The new year is often a time of new things: new resolutions, new jobs, new (or renewed) gym memberships. This year, we also get a brand new version of WordPress, WordPress 5. The arrival of WordPress 5 has brought excitement, frustration, and plenty of questions for the WordPress community. If questions such as “How does this affect my site?” “Should I update at all?” and “What is the right way of updating?” are on your mind, then read along and I’ll do my best to answer them.
What is WordPress 5?
WordPress 5 is the newest, shiniest (and possibly most controversial) version of WordPress yet. WordPress 5.0 (“Bebo”) was released into the wild on December 6th, 2018. The primary change that it brings is a new post editor, nicknamed the “Gutenberg” editor (after the inventor of the printing press). This replaces the familiar but somewhat dated TinyMCE or “classic” post editor.
You create content in the new post editor by adding, editing, and stacking “Blocks.” Each “Block” is made of content of a specific type, such as a “Paragraph,” an “Image,” or a “List.” The new block editor gives you a lot of new options, and posts look a lot more like how they look on the page. If you want to get a feel for what this is like, WordPress.org has a fun interactive tutorial.
The new block editor gives you a lot of new options, and posts look a lot more like how they look on the page.
Using Gutenberg will feel familiar if you’ve played around with any page builder plugins like Elementor or Beaver Builder, although it by no means replaces those plugins. Instead Gutenberg gives the post editor a much needed update. This helps WordPress stay in competition with other CMS (Content Management Systems) like Squarespace that are rapidly gaining ground. It also gives the user the ability to accomplish relatively simple things, like putting two images side-by-side, that were previously only accessible to developers.
Pros and Cons of WordPress 5 and Gutenberg: Making a decision
To help you understand why you might, or might not, want to update to WordPress 5, here are my pros and cons for the new version. If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation of the new Gutenberg editor’s capabilities and drawbacks, my colleague Fred wrote a great article over at WP Shout that’s worth a read.
Pros: What Gutenberg and WordPress 5 Do, and Do Well
- Gutenberg makes writing blog posts easier. WordPress, at its core, is built for blogging. What Gutenberg does, I believe pretty successfully, is allow you to write blog posts in a way that feels more intuitive, and as you edit it, your post is displayed in a way that is much closer to what it will actually look like when published. It still doesn’t do these things as well as a page builder, which I’ll get into below, but it’s certainly a solid step. I’m using it right now, and honestly, it just feels better to write posts in the new editor.
Honestly, it just feels better to write posts in the new editor.
- Gutenberg potentially cleans up the page builder marketplace a bit. Prior to Gutenberg, the standard WordPress site (running what we would call “WordPress core”) had no way of creating posts where you could see how they would actually look on the page. It also had no way of creating layouts more complex than a single column of text with a few images. Because of that, the marketplace for page builder plugins exploded, and it is now one of the most popular form of plugins. But unfortunately the quality of those page builders vary drastically. Since WordPress 5’s release, all of the major page builders have either released updates to integrate themselves with it or are planning to. It’s likely that conforming to Gutenberg will force questionable page builders to be a little less difficult to use. A small step, but a step nonetheless.
- Gutenberg brings the editing experience into this decade. Probably the most important thing for the future of WordPress was to update a classic editor just felt dated. Competitors of WordPress like Squarespace, Wix, and Joomla have been creating editors that allow you to seamlessly (or somewhat seamlessly) edit the post on the page it displays on. The new editor still doesn’t do that, and thus is probably still a few years behind its competition, but it at least gives you get a better feel of what it will look like on the page, no longer looking like a flashback of Microsoft Office cerca 2002. We can also likely expect the new editor to continue to improve and gain features over time.
Keeping your site up-to-date is always a good idea.
- WordPress 5.0 (which ships Gutenberg) also ships a few security updates. Possibly the most important thing for most site owners, and the reason I believe that everyone should update, is that it, like many new versions of WordPress, WordPress 5 (specifically 5.0.3) brings updates that patch known vulnerabilities. WordPress is estimated to power 30% of the web, which means there’s a lot of bad guys out there looking to exploit easy vulnerabilities on sites that haven’t updated. Keeping your site up-to-date is always a good idea.
