Gutenberg and why WordPress may have a marketing problem

Is the Gutenberg editor what WordPress wants to be in the future?

As you probably have noticed, a lot is going on at the moment and it seems WordPress is slowly trying to reinvent itself. While this is great and surely necessary to make it future proof, it also raises some questions and concerns. Does WordPress development go into the right direction? Is it clear what WordPress wants to be? Or does WordPress even have a marketing problem?

The Gutenberg approach and what users really need

Gutenberg Editor Plugin
Image Source: Screenshot – WordPress.org

The most exciting WordPress news in 2017 is Gutenberg – the brand-new editor which probably will ship with WordPress 5.0 and which currently is available as a plugin. It’s great to see that the editor in WordPress will be updated after all those years. However, the Gutenberg approach also raises lots of concerns amongst developers and confusion about what WordPress wants to be – to say the least.

There recently have been lots of posts on WP Tavern about Gutenberg and this seems to be the hottest topic in the WordPress community at the moment. While most people agree that WordPress needs to evolve, there also are disagreements of how this should be done. Today I stumbled upon a comment by Rick Gregory on the recent WP Tavern post:

It’s up to core to act like a product team and do the market outreach and research. Too often you all come off as a bunch of engineers without any product experience. For example… comments and feedback on… GitHub? In make.WordPress? Both of those are fine if you’re a developer but are not conducive to having non-developers give feedback. Stop being developers and start being product people. At least some of you.

While this comment probably may be a bit too harsh, since core developers usually are doing their best to ship great stuff, it also outlines some valid points.

What is the future of WordPress?

Future of WordPress
Image Source: 27707 – Pixabay.com – CC0 Public Domain

To be honest, for me the current approach goes too much in the direction of WordPress.com. While this may not be a surprise since Matt Mullenweg is lead and other Automattic folks are involved as well, I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do. Yes, WordPress.com is a blogging platform and probably many of the things they implement there make sense. But is this the right direction for WordPress core? Isn’t it great that WordPress core has become so much more than a blogging tool?

With that in mind, this whole Gutenberg approach definitely makes sense from a blogging perspective since the writing experience is better than with the current editor, although there still are some hiccups. But is making this the standard in WordPress core the right direction? As some of you may have noticed already, Gutenberg currently breaks stuff that is crucial for millions of self-hosted WordPress sites (e.g. meta boxes) and it’s not sure yet how this will be solved.

Breaking things like that is the worst nightmare for thousands of theme and plugin developers. It means that countless hours of development work are down the drain and developers need to recode their products. While it’s understandable that core needs to get rid of some backwards compatibility to evolve, it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to break things that are crucial for thousands of sites.

WordPress.org is not WordPress.com

WordPress versions

With that being said, while WordPress.com is a blogging platform, this doesn’t necessarily apply anymore to self-hosted WordPress sites. What makes sense on WordPress.com doesn’t necessarily make sense for WordPress.org. People do so much more with WordPress than just writing blog posts, they run ecommerce sites, business directories, Q&A sites, social networks, etc… Some self-hosted sites may even not use the editor but solely work with meta boxes or other stuff.

The current Gutenberg approach seems to downgrade WordPress from a highly flexible CMS to become a blogging tool, again. Yes, WordPress.com may have an issue to compete with Wix, Medium or Squarespace and surely Automattic investors want to see ROI. But is this necessarily a problem of WordPress? Does WordPress really compete with these platforms or isn’t it so much more?

How should WordPress evolve?

Bot
Image Source: 3151940 – Pixabay.com / License: Public Domain CC0

Does WordPress need a better editor? Oh yes! Should WordPress break functionality that does not apply to regular blogging? Definitely no, since this functionality is a crucial aspect of WordPress as well. WordPress isn’t anymore just about blogging. One of the main benefits of WordPress are the thousands of available themes and plugins so that people can extend their site to become whatever they want. WordPress isn’t WordPress.com and people don’t just blog.

WordPress has become what it is because of the many small theme and plugin developers who have developed great stuff. It probably would be the worst mistake in WordPress history to sacrifice this. I’m confident that core developers will have that in mind while taking things forward. But it’s also understandable that there currently is lots of confusion and uncertainty amongst developers.

With that being said, the comment by Rick Gregory has a valid point. A crucial aspect of marketing is doing research and ship stuff that people really need. What people need isn’t necessarily what developers think they need. That’s why it’s important to ask users for feedback before making decisions that will change their life. Has WordPress a marketing problem? Possible, but I hope not!

