The Future of WordPress: 2020 edition

Cover of the slides for the talk "The Future of WordPress"

Between July and October 2020, I had the pleasure to give a talk about the Future of WordPress at multiple events. Every time, I updated the talk to reflect the changes going on in the current release, and in the plans for the future. I decided to turn this into an article and ideally write an update every year.

Buckle up, it’s a long post! In this first edition, I will also give an introduction on how changes happen in WordPress.

I started contributing to WordPress in 2015, when I was a freelance web designer. In 2017, I started working at SiteGround and I became more involved. Since October 2020, contributing is my full-time job at Yoast.

Between 2019 and 2020, I co-led two major WordPress releases, WordPress 5.3 and 5.4, with the role of release coordinator. This experience allowed me to observe the project more closely.

It’s impossible to keep track of all the moving parts, nevertheless it was interesting to see how things actually happen. How changes get introduced, championed, and hopefully move forward and land in a release.

How do changes happen in the WordPress project?

Who and what are the driving forces behind changes happening in WordPress?

As of November 20th, 2020, WordPress is the #1 CMS with a 39.0% market share. Those are huge numbers so every decision is made with this in mind.

The driving forces behind WordPress changes

We have

  1. The companies in the business ecosystem. It is worth more than 10 billion dollars as reported by Matt Mullenweng, WordPress co-founder and project lead, in the movie “Open“.
  2. The community – anyone who uses WordPress and cares deeply about different sides of the software or all of it. Sometimes this overlaps with companies but not necessarily. There are a lot of independent professionals and end-users involved.
  3. The wish to modernize. The web industry is now changing at an incredible pace, with new technologies becoming available and affordable very quickly. To keep up with those changes, the project must change and evolve. 
Slide with WordPress driving forces businesses, community, and modernisation

These forces, together with competition from site builders like Squarespace and Wix and the opportunities in untapped areas, like the millions of small businesses without a website, were amongst the reasons behind the introduction of the block editor, code name, Gutenberg.

Matt said it very clearly in one of the early posts about the project. The block editor is:

WordPress’ next big thing, the thing that helps us deal with our challenges and opportunities. The thing that changes the world.

Matt Mullenweg – We Called it Gutenberg for a Reason

Scheduled releases for 2021

These changes are then translated into releases. For 2021, there are four major scheduled.

For years, WordPress had a somehow predictable schedule, with an average of three releases per year. 

Then it took a bit over a year to make WordPress 5.0 available, the release that introduced the block editor, and contributors were uncertain about the timeline.

Having a predictable release schedule is very important: it allows everyone to plan ahead. Not only companies and website owners, but also contributors that are working on the project can see in advance how this will fit in their life and work schedule. 

Changes to WordPress in 2020

I would like to highlight some changes that happened in 2020. Features that have an interesting story behind them, how they came to be, and what is their impact on the ecosystem.

The ultimate goal is always to improve some of the most important things in the web landscape today.

The importance of security for WordPress

Auto-updates are important for security. Outdated versions of plugins, themes, or WordPress Core are potentially vulnerable and could be used to hack your website. Security is important for every website, no matter its size and visibility. Auto-updating will help website owners to keep everything to the latest version and reduce the surface of hacking attacks.

Auto-updates

Anything that has to do with auto-updates is tricky territory. 

Lots of people quote Facebook and other online services where you don’t know which version you are using, however those are SaaS applications. 

Here we are talking about updating a self-hosted application that might have been heavily customised over the years.

WordPress 5.5 introduced the first iteration of plugin and theme auto-updates 1. I didn’t think it had the easiest discoverability That thought brought me to open my first ticket in Core Trac.

WordPress 5.6 added a user interface to opt-in to automatic updates of releases. This means that besides minors, all the others are disabled by default. You can be read the latest plan in the WordPress Core blog.

I understand the fear, but at the same time, as a former employee of SiteGround, a managed hosting company with hundreds of thousands of WordPress installations on their servers, I am here to tell you: it can be done.

Young Frankenstein – It Could Work!

I am a big supporter of this feature. The less time we spend on tasks that can be safely automated, the more time we have to do different work, more meaningful and profitable work.

My concern about this feature is the lack of tests that managed hosting companies have been doing for years. They back up the website before every auto-update. Some might let you pick how long after the release you want to update and if something goes wrong they will roll you back to the previous version.

