It’s been rather tumultuous time for WordPress. The preeminent CMS system’s long-awaited 5.0 Gutenberg release, which shipped with a new drag and drop style editor, was met with a mixed reaction at best and notably shipped in an inexcusably buggy state. Gutenberg has largely been fixed as a result of several updates but the debates in the WordPress community persist over how good or how bad Gutenberg is and what it means for the future of the platform. All the while the WordPress Classic Editor plugin continues to rack up millions of downloads.
Overall, I think these debates are healthy and even encouraging. They’ve prompted a lot of interesting discussion online about the approaches, philosophies and future of WordPress and I don’t want to focus too much on Gutenberg. My perspective on Gutenberg changed after an interesting conversation with a colleague who told about some of the Gutenberg advantages that I had overlooked when taking a critical view of the new platform.
Instead I did some curious deep dives into the state of WordPress as of this writing. The results are very encouraging and point to the fact that despite the huge swathes of would-be WordPress killers popping up everywhere, WordPress has a bright future ahead.
Website builders, AI-driven web design (a misleading term, but separate topic) and “done for you” website management platforms are a popular industry these days. If you watch almost any YouTube videos you’ve likely seen promotional material by Wix or Squarespace, and almost every web host under the sun has its own proprietary website builder. I’ve seen a number of startups try to “kill” WordPress and I’ve seen plenty of industry specific website builders (websites for restaurants, therapists, and so forth).
The vast numbers of potential competitors make WordPress’ continued rise even more pronounced. As of 2019 WordPress powers a third of the entire Internet.
What’s even more staggering is that this number is an increase. WordPress’ market share isn’t merely growing, it’s been growing consistently at a very respectable rate for such an established platform. W3Techs has the hard data: Back in 2011, WordPress powered 13.1% of websites. By 2015 it was 23.3%. As of 2019 it’s 33.6%. Think about that again – a third of the Internet is powered by WordPress.
So how does WordPress stack up next to its two primary rivals, Drupal and Joomla? To be blunt, WordPress leaves them in the dust. WordPress’ 33.6% of all websites stands next to Joomla’s 2.9% of all websites, and Drupal’s 1.9% of websites. As far as the actual CMS market goes WordPress is the undisputed king and has been for some time.
I can personally vouch for how messy and unintuitive Drupal is by comparison (especially if you have non-tech savvy clients who want to run their own updates) and a few of my old marketing clients made the conscious decision to move off of Joomla for how lackluster the support was by comparison. So while the number differentials are staggering it’s not particularly surprising.
Now let’s take a look at WordPress compared to some of its younger and possibly nimbler competition. The latest batch of entrants to the website field are the ones you’ve probably seen being advertised on YouTube videos. Countless hosted website builder tools have hyped themselves up as “replacements” for website building, with Squarespace and Wix being the biggest names in the field.
As much as I’d like to talk about how that’s untrue it’s also a separate topic. Instead Squarespace powers just 1.5% of all websites while Wix manages 1.1% – again, compared to a whopping 33.6% by WordPress.
One advantage that Squarespace and Wix have despite their comparatively small percentage of website market share is their frantic growth. From 2018 to 2019 Squarespace’s market share increased from 0.7% to 1.5% – or 114% growth – while Wix grew by 149% after going from 0.4% to 1.0% of market share.
The easiest explanation for this is that Squarespace and Wix are still relatively new compared to WordPress, and their meteoric growth is fairly common among early stage companies that have found traction among their target audiences and niches.
The other interesting comparison is their marketing. As I mentioned Squarespace and Wix have spent millions of dollars in banner ads, TV commercials, YouTube partnerships and branding deals. WordPress, by comparison, does very little in the way of direct marketing. It’s almost guerrilla in some ways, with WordPress largely relying on its huge community of developers and designers to continue recommending WordPress as a platform, installing it on websites and effectively using its most valuable people as advocates.
Of course, the unique position WordPress has is the symbiotic relationship between WordPress itself and its developers. I’ve been critical of “identity-based marketing” where the focus is on turning customers into not just fans, but fanatics. This often serves to solely benefit the business, but developer advocacy on WordPress is much more nuanced. A cursory look at Automattic’s website reflects many of their philosophies, culture and approach. First and foremost WordPress.org promotes making the Internet a better place through an open exchange of ideas, which serves to draw like-minded individuals who are interested in working for passion as much as profit.
Beyond that, WordPress’s culture of open source has enriched the careers of many in the fields of web design and development, this author included. Whether it’s hundreds of millions of dollars being paid out to creators of sellable WordPress themes or the ability of web designers to build their portfolios and start their own businesses, WordPress developers have a vested interest in contributing to make WordPress a better place, and WordPress in turn has incentive to enrich the people supporting it. In short, everyone wins.
The results of this long term strategy that Matt Mullenweg and WordPress have cultivated in the numbers. Back in 2013, Mullenweg reported that over 20,000 people were “making” a living off of WordPress – including designers, developers, bloggers, and writers. Even in 2013 I expect that was a very conservative estimate – I have to assume by now that the number is astronomically higher.
Of course, your average small business owner likely doesn’t worry a lick about the 126 official WordCamps that were held in 2017 or the 840 meetup groups for WordPress all over the world. Even so, it’s also representative of the balance between people who want a reasonable amount of code-free control over their websites and developers who want a full developer toolkit. With open source to boot.
Amid all the Gutenberg drama it’s easy to forget that the future of WordPress is bright and Mullenweg has huge ambitions for the platform. If WordPress continues growing in the way it continues to we may very well be talking about significantly more than a third of websites being powered by WordPress in the future.
Hey, if nothing else, just remember that WordPress is so good that even Wix was using it at one point.