How to Understand WordPress Gutenberg: Beyond an Editor

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Gutenberg is a new visual editor rolling out to WordPress. But to truly understand WordPress Gutenberg, you need to know it’s also a lot more than that.

WordPress Gutenberg is a block-based layout engine. But more than making things look pretty, Gutenberg really opens the door for new possibilities in WordPress. Wix and SquareSpace and other website builders have challenged the claim WordPress has on easy website building. Gutenberg is an answer to those drag-and-drop approaches—but it also does a lot more.

Chris Lema, our vice president of products and innovation here at Liquid Web, shares his insights on Gutenberg in his one-hour webinar, Preparing for Gutenberg. Check out the webinar for all of Chris’ wisdom, but we’re going to summarize what he shared.

What Is WordPress Gutenberg?

Most people say that Gutenberg is a new editor for WordPress. But that’s not entirely true.

Gutenberg is a block-based layout engine.

That means there’s a lot more going on under the hood. WordPress Gutenberg is more than a cool new drag-and-drop editor. This is a big and potentially powerful change.

To understand WordPress Gutenberg, you need to get the seismic nature of this shift.

More Under the Hood

wordpress gutenberg is a refactoring of the entire platform.Gutenberg is a refactoring of the entire WordPress platform. It’s streamlining how things work in order to do more.

What does that mean?

Right now there are multiple ways of doing things with WordPress. We’ve got shortcodes, HTML, TinyMCE buttons, embedded URLs, plugins, themes, etc. Each of those solutions isn’t always the best way to do something, and often they can be misused or even abused.

WordPress gave us a lot of ways to break things.

What if we narrowed how many ways there are to get things done so we could enable getting more things done?

That’s what Gutenberg does. It replaces many of those approaches. It narrows how many ways there are to do something, giving us more control and thus more power.

More Than Pretty Presentation

Wix and SquareSpace and all the others offer layout solutions. You move stuff around and make it look pretty.

Gutenberg does that, but it also does a lot more.

It restores intention to the markup language, so rather than just noting that you want something to be bold or italics, you’re noting what it is and what your intention is. This is an ad or a testimonial or something else. Having that information means you can do more with it:

  • You could introduce conditional formatting and only show content if specific conditions are met.
  • You could share a piece of content outside of the traditional content architecture.
  • You could reuse a piece of content across your site.

Gutenberg isn’t necessarily ready to do all these things right now, but it’s laying the groundwork for these kinds of changes.

It’s a wholesale change to how we think about content and presentation.

More than simply competing with other layout solutions, this is taking WordPress into the next 10 years of publishing. It’s a dramatically different infrastructure to compete in a dramatically different time. This is key to how you understand WordPress Gutenberg.

OK, that all sounds great, but it’s also a little lofty and pie-in-the-sky. Let’s get practical.

How Does WordPress Gutenberg Work?

Gutenberg uses blocks to handle each bit of content. Anything can be a block: an entire post, a single paragraph, a quote, an image, a gallery of images, an embedded video, a button, a table, and so much more.

You can edit these blocks independently of each other. Each one has settings with different options you can tweak.

Much of this has to do with presentation (changing the background color on a single paragraph of a blog post, for example), but it also opens the door to other options (such as reusing a block of text across multiple posts). These are functionalities that previously required knowing how to code or using a separate plugin. Now they’ll be built into the editor.

So Gutenberg introduces all sorts of interesting possibilities for content creation in WordPress. Now these features aren’t 100% there just yet. The user interface still needs some improvements, and this is just the first release. But we’re seeing the groundwork being laid.

What Do I Need to Do?

So what does all this mean for me? That’s the question everybody is asking. Let’s break it down into the two main questions:

1. Will It Break My Site?

Understandably, that’s the bottom line for a lot of people.

The short answer is no, Gutenberg probably won’t break your site.

When you convert to Gutenberg, it drops your entire page/post into a block. It doesn’t try to create blocks for you or determine how you would want content separated into blocks. So it’s not changing any of your existing content. That means there’s very little that can break.

Unless you’re doing something very strange (or using a theme or plugin that does things weird), your site probably won’t break. Of course we can never guarantee anything (especially with technology), so you’ll need to test it for yourself.

2. Is It Hard to Learn?

The other question everybody has is how is it going to change their process. What new things will they have to learn and how hard is that going to be?

So Gutenberg is a new editor in WordPress. It changes how things look, and we all know how people respond to change. It’s different, so it will take some getting used to. But it’s not such a dramatic change that everyone will be lost.

As you write content in Gutenberg, it makes each new paragraph a new block. It does it automatically, and it’s pretty simple and relatively unobtrusive. So if you just want to write in WordPress, just write. Gutenberg will create the blocks for you.

It’s not until you start manipulating the blocks that things become different.

And here you’ll see many of the same icons and options as we had before, just in different places because they’re being applied to each individual block and not to the entire page/post.

So yes, Gutenberg will take some getting used to. But it’s not that hard.

Just understand WordPress Gutenberg is laying the foundation for more change to come.

What Comes Next?

For right now, Gutenberg is a plugin you can install on your WordPress site and experiment with. Thousands of people are doing just that: testing it, seeing how it works, and imagining how it will change things for WordPress.

Gutenberg will be built into WordPress starting with the release of WordPress 5.0. It will no longer be a plugin and will become a standard part of every WordPress install.

But we don’t know when WordPress 5.0 will be released, so we’re not quite there yet.

Common Gutenberg Questions We’ve Heard

As always with new technology, there are lots of questions. Here are a few of the common questions we’ve heard:

  • What if I don’t like Gutenberg? You can always go back to ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ with the Classic Editor plugin.
  • Will Gutenberg replace page builders? We don’t know yet. It doesn’t seem like it will, but it might change how those builders work. They may adapt as they take advantage of blocks. But Gutenberg isn’t replacing the functionality of page builders. It’s something different.
  • What about metafields and custom fields? They’re working on it. The functionality you’re looking for may not be there yet, but it’s in process.

Conclusion

So Gutenberg is a fundamental change for WordPress. A lot of people are focusing on the visual editor aspect and how this seems to be focused on bloggers and content creators. Even the way WordPress is talking about this seems to underscore that use case.

But if you really look under the hood, Gutenberg is paving the way for some much bigger changes. You’ll need to give it a try and see how it works with your site. We’ll all need to experiment and see how this changes our content creation process. But it will also have other impacts as we realize some of these deeper changes.

For now, you can install the Gutenberg plugin and take it for a spin. Also, see Chris Lema’s full webinar to get his take on how WordPress Gutenberg is a big leap forward.

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