Cons: What Gutenberg Doesn’t Do, or Doesn’t Do Well
- Gutenberg doesn’t replace page builders. I think this one is only a “con” if it’s something you expected, but since a lot of people did, it’s a major source of flak that Gutenberg/WordPress 5 has been receiving. As I mentioned, Gutenberg brings the editing experience closer to what page builders have been providing for years. For that reason, expectations grew that Gutenberg would replace those plugins, and be a “page builder killer.” It is not close to that, nor do I think that is what it’s meant for, but if that’s what you were expecting, you will probably be disappointed.
WordPress is open-source software with many contributors, and it’s likely most if not all of these bugs will be fixed over the next few months.
- Gutenberg has some minor bugs and idiosyncracies. Like any new piece of software, WordPress 5 contained a share of bugs on release, some of which have been fixed, and some of which are still lingering. Most of these will probably go unnoticed by a majority of users, but if you’re curious/worried, Fred outlines a few of them in section 4 of this article. Other little things have come up during use, like list blocks adding extra list items (bullets), but nothing that can’t be worked around. WordPress is open-source software with many contributors, and it’s likely most if not all of these bugs will be fixed over the next few months. If you run into a bug, you can contribute by reporting it. David wrote an article here on just how to do that. I went and looked for my issue, and already found that there are developers working on it.
- Some serious accessibility concerns have been raised about Gutenberg. People who know what they’re talking about when it comes to accessibility, like the WordPress Accessibility Team, have been sounding the alarm. The new page builder is problematic for those who need assistive technology in order to use WordPress, and since it wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind, it’s going to be that much harder to fix it. This is a real problem, but one that won’t affect a majority of site owners. Let’s hope some fixes get made here.
Looking at the pros and cons as a whole, I would argue that WordPress 5/Gutenberg is almost entirely a step in the right direction for WordPress.
Then why is it so controversial?
If you found this article in a Google search, you may have found it among multiple articles telling you to never upgrade, and the currently 2-star review for its plugin page. So although I’m a fan of WordPress 5/Gutenberg, obviously not everyone agrees with me.
From what I’ve seen, the backlash has occurred almost exclusively among WordPress Developers, and not among the vast majority of users who use WordPress to create and update simple websites and blogs. Why are developers so angry? I’m guessing that it probably comes down to a few of these reasons:
- People expected Gutenberg to be more than it is. As I mentioned above, the new editor doesn’t replace page builders. However, the hype in it’s roll-out built an unrealistic expectation that it would. Since page builder plugins have had years of development focusing on doing one thing really well, it would have been very difficult for WordPress to beat them at their own game. Given that, it’s not a big surprise that it’s release was met with disappointment.
The whole process raised questions about the governance model of WordPress being, possibly, an “ambiguous surprise-dictatorship.” Not great.
- The roll-out of WordPress 5 was shaky at best. One pretty clear mistake in WordPress 5, and one that probably provoked a lot of early animosity and resentment, was its bungled roll-out. The release date was suddenly announced just a few weeks in advance, causing a lot of developers to panic. Then that deadline came and went without a release, with the development team just saying “soon.” It was finally released the day before the largest gathering of WordPress Developers in the world, WordCamp. There was a lot of valid criticism about the lack of transparency and communication throughout the whole process, which raised questions about the governance model of ‘open source’ WordPress being, possibly, as Fred put it, an “ambiguous surprise-dictatorship.” Not great.
- The few bugs that exist in Gutenberg inconvenience developers far more than regular users. These minor bugs are ones that a majority of users probably haven’t noticed. But people who work in WordPress for hours a day are far more likely to run into them. A poorly handled roll-out followed by a less-than-perfect release is a pretty surefire recipe for some justifiably angry users.
- People, especially professionals, don’t like change. I would chalk this up to a part of basic human behavior: behavioral inertia. Humans are often resistant to having to learn new things. Especially when those new things affect our professional lives in a significant way. I would guess that a lot of developers probably feel perfectly happy with the old post editor. Then when the change of the new editor feels forced on them, requiring them to learn the ins and outs of something they never asked for, many aren’t happy about it.