None of this is part of the WordPress Core workflow – yet. For now I would encourage everyone to test this new feature extensively on staging or development sites before opting for them in production. But I am sure you are already doing this with any change in your website, right 🙂

(Not yet) Dropping support for PHP 5.6

Support for PHP 5.6 was supposed to be dropped in WordPress 5.6. 

PHP dropped it at the end of 2018 and many felt that it was time to drop it also on our side, but the numbers tell another story. 

WordPress is famous for its commitment to backward compatibility: over 10% of all the WordPress websites use PHP 5.6, so what do you pick in a case like this? Modernisation or safety? 

In the end, the safer solution for the users was picked, so support for PHP 5.6 was not dropped in WordPress 5.6. 

There is a proposal for a multi-year plan for dropping old PHP versions without causing too much trouble for outdated websites. The Site Health widget in your wp-admin dashboard has information on what to do if you need to update PHP. 

Educating users is definitely more time-consuming but will empower everyone to feel they are in control of their website.

The importance of performance in WordPress

After security, performance is one of the most important factors to take care of when you work on your website. Speed matters a lot to every stakeholder. According to Think with Google, 53% of mobile website visitors will leave if a webpage doesn’t load within three seconds.

A faster, more secure web is a shared interest of site owners, search engines, hosting companies, e-commerces. Basically, everyone is rooting for any feature that will improve loading time. 

Image lazy-loading

WordPress 5.5 introduced the native lazy loading of images in browsers which support it. This feature became a web standard at the beginning of 2020 and WordPress implemented it as soon as possible.

This features saves bandwidth by loading images only when you reach them in the website page you are visiting.

Support for PHP 8.0

A big change on the table is the support for PHP 8.0 which, amongst many other things, includes continuous performance improvements. 

When I gave this talk in July 2020, I said with no hesitation that WordPress 5.6 will support PHP 8.0.

Today, a more adequate way to put it is: WordPress 5.6 Core is as compatible as possible with PHP 8.0, given the circumstances.

There is a lengthy debate about this: partly dependant on the decision not to drop PHP 5.6, partly tied to the technical debt that a 17 years old codebase has inevitably accumulated, partly due to the lack of test coverage in WordPress Core, and partly due to the complex nature of the changes required. On the Yoast Developer blog, you can find a thoroughly researched, clearly written report on the compatibility between the two.

As Eric Raymond said

given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow

Of course, I am not even remotely suggesting this issue is shallow nor easy, but I believe that with a wealth of skills and enough people working on the project, we can more successfully solve problems.   

The importance of accessibility for the WordPress project and business ecosystem

Every new version of WordPress comes with accessibility improvements. These changes are driven partly by businesses and in large part by the community.

Accessibility is often an afterthought, and it was the same for WordPress. But for the past few years, the project has been working to improve.

Accessibility compliance is not only required by law, which should be motive enough to get you to invest in it, but it’s also good for business: just recently I listened to a very interesting talk at WordCamp Italy about accessibility and business. Over 20% of Italians have some sort of disability. Can you afford to lose 20% of your potential customers? The more people that can access your website the more you can interest them into signing up for your courses, services, etc…

The WP Campus Gutenberg Accessibility Report

WP Campus, a community of networking, resources, and events for anyone using WordPress in the world of Higher Education, commissioned an accessibility audit of Gutenberg in 2019. The resulting report continues to help guide accessibility improvements.

The report from Tenon, the company that won the bid to do the report, highlighted a number of issues and basically found that, and I am quoting

Gutenberg has significant and pervasive accessibility problems […] severe in nature. Organizations which have high-risk profiles should consult legal counsel before using it and may want to choose to use the legacy editor instead.

WP Campus Gutenberg Accessibility Report by Tenon

The good news is of the 84 issues reported, the majority have been fixed. 

But there is a but. 

New accessibility issues are introduced with each new feature, and that is less than ideal. 

The W3C decision not to continue using WordPress

In the fall of 2020, the W3C, the World Wide Web consortium, decided not to use WordPress any more for their blog because

the delivery of accessible HTML/CSS pages that meet user needs is the most important part of this project.

