Changes to website code rarely make headlines and aren’t something that I normally talk about on my blog as they are more effective than Stilnox in inducing slumber.
Website code is generally created by raging introverts fuelled by energy drinks using liquid cooled computers in darkened rooms. It is not inherently sexy or newsworthy, except when an icy blizzard of code is bearing down on small business websites, and my businesses need to know what is about to hit them.
There are a few storms of whopping great code changes about to hit websites, and the combination of these will prove challenging for many and deadly for some.
So, what is heading your way?
As of October this year, WordPress powers 32.2% of all websites across the internet, with 59.4% of the market share of all content management systems. The vast majority of small business websites are built using WordPress simply because it is easy for users to manage and update.
However, as competitors started to loom over the horizon towards WordPress, that were making building websites simpler and more intuitive for non-coder type people, the techs at WordPress and others who are part of the open-source tech community, started to rebuild the engine that drives WordPress from the ground up.
In non-tech terms, they are turning a normal petrol engine in a car to a hybrid engine to be more fabulous and efficient. Some things are the same, but a lot is different.
With WordPress, each of the major code changes is given a codename, historically named after musicians.
We are currently enjoying a bit of Billy Tipton as part of the 4.9 series of code, but the next big release (WordPress 5.0) will be breaking with tradition and is called Gutenberg.
But this time, there are a whole heap of problems, issues and things that could break your website. Gutenberg is coming and it is starting to feel darn chilly!
Matt Wullenberg, the founder of WordPress, set out in detail his underlying philosophy behind the code change to Gutenberg:
“When Johannes Gutenberg’s press came out, people mostly used it to print the same religious text monks had been copying. It wasn’t until ten or fifteen years later that people started innovating and trying their hands at new kinds of writing, and the wheels of change started to spin faster. Now it’s WordPress’ turn to do the same.
Gutenberg meets our challenges and opportunities head-on while simultaneously benefiting everyone who makes a living working in the WP ecosystem. It’s about a lot more than just blocks. Our Gutenberg moves every part of the WordPress ecosystem forward.”
What is WordPress’s Gutenberg?
The first phase of Gutenberg is a revised editor experience for WordPress. The goal behind the change is to make it much easier for users to edit pages and posts and create rich, user-friendly designs without needing to know how to code.
What users will soon see is instead of the Tiny MCE editor (which looks a bit like a Word ribbon) that they have happily used for over a decade, will be blocks similar to Lego, that you can add, drag and drop around the page to create the content and design you want.
Everything is a block with Gutenberg: Text is a block. Images are blocks. Quotes are blocks. Buttons are blocks. Whatever you can imagine that you need to do on WordPress, is now a block.
The toolbar that you are used to will be replaced by drop-down menus that help you to do what you need to do.
For my clients that are used to the Divi theme, (but also people who use things like WP Bakery, Visual Composer and Beaver Builder), blocks are not all that new, but you will still need to re-learn how to do things like add or edit text on your website.
Here’s a link on the WordPress site if you want to explore what the new Gutenberg editor will look like. Kinsta also has a great post on using the new Gutenberg editor.
What is changing with Gutenberg?
So, some code is changing. But, what does that mean for your small business website?
All current WordPress websites have been built using the old code.
As we have discussed before in previous articles, any WordPress website has a number of bits to it.
- WordPress (the engine)
- Theme (the bit that gives the look and feel to the site)
- Plugins (the bits that give functionality to a site)
Every single bit needs to be rewritten by developers to now integrate with the new code.
Every website host.
Every single plugin.
Every bit of custom code that a random web designer or developer has written to make a website do something or look a certain way.
Every single, tiny part around the new WordPress Gutenberg engine needs to be adjusted.
Back to my favourite car analogy: Imagine if on a certain day, that every single car, truck and commercial vehicle on the road has their petrol engine swapped for a hybrid engine. Some will happily start and run with no problems. Others won’t start at all as the new engine is incompatible with the rest of the bits. Still others will sort of work, but some parts that used to work will run funny or look different.
