What Does Gutenberg Mean for Your Company’s Website?

etching of early typography shop with printing press

WordPress 5.0, slated for release by the end of 2018, includes what is arguably the most significant change in its history: replacement of the classic Tiny MCE editor by a default, pre-installed plugin known as Gutenberg. It’s possibly the most controversial swap since New Coke.

If you run a software company, why should this concern you? For small or mid-sized software vendors (like our company), it’s very likely your website is developed in WordPress. We moved off our homemade site and on to WordPress several years ago and have never looked back. Our developers need to focus on coding our product, not on maintaining the company website.

If you plan to build or refresh your organization’s website in 2018 or 2019, you’ll want to keep Gutenberg on your radar. Its main purpose is to help you quickly design web pages and new website content. To accomplish this, Gutenberg completely changes the way pages have been built in WordPress. Content will now be slotted into “blocks” using a WYSIWYG editor that (theoretically) makes creating new pages a drag-and-drop affair.

Gutenberg has blocks for different purposes, such as Image, Gallery, Heading, List, etc. Every piece of content is in a separate block, which means that each paragraph is its own block. This can feel clunky from an editing standpoint — especially since there’s no way to edit everything at once the way you could using Tiny MCE — but block styles can be saved and reused as templates to make content creation faster and more efficient.

Although WordPress veterans may not miss the all-in-one composition window, they will definitely miss the more subtle style choices they could create by way of plugins, custom themes, and tinkering. Padding and margins will likely be a key sticking point, for instance, since there’s currently no way to account for these elements in Gutenberg.

WordPress admittedly doesn’t have the most modern UX, but plugin developers have been incredibly creative in the way they’ve coded the application to deliver all kinds of functionality, from memberships to shopping carts to portfolios, and so on. There are, in fact, already plugins out there, like Visual Composer, which deliver drag-and-drop page creation.

But it does seem like underneath it all, the current environment is built on daisy-chained spaghetti code that relies on hacking the features or quirks of WordPress to function. It’s not elegant, and it seems like that is what Gutenberg is designed to address. Ultimately, “Gutenberg’s project focus will shift away from the editor to site creation itself,” says the WordPress VIP site. “With that transition, it will bring a standardized approach to page building to native WordPress.”

So, while it might be a painful process at first, Gutenberg will ultimately be a good thing for the platform (and for the web, given that a full 30% of all websites out there today are on WordPress), and we will probably see a real growth in new kinds of functionality we can add to our sites. Just one example: the new release promises a block for internal notes, giving you the ability to add comments, so you can comment your pages similar to commenting code. That’s functionality that was sorely missing from prior versions.

The good news is that backwards compatibility is a core WordPress value, so you can expect to be able to edit and display your legacy content with minimal disruption. Unfortunately, most existing plugins will have to be re-written.

Anyone with experience with the platform knows that plugins are its most problematic aspect. There’s a plugin for almost anything you need to do, but there’s also the likelihood that it will fail – and bring down your site – the next time you update. Since most sites use a dozen or more plugins, there is a huge potential for disaster in the Gutenberg release. Plugin developers, like Yoast, for example, are wary about how their suite will function.

However, Gutenberg is still very much in development, and will go through more changes before its first official release. Plenty of developers are already storming the gates (well, comments sections) with their torches and pitchforks, so the Gutenberg team is well aware that there are kinks to be ironed out.

Getting Ready for Gutenberg

There are a few things you can do to be prepared. There are plenty of sites that can keep you up-to-date on Gutenberg’s development. You might want to download Gutenberg now to your test environment, and start playing with it to get an idea of how it impacts your current features and plugins.

But you can also embrace change eventually. You don’t need to be a first adopter. Right now the roadmap has the release down for 2018, which seems somewhat optimistic. The product can and will evolve leading up to its release and it’s likely that many popular plugins will have full compatibility before 5.0 goes live. In fact, if there is one hope I have for this new release, it would be that it ultimately improves standardization and vetting of plugins, and a better way to identify problems with individual plugins after an update.

If you a planning a new site or site refresh for the first half of 2019, it is a good idea to keep Gutenberg in mind when talking with prospective web development partners. If they push you to adopt Gutenberg, there are two possible problems. First, for your staff tasked with maintaining your site there’s going to be a learning curve in working with the new editor. Second, Gutenberg will very likely break some of the other plugins that your site depends on. Any new website project will need to dedicate some time to really checking that all your existing plugins will still work.

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