Getting Ahead of Gutenberg

One of the biggest changes to WordPress ever is coming soon. Are you ready? How can you prepare? Why is WordPress making this change anyway? These questions and many more have been flying around the WordPress space for nearly a year since the new Gutenberg editor was announced by Matt Mullenweg in Summer of 2017 and with good reason. Many developers have concerns, namely around backward compatibility. Read on to learn how Gutenberg will affect your existing site.

Intro to Gutenberg

For those who have not yet heard, Gutenberg is the nickname given to a new Editor for the WordPress Admin interface. This is big news because while many things about WordPress have changed since its birth, the editor has remained a fairly basic visual and HTML user experience. As a result, plugin and theme developers created add-ons and new functionality for the editor to fill their needs. This caused developers and many websites to become heavily dependent on shortcodes. WordPress is creating a more unified experience between what users create in the backend, and what displays on the front end. In this way, they are baking in some of the functionality so many users find “essential,” and particularly the functionality non-technical users need.

The other rift that grew deeper with time was that what an editor sees on the back-end did not necessarily represent what displayed on the front-end. As plugins and themes began integrating page builders and drag-and-drop components for ease of use, WordPress remained a plain text editor by default. Gutenberg solves for this disconnect as well. Not only does it make the editing experience more natural and fun, it also more accurately represents what will show on the front-end–a true “what you see is what you get” experience. It divides text, images, media, and more into building “blocks” which make up your pages.


The foundation of Gutenberg is a concept of “blocks.” You can edit classic content sections in fun new ways like adding highlights and background colors, easy resizing, and easy wrapping and embedding of classic elements like photo and video. This means for other items users might embed in a page, these elements have custom blocks. You can add a block for a contact form, a tweet, block quotes, and more. The purpose of blocks was to bring a sense of continuity and regularity to the way different types of content were created. With one uniform way to create a block, even if your end goal for functionality is vastly different from others, there is a known “WordPress way” to create the code for it, which inherently helps the security and scalability of the platform as a whole.

Backward Compatibility

Okay, so Gutenberg will really help new users with new websites have a better experience. What about my existing posts and pages? Is this going to break things? There’s a lot of panic around the community surrounding backward compatibility with their existing posts. The nice thing about Gutenberg, as Matias Ventura aptly put it, is that it does not intend to completely replace the old–everything you have and use today will still work–but instead to gradually shape behavior and development with the new.

What does that mean, exactly?

Remember: the thought behind it all is, simply put, you shouldn’t have to download an extra plugin or premium theme for functionality that nearly every user can agree is “essential” to the WordPress experience.

Planning for the Release

With Gutenberg slated for release in WordPress 5.0, and WordPress 4.9.4 having shipped already, the deadline is certainly imminent: WordPress 5.0 is likely to land in the coming months. This has people wondering how best to prepare, and we certainly understand why. You can rest easy knowing these options and features are available:

  • Firstly, your existing pages and posts will be converted to Gutenberg using the “Classic” block. This allows them to exist and display just as they do today without any manual intervention.
  • Second, if you edit an existing page or post and anything unexpected happens, you can easily restore using a plugin.
  • Third, if you simply prefer the legacy editing experience, you can download the Classic Editor plugin to revert back to the editor you want.

Gutenberg is exciting because of the uniformity, security, and the better user experience it brings to WordPress. Given the fact that much of the code is changing, and all the various ways people use WordPress, our team highly recommends you copy to your staging environment and download the Gutenberg plugin to test it there before Gutenberg is released as the primary editor. There are workarounds, like the plugin mentioned above. But we encourage everyone to give Gutenberg a try first. The Gutenberg plugin has been through nearly 30 releases and patches since its initial release in June of 2017, so naturally, there has been some evolution for compatibility and usability. This also means if you tried it before and were not a fan, you should probably try it again and see how it has changed. And, if you are a developer, you should take a look at the Gutenberg handbook to start adapting in creative and fun new ways.

The entire WordPress community has rallied around this project to help ensure its success, and the result is impressive! If you encounter any scenarios that cause concern while testing, this is your opportunity to give back to the WordPress community by contributing your thoughts, voice, and even developer skills to the Gutenberg cause to help make it even better. And if you encounter any issues in testing, please report them! The Gutenberg team is eager for feedback to help ensure all issues are addressed. The open source nature of WordPress means a thriving worldwide community of developers is heavily invested in making a successful editor that works for everyone.

Janna Hilferty

Janna Hilferty is a Content Specialist at WP Engine. She loves both technical and free-form writing, hiking with her dog, and painting with all the colors of the wind. In her free time you can find her blogging, smoking a cigar, or watching cheesy documentaries.

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