So should I update to WordPress 5?
There’s quite a few articles out there that say the opposite. I personally disagree for one important reason: security. WordPress 5.0.3 includes updates for new known vulnerabilities that your site will otherwise be exposed to. Don’t want your site compromised? Then update.
If you don’t like the new Gutenberg post editor, you can install the Classic Editor plugin and never have to look at it again.
Updating to WordPress 5
Alright, either I’ve convinced you that updating is a good idea, or you’ve come to that conclusion on your own. Now, what’s the best way to do it?
Do I need to hire a developer?
There’s no guarantees that you won’t run into issues after the update. However, so long your site isn’t using outdated/custom plugins, it’s unlikely you’re going to run into trouble.
What’s the price of peace of mind? In this case, somewhere between $40 to $125 an hour.
However there’s a few cases where you might want to. Those include sites with a lot of traffic, complex sites (like you had to pay a professional developer 30+ hours to build it) and/or sites with big eCommerce/web-store operations. In those cases it might be a good idea to hire a developer to do the job just in case. It shouldn’t take them more than 20 minutes to complete the update, and they’ll be available to fix any problems that come up right away. What’s the price of peace of mind? In this case, somewhere between $40 to $125 an hour.
If you’ve never hired a Web Developer before, here’s an article we wrote to help you know what to look for.
A 5 Step Guide to Updating to WordPress 5
Step 1: Backup
Before making major updates, it’s always a good idea to take a backup of your site. Most hosting services will give you an easy way to do this, but the steps vary significantly based on your host. I’d recommend the simple solution of Googling “[Your Hostname] website backup,” and you’ll likely find an article from your host on how to do it.
Alternatively, you can take a backup from the WordPress Dashboard/Admin side. This is useful if you don’t have access to your web hosting to take the backup there. You’ll need to install a backup/migration plugin, like All-in-One WP Migration, then download a backup from that. With All-in-one WP Migration you just need to find it on the left-hand menu in the Dashboard, hover over and click “Export,” then click the “Export to” button and choose File, and it will begin creating a backup. After a few minutes you’ll be able to press a flashing button to download the backup of the site.
Step 2: Update your plugins
Next thing to do is make sure all of your plugins are up-to-date. This ensures that when you update to WordPress 5 they will work smoothly. Head to “Plugins” on the left-hand menu of the Dashboard/Admin Area, check the top left box which selects all plugins, click on the “Bulk Actions” drop-down menu, select “Update” and then hit the “Apply” button just to its right. Leave this page open for a few minutes while all of the plugins update. You’ll know it’s done when you can scroll down the page and see only green “Updated!” messaged underneath plugins, and none in yellow asking you to update.
Step 3: Update your themes, just for good measure
Most themes will probably not be affected by changing the version of WordPress. However, keeping your themes updated is always a good idea, especially for security reasons. Just head to the Dashboard/Admin Area, hover over “Appearance” on the left-hand menu, and click “Themes.” This will display all of the themes currently installed on your site. Any themes that have pending updates will have yellow messages above them prompting you to update. Click “Update Now” on each theme that has that message, and wait for them to all display the green “Updated!” messages.
Step 4: Make the update!
Having completed all the necessary preparations, you’re now ready to make the update to WordPress 5!
If you haven’t made the update yet, you’re probably getting yellow messages at the top of any page in the Dashboard/Admin Area. All you need to do is click the “Update Now” link in that message, which will take you to a new page to complete the update. Follow the dialogs there, and you should be good to go!
Step 5: Check the site
After making the update, it’s a good idea to play around with your site to make sure everything is working as normal. Try opening it up in an Incognito window (Ctrl+Shift+N on Chrome) and visiting pages on the site to make sure everything looks and works as expected. Try logging in, using your webstore if you have one, and generally making sure everything that you know your site can do functions well.
Hopefully all of this gives you a more informed understanding of what WordPress 5 means for your site, and you’re ready to hit that “Update Now” button to bring your site into 2019.
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