will be used to edit the whole page–every part of the page including sidebars, footer, etc.

    “Page builder” in the sense of this article implies page builder tools like Divi, Beaver Builder, Elementor, etc.

    These are not the same thing. The nuance is explained in the article above, but to reiterate: page builders (like mentioned above) provide advanced customization that WordPress doesn’t provide, but users want.

    WordPress core will have a basic “page building” framework (blocks) from Gutenberg, but as a general rule WordPress core only includes what 80% of users need (basic stuff). It won’t provide the advanced functionality that users want and page builders provide today. This role will still be filled by plugins. In the article I referred to them as customizers because that’s what page builders will do in the future once they no longer have to provide their own page building frameworks.

    Hopefully that helps clarify.

    Reply
  • This was a refreshing read after all the horror-stories-yet-to-be articles that abound on the Gutenberg transition.

    I agree that WP needs this and in the long run will be a phenomenal addition to the Core, for vanilla users and developers like that want to create custom integrations (like what Elliot Condon is floating for Advanced Custom Fields).

    WordPress needs this to stay relevant; I find many clients who have used services like SquareSpace and Wix, or even other CMSs like October and Concrete5 that are dissapointed in the bland and limited editor experience of WordPress. The are actually familiar already with Block Builders and that really is the future of CMS publishing platforms.

    This will no doubt infringe on some of the markets for the custom Page Builders like Beaver Builder, when Gutenberg can finally do basic layout of columns and rows. But I doubt Gutenberg will ever grow to accomodate the slew of features that the custom page builders offer. And I agree with your post entirely: this is an opportunity for them to provide a product that integrates in a more seamless way with WordPress, rather than completely commandeering the WordPress experience.

    It’s going to be a rough road, all major technology disruptions are, but it has to happen. I only build custom themes that rely heavily on native WordPress functions and best practices, with plugins that are already cleared for Gutenberg compatibility, so I’m not worried about my clients’ sites at all…but I only hope it’s done with as much care as I hear they are putting into it so it doesn’t completely obliterate the myriad of random plugins and off the shelf themes out there.

    Reply
  • You right, Gutenberg customizers are already emerging on the market. Stylist https://wordpress.org/plugins/stylist/ allowing you to change appearance of any Gutenberg block. You can extend any block with custom controls like margins, paddings, background colors, borders and more.

    Reply
  • While those most recognizable page builders try (if they do) to adapt to the new core editor, hundreds of new Gutenberg-specific add-ons/customizers/builders will arise. The promotion is going to be even easier for the latter since they are not ‘page builder’ competitors, but a super new enhancement for Gutenberg.

    Reply
  • A refreshingly honest evaluation of Gutenberg. As a disruptive technology to the WordPress ecosystem, it’s causing a lot of varied responses. In particular, I believe page builders have a shrinking window of time to re-imagine their offering in the context of Gutenberg (Gutenberg as editor but also as block approach to websites). There are some very exciting opportunities notwithstanding the short to medium shock waves to the ecosystem.

    Reply

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