A brief history of WordPress website builders 📜
It was May 2011 when Michael Makijenko published the first-ever page builder for WordPress. WPBakery was born and a new era in WordPress began.
I was in my last year of studies. One year later I joined the WPBakery team as a product manager.
I have been around WordPress and website builders for 10 years. Today, I want to talk about the history of WordPress website builders and share facts that may surprise you.
Once upon a time, there was Envato 🍃
Whether you love it or not, Envato played a huge role in the development of the WordPress theme and plugin business.
For many, Envato was an affordable way to start. Licensing, payments, support, marketing - Envato took care of that (on their terms).
WPBakery was one of these products.
People were tired of dealing with shortcodes. The solution that promised to ease it was golden. A schematic backend editor was “doomed” to skyrocket.
Envato held the contest where Michael presented his page builder and won. The shortcodes were still there but hidden - it was native to WordPress.
To be honest, I have always “admired” the complaints about shortcodes and page builders. It is like complaining that shoes are made for your legs and not to substitute them.
Getting back to Envato … the biggest problem was licensing.
Envato licensing was not accepted by the community. Authors were not allowed to join WordCamps. Everyone was screaming - WordPress plugins should be forever free.
Of course, as an agency owner, I would love to have all plugins coded for me so I can simply use them and charge my clients.
Despite the licensing and resistance, WPBakery got momentum.
In just two years we went up to 1+ million active installs. People from the WordPress core were publicly speaking that page builders are evil and praised us behind the curtain one-on-one.
On the other side of the world, another page builder was born. Siteorigin is probably one of the most undervalued WordPress products ever.
With steady growth and over a million active installs, it has always been left out of the reviews and never considered a serious competitor among page builders and reviews.
Why? Only Siteorigin can answer it, but my guess is that people were simply not appreciating the free stuff back then - premium (paid) meant quality. Now, the momentum seems to be lost.
The rise of the frontend editor ✊
It was the twenty-first century and we were still writing shortcodes or working with the backend editor in WordPress.
Wix was already there with their clumsy live editing and we had to fight back.
With a difference of a month, WPBakery and Live Composer (WPExplorer) released the first live front-end editors. As someone from the community said - that was the best invention since sliced bread.
Everyone went crazy - front-end editor was a thing. Now everyone could become a web designer, but few web developers got nervous about it. There were also those who stayed loyal to the backend editor.
The competition was stiff but fun. Maybe because we won it, maybe because I am getting nostalgic … whatever.
But, with the front-end editor, it became a different game. Another player was taking the market share by storm.
Just like WPBakery, Beaver Builder had a small team of people who love making products.
It had some nice touches that WPBakery was missing and lacked some functionality, but developers were buying the idea of something new and fresh.
I have met guys from the Beaver Builder at WCUS - they are cool. Having a feature “fight” with them was a thing to enjoy.
They came up with optimized elements, we came up with the grid builder (loop builder). They strike back with an instant update, we put the role manager on the table.
By the way, Beaver Builder was the first commercially successful page builder outside the Envato marketplace.
At that time, Envato was slowly starting to sink because of their own greed and willingness to use the success of their community in favor of their own projects.
Just about the same time, Divi appeared on the horizon.
To be fair, they have a decent community but are very closed when it comes to legit (independent) numbers so I can not comment much about them. I am still struggling to understand whether I should call them a builder or a theme.
It's not about the features 📢
It's not about the features - it's about the way you sell them.
WPBakery and Beaver Builder were made by the product people. Divi was something else. Elementor was made by marketers.
In no way it was better than WPBakery, Divi, or Beaver Builder. Of course, it had some nice things under the hood, but so do the rest.
The way it went after the market share was different. It was about the marketing effort to make the community talk about it as the only alternative (and the choice).
From the code perspective ... The very early versions had exactly the same CSS classes as WPBakery (you can always check it out) even though it was praised in the reviews for the outstanding CSS structure that others are missing.
Anyway, the community loved it.