On not choosing WordPress for the W3C redesign project

So yes, the W3C is prioritizing accessibility over picking an open-source CMS. As Joe Dolson, a prolific contributor and a leading consultant in the accessibility world put it:

open source was never a hard requirement, but a preference.

The W3C Drops WordPress from Consideration

If accessibility, and other concerns that were raised, are more important, then probably we, as the WordPress project, need to take a deep look inside our practices, not the W3C.

A new WordPress default theme: Twenty Twenty-One

All of the things I mentioned so far came together beautifully at the end of 2020 with the new default theme, Twenty Twenty-One, that brings together accessibility, performance, and the power of blocks.

It’s beautiful, with a number of pastel palettes to choose from. When I tried it, even before it was released for Beta, out of the box it got top marks from Google Lighthouse.

Screenshot of Lighthouse results for the new WordPress default theme, Twenty Twenty-One

If you wonder why its SEO score is just 92, it’s because WordPress core doesn’t provide meta descriptions, but I know how you can improve that 😉

Coming up next: WordPress in 2021

Active development of WordPress never stops. Every day people work on hundreds of tickets and keep thinking about how to make it better. So the project is working on different things all the time.

On wordpress.org/roadmap you will see a very high level roadmap, with the direction the software is headed to. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to see that blocks are the main focus for the next couple of years. And they have been since 2017.

Four stages of Gutenberg

The rollout plan is made of four stages. 

Gutenberg (WordPress) Phase One – The editor

The goal of phase one was to introduce the block editor which was merged in WordPress 5.0 and keeps moving forward as a plugin. Multiple versions of the plugin get merged into each WP major release. 

Gutenberg (WordPress) Phase Two – Full Site Editing

The goal of phase two, full site editing, is to utilize the power of Gutenberg’s block model in an editing experience beyond post or page content. In other words the idea is to make the entire site customizable.

From this point on everything you see on a page is a block. A user will be able to edit their header, footer, add a new menu, modify widgets, and create page templates, among other things.

As much as I am thrilled about how it is evolving, I have some concerns about Full Site Editing.

The future of WordPress Themes Shops. 

To me it looks like FSE 2 is both a blessing and a blocker for theme developers.

It’s a blessing because it will allow everyone to fully leverage the opportunities offered by blocks. Theme developers will be able to play with modern HTML and JS and at the same time, if they will play their cards right also in terms of marketing, they will be able to attract customers with these shiny new toys. 

A quick look at any forum or Facebook group tells me that one thing users with no development skills struggle with is changing things like colors, fonts, elements positions, and layout. So theme shops will be able to offer this more easily and make it part of their selling proposition.

I don’t think having more customisation options available to end users will put theme developers or web designers out of work. Dragging and dropping does not make you a developer or a designer, otherwise there wouldn’t be agencies offering Shopify and Squarespace customisation services.

At the same time there is a lot to learn. Full Site Editing is really changing everything, also in terms of how to actually develop a theme. 

Right now there are very few themes that are marked as block-ready in the WordPress.org Theme directory and I have no clue about third party theme directories.

Let’s assume the complete Full Site Editing will be ready to go into WordPress 6.0 3. It’s a year away, are developers getting ready? I sincerely hope so.

What will happen to old, non block supporting themes when FSE will be introduced?

I reached out directly to Riad Benguella, one of the leading engineers in the Gutenteam and he told me that “Full Site Editing will be enabled only when a theme supporting it is being used, so if themes are not ready, they’ll just work like today”. 

That was a major relief for me and I hope it is for you too.

Keep up with Full Site Editing

Compared to how Gutenberg was communicated, I think Full Site Editing is a step forward: development still happens in GitHub but there are a number of places where you follow how the project is evolving.

I listed my favorite here:

  • Gutenberg Times, Curated News and Community Voices about the WordPress Block Editor by Birgit Pauli-Haack. There is a weekly newsletter, frequent Q&A sessions, a podcast, etc… 
  • Full Site Editing Outreach Experiment
  • Follow the blogs from the different teams involved in making WordPress. Core, Design, Accessibility and Themes are heavily involved in all things Gutenberg.

Gutenberg (WordPress) Phase Three – Collaboration

As the founder of a multi-author blog, I am really looking forward to Collaboration features.