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15 Comments

  1. The problem I saw with Gutenberg from the beginning is that it’s just a simple WYSIWYG editor, and not much more. Remember the “What are little blocks made of?” blog post on make.wordpress.org?

    I was hoping that developers would be able to register their own little blocks. That way, we could have advanced blocks, like a slideshow or a background video section, and still edit it in the front-end.

    When I got to the Slack channel discussion on Gutenberg, no one was listening to engineering questions. Instead of talking about how the thing should function, all anybody wanted to talk about was what it should look like, or what the browser support should be. Browser support, really?!? Before it had been decided or communicated what the game plan for this tool was in the long run, you people got down in the weeds to talk about browser support?

    This highlights my main issue with how WordPress is made today: anybody can come crashing in to the Make WordPress Slack channels. We think that it’s a win for “democracy,” but giving someone with a few days experience the same level of input as someone with years of development under their belt is insulting.

    What I saw in those Slack channel discussions were bandwagon conversations where someone hit on an easy topic that a bunch of other people understood, and so the conversation went that way.

    However, when a really smart developer (http://gschoppe.com/security/soc-and-the-editor/) posed an in-depth engineering question, I got the sense not many people knew what he was talking about, nor did they take the time to try and understand it. So his topic died and ultimately meaningless discussions about browser support survived.

    The WordPress core team ought to do a better job of moderating these discussions, so it’s not just a shouting match, a competition to see who can post the fastest, who can get the word in, who can get the most Slack reactions. We need meaningful, moderated discussions about WordPress, because right now, hard conversations that could have helped us avoid this point are being ignored for what is easy.

    • Gutenberg has been described as an improved text editor to replace the existing text editor, and it was decided early on to focus on “blocks” as a primary feature. Now core engineers are plowing forward and honing the UX of delivering a block-based editor.

      This premise has problems since it doesn’t acknowledge the various personas and tasks involved. What user base asked for backend editing with blocks? Certainly not the Squarespace/Wix/Weebly prospects who drag and drop on the front end. Not WordPress bloggers who need a handy text editor on the frontend. How about designers that have already created a slew of block-based page builders on the front, back, and in Customizer…. So, who is Gutenberg for?

      When I suggested somehow merging the abandoned frontend Editor into Gutenberg in a Twitter thread with some major WP engineers/developers, I was immediately shot down for not knowing that Content and Design must be kept separate in a CMS. That coming from a group that is creating a backend page builder that doesn’t fully render what it’s styling on the frontend. Theory is fine, but workflow & Author Experience (AX) matter more.

      WordPress is going to streamline the editorial process by forcing a sophisticated editor or marketer to jump between a backend block builder and frontend customizer throwing their content back and forth over a wall, so to speak. That doesn’t feel like a step forward—it’s more like software design by committee without usability testing. If you just want to write, you’ll likely stay at .COM, else commit to a continuous learning curve with .ORG as these separated tools continue to evolve.

      • I somehow have the feeling that there are attempts to make .ORG more similar to .COM, especially now that Automattic partly has opened up .COM for custom themes and plugins.

        This of course makes sense for Automattic since that may bring in more users to .COM and also solves the .COM / .ORG confusion, as the differences are becoming less obvious. But how may that affect the WordPress ecosystem on the long run?

      • The team published an FAQ on Github. How do I make my own block? The API for creating blocks is a crucial aspect of the project. We are working on improved documentation and tutorials. Current documentation lives here.

  2. Fully agree with this article. The solutions can be to have the Gutenberg editor as an option like the distraction free full screen editor that nobody uses.

    • Without collecting usage data, it is not clear that “nobody uses” the distraction free full screen editor. Claims need to be backed up by facts. Same problem for Gutenberg: a solution looking for a problem. What problem (marketing opportunity) are we trying to solve?

  3. Aren’t we in deja vu all over again? Remember Post Formats? Remember why? LOL the Tavern deleted my comment because I ripped a specific WP developer. But they missed the point – there is a lack of real project management in WP. Lot’s of “vanity” managers but no one with a bust-ass take no prisoners attitude towards getting things done.

    That particular developer completely ignored my offer to project manage what they were doing. Not a polite no – he pretended I wasn’t there. And sure enough – his rather important WP piss patch has not turned out well, in fact it is loathed by many. But uh no – he and his fellow head-in-something developers were going to solve world hunger and very quickly too.

    • I think you’ve touched on something with the “vanity managers” comment. Automattic seems to be driven less by user needs (especially non-blog users), and more by their desire to do something “cool.” Can we fork WP for a CMS-focused platform?