It had a free version on WordPress.org (others joined later), influencers were joining their affiliate program, and an aggressive community was there to back them up.
Things took off really quickly for Elementor and other page builders should have learned from that.
At the moment, Elementor is the most popular WordPress website builder with around 12 million active installs, followed by WPBakery (around 5 million active installs).
It was all about page builders back then and everyone thought that going outside the content area is the next big thing.
Just like koi transforming into a dragon, page builders were in a need to transform into website builders.
Big bang theory 💣
With several major players fighting on the market and thinking about how to take things to the next level, something big was coming.
Matt was (still is) constantly comparing WordPress and Wix. I have never understood why exactly Wix got so much attention …
Anyway, Gutenberg opened a door with a huge bang.
Fun fact, all major page builders were invited to a meeting with the Gutenberg team and the boss himself. We were asked for advice on possible pitfalls. It was a bit awkward since everyone in the room (Zoom) understood - we are going after your business but give us a hint.
I was at the WCUS (WordCamp US) in Nashville when it was announced. Right after the presentation, I received (and still receive) tons of questions.
What do you think? What will happen to the page builders? Come on!
We see how WordPress is slowly adding more features to the core. Traditional themes are at risk with the FSE (Full Site Editing). Multilanguage will be in the core in a few years. Patterns are there. As I am writing this, WordPress.com announced that it will compete with freelancers and offer web design services.
More important is to ask - what are you going to do about it?
And everyone did.
I mentioned the website builder transition before. Everyone was already working on it. In fact, most of the builders had a solution already in place.
Beaver Builder had its own theme to build everything from scratch. Elementor was releasing the website builder. We broke our deal with Envato regarding the WPBakery. Plus, released a ReactJS-based Visual Composer Website Builder that has nothing to do with WPBakery.
Note: Yes, we still receive tons of criticism for the naming confusion, but as I said before - we are product people. To clarify things one more time, whenever you see WPBakery - it is a page builder, whenever you see Visual Composer Website Builder - it is the new website builder.
The aftermath (or afterMatt) 🏜️
Of course, with Gutenberg in a core, website builders had to go further than just to allow building fancy headers.
Elementor was slowly working on their own hosted version to probably separate themselves from WordPress in the future (who knows).
Beaver Builder was focusing on their Assistant and somehow isolating their community.
Divi screamed about how they work on performance (well, everyone does).
And we were going into partnership with hosting companies, like Cloudways, with the new Visual Composer Website Builder.
Yet, despite stiff competition and Gutenberg on the horizon, new players entered the arena.
Interesting solutions like Brizy, Bricks, Oxygen, and others came with great performance and best practices borrowed from well-established players.
Some are already seeing a decline in popularity. Some are developing new products on the basis of freshly delivered ones (Oxygen and Breakdance).
The overall market is so saturated that I can not even name all the builders out there. People are now spread across different website builders trying new stuff over and over again.
At the same time, Elementor receives tons of criticism just like WPBakery. I think a label of behemoth comes with a pinch of salt.
It's a perfect storm out there and you are the witnesses.
What comes next 🤖
It's a good question and there are many answers to that.
There are well-established page builders like Elementor and WPBakery with millions of sites relying on their solutions. Business models are built on the basis of those builders.
There are high-performance solutions that are less popular but tailored for web creators - Visual Composer, Beaver Builder, and Oxygen.
As for the rest, I am not sure about their future, because I have no clue about their plans.
It looks to me that WordPress is slowly becoming an all-in-one solution provider. Not only by itself but also in products. You either need to offer the whole flow or stick to the big fish unless you want to be eaten.
We may see a fork here. Probably more successful than ClassicPress or maybe several very niche ones.
Whatever the scenario is, it should be clear within the next couple of years. Page builders are here for a decade - I think we can wait a bit more to find out.
I don't know everything that has happened, but this is why there is a community for that. There can be nameworthy players I did not mention or events I was not a part of. If you feel there is something more to add to this story, join our Facebook group.