That’s what is going to happen when Gutenberg rolls out.
Some websites will sail through beautifully with not a care in the world. Others will crunch and break into a thousand messy pieces. Other sites will sort of work, but some of the functionality may not work.
To make it more interesting, Gutenberg has only been designed to work on modern browsers, which means the current and past two versions of browsers. This means people who don’t update the browsers on their home computers may suddenly start seeing a whole lot of messed up websites.
When is Gutenberg going to be released?
The Gutenberg target release date was 19 November 2018 (US time).
If everything isn’t ready, the next few fall back dates are:
- 27 November 2018 (This is the new target release date).
- 8 January 2018
- 22 January 2019
We are starting to see increasing calls for the release date to be pushed back.
Joost de Valk (of Yoast SEO fame), has highlighted that there are too many bugs still in the code for a stable release in November. In his blog post on why Gutenberg should be delayed, he mentioned 212 untriaged bugs and 165 issues still listed by developers.
In addition, accessibility is not where it should be for a platform of this size and scope, which means people with disabilities will have problems being able to see, use and interact with sites running Gutenberg.
This is a rapidly developing story, so we will be closely watching information about the release dates.
Will Gutenberg work from Day 1?
Code is a funny thing. You can run it on a stack of testing sites and roll it out as Beta for people to play with, but it is only when you push it live do bugs magically appear.
We fully expect that the live version of Gutenberg will have unexpected code bugs that the developers will race to patch in the days/weeks after release (in addition to the current backlog of bugs and issues already identified).
This means you can expect numerous release versions of Gutenberg, with each version potentially introducing different bugs when the fix ends up breaking something else.
This means Gutenberg is likely to cause problems with your website if you update on in the first few days of Gutenberg.
Are theme and plugin people ready for Gutenberg?
Developers have been testing out Beta versions of Gutenberg for over a year.
What we are seeing is that major themes like Divi, Genesis and other StudioPress themes will be ready for the change.
Theme Forest has been pushing their developers to update their themes in readiness, but only themes that are listed as Gutenberg ready have jumped through the hoops. This means many sites built on Theme Forest themes may break.
There are millions of lesser known theme marketplaces around the net. The likelihood that all of these have been updated to be Gutenberg ready are Buckley’s and nil.
This means many themes will break when someone updates to Gutenberg.
We are also seeing major plugin developers like Yoast SEO, and WooCommerce rolling out a stack of changes at the moment in readiness for the change. Some of these updates are breaking current sites, but they are patching as fast as they can.
Smaller plugins are not being updated at the same pace.
By the end of July, an estimated 80.46% of the 55,433 plugins in the WordPress Marketplace were NOT Gutenberg ready. There was no estimate of the percentage of paid plugin readiness.
We are also seeing a massive increase in plugins being abandoned across the WordPress marketplace.
This is because developers don’t want to invest the time and cost to make their plugin Gutenberg ready (and PHP 7.3 ready, but more of that another day).
In some cases, these abandoned plugins are being bought up by other companies – some with positive intent to make things better, others with negative intent to create backdoors into websites for hackers.
What this means is that the larger, more reputable themes and plugins “should” be OK with Gutenberg, but it is likely that other less mainstream themes and plugins will not be compatible and will break or create problems.
What do you need to do to prepare for Gutenberg?
1. Talk with your web designer or web developer
If you have a custom coded site or plugin, you need to talk with your web developer to see if they will be rolling out any updates for you as that is beyond the scope of Gutenberg. Be aware that any updates they do to your code or plugin will probably have a fee attached.
2. Don’t update to Gutenberg straight away
Be aware that Gutenberg is coming. When it drops, resist the temptation to push the update button for your website.
Wait for a few days/weeks for the flurry of bug fixes to roll through and when there is some stability, only then consider updating. This is particularly important if you have an e-commerce site and are heading into the busiest online season of the year. Hold off until after all the Christmas sales are through before you update to Gutenberg.