  4. “…probably wouldn’t be a great idea to break things that are crucial for thousands of sites”…it’s more like 10’s of millions. The problem — aside from the ongoing effort or appearance of wanting to turn .org into .com — is that WP is wanting to compete with Wix, Squarespace, and Medium, but the fact is they started theirs with this concept from the start; WP on the other hand is starting late and with millions of websites using WP, the really gargantuan problem is backwards compatibility.

    Think of all the sites that created content from plugins and even plugins that integrate with the editor, including shortcodes. If I heard right from another source, expect to eventually see widgets become obsolete. Think about the 10’s of 1000’s of themes being used.

    If anything, Gutenberg should NOT be in the core; let the decision go to the end-user if they want to use it or not. If WP messes this up, they could find a major backlash. I’m also wondering how many plugin and theme developers will be pushed out of business because if there’s a massive restructuring and recoding of everything is going to be required, I would imagine many developers will wave good-bye to WP.

    • Hi Martin, good points – thanks for joining the discussion. I’m afraid we’ll see Gutenberg in core, no matter what. Automattic has already invested too much into this thing to drop it and it’s clear that they want it in core. The reason probably is to make .org and .com more compatible, especially since they now have opened up .com for custom themes and plugins. I guess in the past they lost quite a few customers who started at .com and then preferred to run a self-hosted site because of the restrictions on .com.

      But I think there is more to this whole thing. In 2015 Matt Mullenweg made a statement: “When I took on the responsibility of CEO of Automattic January of last year, we faced two huge problems: our growth was constrained by lack of capital, and the technological foundations of the past decade weren’t strong enough for the demands of next one.”.

      This made me think, especially the part “our growth was constrained by lack of capital”. It’s well known that Automattic raised millions of venture capital after that. But this now is several years ago and maybe Automattic isn’t doing very well overall. Usually investors don’t care much about open source or ethical decisions, in the end they want to see ROI. The recent happenings somehow leave the impression that there is pressure from that front:

      • WordPress.com opening up for custom themes and plugins
      • Matt Mullenweg becoming lead of core development
      • Automattic closing the San Francisco office
      • Plans to sell .com themes via Jetpack (monetizing .org)
      • Doubling WooCommerce renewal pricing without notifying customers
      • Announcing Gutenberg as new editor in WordPress (lead by Automattic)

      And these are only the recent events, probably I also missed a few. Of course closing the SF office is a valid thing to do, especially since apparently not many people were working there and the cost seems to have been around $1 million a year. But this move could also have been initiated by investors who wanted to cut costs.

      In the end it’s more than clear that Automattic currently is trying to monetize whatever possible and cutting costs at the same time. It leaves the impression that there is pressure to speed things up and find new revenue streams. Overall their investors may not be that happy, especially not since the competition (Wix, Medium, Squarespace, etc…) is doing quite well. Venture capitalists may want to see results and ROI. There is quite an interesting article about that here: Automattic needs to justify valuation.

      With that in mind and when thinking about how this whole Gutenberg thing is being forced by Automattic, I’m not sure if Gutenberg is only about making WordPress core better and improving the current editor. It seems there is a different agenda which highly involves Automattic and their business goals. Automattic is certainly free to monetize their business as they like, usually the goal of every company is to run a sustainable business. But doing this while saying that it’s best for WordPress core (not WordPress.com) is probably not the most appropriate way to work with the open source community.

      However, this of course all are speculations and logical conclusions based on recent events. It’s hard to not think of these things while having the big picture in mind, but I may be completely wrong. We’ll probably never know. 🙂

      • I think the worse is not Automattic trying to monetize its business, but doing that using the volunteer work from WordPress.org community as cost free workforce.

        • Hi Thiago, yeah – that’s an interesting thought as well, especially if the main motive behind Gutenberg is to make WordPress.com more competitive, but that’s just speculation.

          What’s also interesting is that the Gutenberg FAQ says that it’s definitely planned to make Gutenberg part of WordPress core (scheduled for WordPress 5.0) and at the same time it says: “There’s also likely to be a very popular plugin in the repository to replace Gutenberg with the classic editor.”.

          So if you already know that many people may want to disable Gutenberg (which seems to be the case when looking at the feedback), then why put it in core in first place? It could just be a plugin and enabled by people who want to use it. This at least wouldn’t cause major issues with backwards compatibility and wouldn’t be such a support nightmare for developers.

          When looking at the roadmap for Gutenberg, it seems that basically everything in WordPress will be converted into blocks at some point. That means developers will have no other choice than arrange themselves with Gutenberg in some way.

          Anyway, it’s a good move to rebuild WordPress to make it future proof. The question is just if Gutenberg is the right approach while having the WordPress ecosystem in mind.

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