Gutenberg - the future of WordPress content editing

WordPress 5.0 is here. What does it mean for you?

It's been talked about for over a year, but WordPress 5 has finally been released.

What will it mean for your WordPress website? Potentially, quite a lot.

WordPress 5 includes Gutenberg, a new content editing tool that represents a revolution for WordPress, which has evolved slowly and cautiously over the 15 years since it started in 2003. The name is a reference to the Gutenberg printing press, invented in 1436, which was the first printing machine to allow for movable type, which made it much cheaper and easier to print documents - which was revolutionary at the time.

Gutenberg is different to the old way of editing content in WordPress because, instead of creating content in the regular text editor, you'll now create content in one or more blocks and then position those blocks on your page in a drag-and-drop user interface.

How does Gutenberg change my WordPress editing screen?

The first implication of Gutenberg once you update to WordPress 5.0 is that the traditional text editor will disappear and be replaced by Gutenberg. This (probably) won't break your pages, but you'll be looking at a different editing screen after the update compared to before.

Here's the current editing screen for editing a page in WordPress:

WordPress - the traditional page editing screen

Here's that same page with Gutenberg enabled:

WordPress Gutenberg page editing screen

As you can see, these look kind of similar, but different.

The page content is being displayed in a block called "Classic". This block is using what is now called the "Classic" WordPress editor. Once you click inside the block, a toolbar will appear with all the formatting buttons you're used to.

The other key element in this screenshot is the row of icons below the text editor. These are where the power of Gutenberg becomes apparent. Want to add an image into your page? Click the first button in the row, and you get this:

WordPress Gutenberg - add image block

With this block, you can load an image into your page, like this.

WordPress Gutenberg image block

The cool thing about this is that it will then be an independent block that you can move around the page. Want it above the text block you already created? Simply click the arrow on the left to move it up one block:

WordPress Gutenberg image block after moving

Gutenberg - it's all about blocks

Once you get the concept of blocks in Gutenberg, a whole world of possibilities suddenly opens up.

WordPress 5 comes with a small set of block types built in. There are already many plugins that provide additional block types for Gutenberg. ANd WooCommerce, the main ecommerce plugin for WordPress already supports Gutenberg blocks.

Using WooCommerce as an example, consider how cool it will be to add a block of "related products" to a blog post on your site, and be able to manually specify which products are displayed.

Looking further into the (near) future, imagine if the content of the "Products" block could have dynamic rules around which products are shown, based on keywords in that blog post, or based on the popularity of certain products in your site, or the combination of a set of different visibility rules.

What about if the display of the block itself on a given page could be conditional based on certain rules, such as the current date (e.g. a special offer block that is only visible until the end of the month).

What about page templates that come with a set of blocks already in place ready to be filled in, or where the list of available block types has been restricted by the administrator for that particular template (so your editors can't go crazy with a gazillion blocks on the page).

Now imagine what happens when Gutenberg is extended to cover the whole page, not just the content area, so you can also lay out your header, footer and sidebars (bye bye widgets...?.

The future is bright. The future is blocks. Gutenberg blocks.

Do I need Gutenberg if I've got a page builder like Visual Composer or Beaver Builder?

This is an interesting and tricky question. The answer is, unsurprisingly, that it depends.

On the face of it, Gutenberg looks just like another page builder plugin. But it's not. It's a complete change to the way that WordPress works. Page builders had to be invented because the traditional WordPress editing tools were antiquated and hard to use, and there was no sign of that changing. Until now.

Page builders will continue to exist, but will need to co-exist with Gutenberg. So, if your site is reliant on a third-party page builder today, then you should make sure that your page builder plugin has been updated to one that supports Gutenberg before you upgrade to WordPress 5. And, as always - back everything up first and, if possible, make a copy of your site for testing rather than doing this to your live site.

In the long term, though, it's hard to see what role page builders will play. Gutenberg provides a huge amount of that functionality in core WordPress, and it's free. Page builders generally cost money, add a whole lot of functionality and complexity to your site, and (usually) store your content in a format that is difficult, if not impossible, to extract if you switch to a different page builder.

It may not happen overnight, but my guess prediction is that we will see the decline of page builders, and the rise of a new type of premium theme - one that embraces, extends and gets out of the way of Gutenberg.

What if I'm not ready for Gutenberg yet?

The team that builds WordPress knows how big a change Gutenberg will be for existing sites. I said it already - this is revolutionary.

But not everyone will be ready to upgrade as soon as WordPress 5.0 comes out. In fact, you probably shouldn't upgrade immediately - you should take time to test Gutenberg in your site before you do.

You might decide to do nothing about Gutenberg or Wordpress 5.0. That's a valid option, for now.

Fortunately, the older version of WordPress (4.9.8) will continue to receive security updates, so you can keep running that older version for a while until you're ready to upgrade (although be warned that if you're using a managed WordPress hosting service, you may find that your site is updated automatically - check with your provider). We're not updating any of our managed hosting clients to WordPress 5.0 unless our clients ask - we'll wait until at least one or more two minor updates come out and then test some of our client sites to make sure nothing breaks.

In the meantime, you can try out Gutenberg in your site before upgrading to WordPress 5.0. Simply take a backup of your site, then install and activate the Gutenberg editor. I recommend that you update to the latest version of WordPress (4.9.8) before you do. You can then try out the Gutenberg in your existing content to see what happens. If you don't like it, simply deactivate the Gutenberg plugin again.

And, if you need to update to WordPress 5.0 but don't want Gutenberg, you can install the Classic Editor plugin and then disable Gutenberg - this will restore your editing experience to what it was before Gutenberg.

Conclusion

WordPress 5 is a major release that will revolutionise the WordPress world. It brings in a long-needed update to how content is created in a modern content management system. It also lays the groundwork for some major advances in WordPress that will make it a much more powerful and flexible CMS than it is today, in ways that are still on the drawing board - but which are definitely coming. You can embrace this world, or run from it - but at some point you'll have to convert.

Watch this space.

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