My observations on what’s changed in WordPress since I left in 2015

It feels crazy to say it but WordPress is approaching its 20th birthday in 2 days time! I started working with WordPress in 2006 and back then building websites was much different. Back then most websites were what was called a “static website”. The developer (me) would build a website using HTML and then upload it to a server page by page. When any content on the site needed to change, the customer would call me and send me a Word document with a list of changes – or I would physically turn up to their office and work through the changes. I remember my first customer used to print out the website and cross thins out and write in the changes.

I was super keen on the idea of a ‘dynamic website’. What that meant was the website content was added via the website itself not necessarily by the developer and therefore the customer could manage their own content.

The thing was though, that not many people wanted to do this. Most of my clients just wanted to tell me the change and I make them. As time went on I started building sites using a CMS even when the customer didn’t ask, because it was easier for me to build them and maintain them this way.

My preferred system at the time wasn’t WordPress, it was Joomla! (it actually has a ! in its name, I’m not excited). Joomla was a little complicated but it was pretty and very powerful. Joomla enabled me to have a standard template but then also have modules to place in different locations and a lot of advanced components for doing really fancy stuff.

WordPress was seen as a blogging platform and I didn’t really see it as a competitor to Joomla! But things changed (more on that in a future post), but at the time WordPress was quite basic.

The power of WordPress was it was very lightweight and very easy to understand. It could be installed quickly (famously in 5 minutes, although it often wasn’t quite as easy as that), and using the back-end was easy for customers. Pages and posts, that’s about it. If you were like most companies and you didn’t know or care what a blog was, pages was all you had to worry about.

When I ended up leaving the website game in 2015 with the sale of my last WordPress business WP Curve, a lot had changed.

WordPress had become the dominant player for websites, being used by around 60% of all websites in the world. Coming back to WordPress 8 years later I’ve noticed a few things, here’s a list.

The good

WordPress has come along in leaps and bounds since 2015.

  • The community is amazing, the resources online are incredible, the ecosystem is alive and well.
  • Themes have become extremely powerful. One of my favourites these days is Pro / X Them which uses the Cornerstone site builder which is pretty epic. Drag and drop pages, create beautifully-designed pages instantly with templates, or close existing ones. Loads of inbuilt features and a community where just about every issue you can think of has been resolved. X Theme isn’t the only drag and drop theme builder, there are plenty of others like Elementor, Divi, Beaver Builder etc. It’s really incredible how far themes have come.
  • There are plugins for literally everything and they are super sophisticated. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to do something with WordPress and couldn’t find a plugin that did the exact thing (for free or a very reasonable price). When I was last in the game we would have to make plugins to do certain things, or add custom code. Custom code is rarely needed in WordPress these days.
  • Security is better. WordPress used to be a big target for hacks and I suppose it probably still is, but because most sites now aren’t hacked together, it’s much easier to keep them updated and therefore the sites are lot more secure. In addition the Site Health Check feature has been added which makes finding security issues and managing security much easier.
  • Hosting is infinitely better. Back in 2015 there were only a few dominant managed WordPress hosts (like WP Engine and Pagely). These days most hosting platforms have dedicated WordPress tools. I even noticed in cPanel coming back that there are a whole bunch of WordPress specific tools. That’s awesome. Back in the 2010’s WordPress was treated for the most part like any other PHP-based content management system.
  • Support is a different level. I started the first 24 / 7 WordPress small jobs service back in 2013 and we had basically no competition. Not the case in 2023, starting WP Master, has been eye opening! A lot of people have good WordPress support already and starting this business isn’t a big deal like it was when I started WP Curve (doesn’t bother me, my goals are different this time).
  • The inbuilt editor (Gutenberg) was released in 2018 and it was a huge jump. Not quite the full drag and drop feature-set of some of the great themes like X Theme, but a huge improvement over the classic editor. It was starting to feel like WordPress was dropping behind considerably over tools like Squarespace and Shopify with it’s classic text editor. Gutenberg was a little clunky but definitely a step in the right direction.
  • Moving away from widgets. Back in the 2010’s the way you got bits of content in different sections on the site was via ‘Appearance / Widgets’. It was a really clunky process and you needed another plugin called Widget context to even display some widgets on certain pages. Widgets are still a thing but I find I rarely use them because most of the time I’m using a drag and drop theme builder.
  • AI. While I haven’t seen too many inbuilt AI features in WordPress so far (I’m sure they are coming), I’m finding with tools like ChatGPT and Bard, using WordPress is a totally different experience. Any time I need to know anything about it, or need help, or need some code, or need plugin or theme recommendations it’s all right there. It’s an incredible advancement and it makes managing a site using WordPress a totally different experience. This article for example was written with the help of AI as part of 20 articles I wrote in 1 day! That would not have been possible in 2015!

I just say, changes haven’t been super dramatic given the amount of time that’s passed, but those changes are all considerable and overall WordPress

Related: Why I’m starting a lifestyle business after almost 17 years chasing startup glory

Related: The benefits of managed WordPress hosting providers like Cloudways

The bad

While I haven’t really seen anything ‘bad’ as such, WordPress is certainly under a huge amount of pressure from competition. The standard approach used to be to host your own site with a fully customisable website platform (like WordPress). But these days its becoming much more common to use a SAAS platform and not have your own hosted site at all.

For example in 2015 Shopify had a market share of under 6%. In 2023 it’s over 11%, almost double. And Shopify isn’t the only player.

Squarespace and Wix were just getting traction but for the most part tools like this were seen as a super basic systems only suitable for simple websites.

The trend to move away from your own software is real though and it’s coming for WordPress. I remember the same thing happened in the 2000’s with email marketing. At the time a lot of people had their own software hosted on their own server to send emails. I used to use white label email marketing software for my clients hosted on my own servers. These days almost no one does this. Most people use hosted tools like MailChimp, ActiveCampaign etc.

It will be interesting to see how WordPress copes with this trend. I’m a bit surprised it still has the market share it has because I often hear people talking about build a new website and there are lot of other tools mentioned in the conversation – sometimes before WordPress.

I’m obviously still a fan of the model and I think it’s important to have your own IP and data etc for your website. And hosted tools will probably never be able to be as powerful asn configurable as something like WordPress, so I’m not too stressed out.

It’s good to be back

I was a little nervous getting back into the WordPress space after so many years ago but I must say, it’s great to be back. With the improvements in WordPress I feel much more empowered to offer customers a great service and I’m loving being back working with WordPress every day.

If you are an Australian business who wants help with WordPress check out our plans here. If you are interested in more content like this, check out the rest of the WP Master blog.

Dan Norris