Matt Mullenweg said during 2019 State of the Word

Phase 3 is where we take everything that you see in Gutenberg and make it so that you can real-time co-edit with anyone else who is editing the same things you are.”

Collaboration will allow multiple people to access content at the same time, without having to take over someone who is working on it at the same time.

If your staff is made of more than one person publishing on your website you know the pain of having to take over each other or wait for the other person to be done, then go in, make some changes, then they go in again, etc…

This will help you streamline the editorial workflow in a way that will be similar to Google Documents.

Gutenberg (WordPress) Phase Four – Multilingual

And finally, phase four is a major, much awaited change in WordPress, but right now there is nothing concrete. 

My wish is for Core to include multilingual support out of the box, so users won’t need plugins to translate their websites into multiple languages.

I am not sure WP will be able to completely substitute mature multilingual plugins, but some basic functionality to start with would be great. 

To me, having one less plugin to deal with means more speed and more security. 

To infinity and beyond: wild hopes and dreams for WordPress

I asked some colleagues and some friends from the community to tell what they are their hopes and dreams for WordPress future, based on emerging or established trends and patterns in the web industry.

I also have been keeping an eye on these two tweets I saw from two active and respected contributors: going through the replies it’s very interesting.

I’ll leave you to discover the replies to the tweets.

Let’s see what my colleagues and friends had to say.

The importance of translation can not be understated. This is how WP can get adopted by many more people. The Polyglots team, the team that translates and adapts WordPress into other languages, works on Core, but also on plugins and themes. So if you speak any language other than American English I would encourage your to check out make.wordpress.org/polyglots

Multilingual is in the roadmap and I hope work on it will start as soon as there are enough resources available.

Let’s start with a focus on eco-consciousness and sustainability. WordPress’ mission is to democratize publishing and we’ve achieved that. It’s time to focus on making the information people publish more accessible and usable. Not all countries have access to high-speed internet and lots of people rely on mobile phones with limited data to browse websites. If to see your content they need to load massive files you are basically incapacitating them to use the web.

WordPress is turning into a monopoly and competitions is always healthy.

We also started to see applications of blockchain. Now let me be honest here, I have no clue what it is, but if the European Commission awarded a 1 million euros award to WordProof for the ‘Blockchains for Social Good’ contest , it means that it is important.

Other things mentioned:

  • Privacy related tools and functionality
  • Better performance
  • Better SEO out of the box 

Of all the replies I got, I really identify with this.

I would love WordPress to become easier in the future. It is still rather hard for non-technical people to get started. Also, I think the platform has grown despite its marketing and not because of it. So, in the future of WordPress, I would love to have a consistent story and a consistent strategy

Marieke van de Rakt, Yoast CEO

Based on all that I said, in my eyes the future of WordPress is bright, thanks to the willingness to innovate and not stay behind.

To be able to accomplish this, the project needs a multitude of people involved, at a personal level and at a stakeholder/business interests level.

I think the WP Campus Audit was a great example of how a community that has specific needs raised a flag and offered a solution.

The best contributions in my opinion are always selfish and generous: I know it sounds contradictory, but it’s basically an invitation to pick one thing in WP that you want to make better, invest in that and in that only, and take it to the end line. 

For me it’s outreach and mentorship and more than the visibility I got through the releases I co-lead, I am especially proud of the work that I did for WordPress 5.6, a release completely lead by women and non binary folx

After all this is the base of Open Source contribution, as stated in Eric Raymond’s The Catherdral and the Bazaar.

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s itch

Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

You need to start somewhere and starting from something that you need a solution for is a great motivator. This might be something that puzzles you or something that you need to solve to move forward with your own project. 

So…

Surprise, you are the future of WordPress and I am sure the project will continue to thrive thanks to you!

  1. The ability to auto-update everything has actually existed in WordPress for over seven years, since the 3.7 release. At the time, minor releases auto-updates were turned on by default and we are all used to it by now. []
  2. acronym for Full Site Editing[]
  3. I have no insider information about this, so this is a speculation and it is not confirmed by anyone who is actually working on FSE[]

By Francesca Marano

WordPress Core team lead at Yoast. Previously, WordPress Community and Partnership manager at SiteGround. I contribute to WordPress.org full-time. I have an insane passion for luxury skincare and soft wool. Beyoncé is always the answer.

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