However, some hosts automatically update WordPress to the latest version so that you may be updated without warning. Check with your web host to see if they auto-update before Gutenberg drops, so you have at least a few warning, and see if you can get them to turn off the auto-update for your site.
3. Test on a staging or testing site first
Before you update on your live site, test your site on a staging or testing site first to see what works and what breaks before hitting the update button on your live site.
We recommend exploring simple options such as UpdraftClone to create a temporary testing site to work with. We will be doing this with all the sites that we maintain to ensure that we know what we are dealing with and that everything works as it should.
4. Backup before you do anything
Always do a full back up of your site, including all your files and your SQL database, before you update your theme or plugins.
We recommend UpdraftPlus as our backup solution, in addition to any hosting backups that may be completed.
If things break on the update, and you can’t troubleshoot the issue, then your only option is to be able to reinstall your site from the backup. No backup means that you may have to rebuild all or part of your site.
5. Ensure you have the Classic Editor plugin installed
When Gutenberg is installed, there is no going back to the 4.9 series of WordPress. It will remain as your default editor, and you need to find solutions around any issues.
If you want to retain the old functionality and continue to use the classic editor (as it is now called), you will need to disable the new editor functionality.
When you update to Gutenberg, a plugin called Classic Editor should also be installed. This allows you to temporarily disable the Gutenberg editor while you work out your options.
This plugin is going to supported until the end of 2021, so you are on the clock to make changes to your site to make it compatible with Gutenberg.
The one challenge is that Classic Editor only disables the editing function, but it doesn’t fix the underpinning code that may have code problems.
6. Monitor your other plugins
Keep an eye on your plugins and find alternatives if your plugin has been abandoned or is not Gutenberg ready.
If you use Wordfence to help with your site security, you will receive an alert when a plugin has not been updated for an extended period, or if it has been pulled from the WordPress Marketplace.
If you don’t use Wordfence, you need to regularly go back and check each plugin in the WordPress Marketplace to make sure it is actively being maintained.
7. Install WP Rollback
If you don’t already have it installed, install the WP Rollback plugin. This allows you to rollback plugin updates to previous versions if there is a problem with a particular update, provided that the plugin is in the WordPress Marketplace (i.e. paid plugins generally can’t be rolled back with this plugin).
8. Once you have updated to Gutenberg
Once you have updated your site to Gutenberg, it will attempt to put all your existing content into blocks. If there is a problem, it may lump all the content into one block rather than the separate special purpose blocks.
That’s why you need to check your site after upgrading to make sure everything looks and behaves the way it should.
Other problems that you may see on updating:
The white screen of death: Try clearing your cache or restarting your PHP. You may need to increase the version of PHP you are running to at least PHP1 or higher. (However, this may also break more things on your site which is why having a backup is vital). Gutenberg has been developed on hosting running PHP 7.3. MaAnna from Blogaid has a handy tutorial on how to check the version of PHP your server is running.
Being stuck in maintenance mode: If you get a permanent “Site Maintenance” message, you need you to log into your hosting panel to delete the .maintenance file.
Broken functionality (bits not displaying correctly): Try disabling all of your plugins before enabling them one at a time to work out which is the problem plugin that needs to be updated by the relevant developer.
But wait … there’s more
Changing the editor is only the first phase to the changes to WordPress, and there are a few more phases in the wings.
Phase 2 is the next cab off the rank and will be changing site layouts to replace widgets with blocks and menus with navigation blocks.
Phases 3 and 4 of Gutenberg are still under wraps, but Matt Wullenberg has hinted that he will share more news at WordCamp US in December.
In other words, Gutenberg Phase 1 is only the beginning, and it is here to stay.
All WordPress website owners need to prepare for the changes and keep a close eye on their websites as we will be in for a bumpy few months.
However, once we get through this challenging time, we will end up with an even better platform for the future, with greater security, better functionality and more possibilities. Just as you have to get through winter to get to spring, we have to get through Gutenberg to get to the future of WordPress.