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Every marketing campaign has a target. When making a purchasing decision, you look for the market messaging that most closely identifies your use-case.
Use-cases for WordPress hosting are organised along an axis of scalability. Low-traffic hobbyist websites are the cheapest, while enterprise requirements are most the expensive.
We can classify which of these audience each WordPress host targets with some simple analysis of the copywriting used on their landing pages.
For example, GoDaddy’s messaging is clearly targeted at the small business DIY website market:
Got stuff to sell? No problem.
The retail pitch.
Your hosting plan is set up with WordPress installed and ready.
Removing barriers for non-technical folks.
Our WordPress search engine optimization (SEO) plugin walks through your pages and automatically handles your basic SEO needs.
Just in case you didn’t know what SEO stands for.
While WP Engine is targeted at agencies:
We offer the best WordPress hosting and developer experience on a proven, reliable architecture that delivers unparalleled speed, scalability, and security for your sites.
Notice how “sites” is plural?
We empower developers with the Genesis theme framework, dev/stage/prod environments on every site, Git and SFTP connections, automated backups, and WordPress core updates.
Definitely not for beginners.
If we look at all major hosts through this lens, we get a table that looks something like this¹:
Hobby / DIY
WordPress.com GoDaddy Dreamhost Bluehost
WP Engine Flywheel Liquid Web Siteground
WP.com VIP Pantheon DIY Cloud
Relationship + Use-case
Since we’re thinking about WordPress hosts along two different axis, let’s overlay them. Who doesn’t love a good quad chart?
The goal is to move out of the bottom half, and establish ongoing relationships with your customers.
In order to move on up, WP Engine and GoDaddy are building a product ecosystem. WP Engine owns Genesis, which moves them into the “existing relationship” quadrant for Genesis users. GoDaddy own CoBlocks – same deal.
Now that we’ve got this framework to work with, we come to the main point of this post…
Problem #1: GoDaddy’s product ecosystem strategy doesn’t create repeat business within their market.
These are all very compelling products for their target market: small business owners who want to DIY their website. Check one for Use-case column ✔️.
Unfortunately, the DIY website market don’t typically keep coming back for more. I mean, ask any freelancer employed to fix or upgrade this style of website – the client often doesn’t even remember which host they chose.
Compare with WP Engine – Local, Genesis, and Atomic blocks are all agency focused. Check one for Use-case ✔️. Also, agencies will keep coming back for more. Their products establish ongoing relationships. Check two ✔️✔️.
Problem #2: The market is way too crowded.
When you target non-technical people who want to DIY their own website, you’re competing with the likes of:
That’s quite the contest in the top-left corner. GoDaddy are big enough to compete at this scale, but it’s got to be tough going toe-to-toe with some of the most successful brands in the world.
There’s a market for small business hosts – no doubt.
Compared to an agency focused strategy, finding a regular stream of repeat business, plus clear competitive differentiation – that’s going to be really hard.
1. Of course, there’s always a little overlap. Liquid Web would be happy to host your retail eCommerce store, and WP Engine provides enterprise grade solutions.
When you stop to think about it, the WordPress Plugin and Theme ecosystem is a shining example of the Free & Open Source Software ideology working sustainably.
Take a completely open source project, and extend it with purely open source plugins. Keep it up for 16 years, until you power over a third of the internet, with no signs of stopping.
It seems outrageous, but that’s what WordPress has done!
The WordPress ecosystem is a perfect answer to skepticism from die-hard capitalists – it really is possible to build a business on non-proprietary, freely licensed, shared knowledge.
Of course, this doesn’t work without some private enterprise – there’s got to be some money in it, somewhere, if it’s going to last. Here we meet the cast: Hosting, Premium Plugins, Premium Themes, and Marketplaces.
WordPress.org’s laissez-faire approach has, thus far, created an ecosystem perfectly balanced between free for accessibility, and premium for sustainability.
> Enter stage left: Blocks
This year, a new extension paradigm is being introduced to WordPress. We’ll soon meet the Block Directory, and we’ll install and manage Blocks in the same way as Plugins and Themes.
Put briefly, I’d like to propose a new type of WordPress plugin that provides blocks and nothing else: Single Block Plugins. These will be hosted in a separate Block Directory section of the Plugin Directory.
Notice a trend here? Starter themes seem to have stopped development around the start of 2019 – at the exact time that Gutenberg was released (December 2018).
Because of the new block paradigm, the future of themes in WordPress is ambiguous and uncertain, and that’s causing foundational theme developers to put on the breaks.
When Powers Combine
An exception to this trend is the Genesis Framework by StudioPress.
StudioPress was acquired by WP Engine in June 2018, just a few months before they acquired Atomic Blocks. Their approach to Gutenberg-first themes is to build theme support for all the blocks in the Atomic library natively, with Genesis.
This is an ecosystem play: Hosting + Base Theme + Block Library. You can create a build modern, fully-featured WordPress site with the combined power of:
AirPods work best with an iPhone, and an iPhone works best with a Mac. In the same way, if you build with Genesis, you’ll also want to host with WP Engine, and use Atomic Blocks.
We start to see something that looks a bit like this:
For any theme build, the first step is almost always getting a local development environment up and running. There are a few options out there (Vagrant, DesktopServer, XAMPP), but the most widely-used solution (by far) is Local by Flywheel…
Of course, this ties back into ecosystem thinking – if I use Local, I’m much more likely to host with Flywheel. It also introduces us to a very important part of building ecosystems: Integration.
Integration maximises the likelihood of success for new products in the ecosystem, leading to more and more lock-in effect. Our table is starting to look more like:
Since GoDaddy’s target audience is more small-business focused (not really the developer type), I don’t think we’re likely to see GoDaddy exploring local development environments.
Since WP Engine have more of a focus on agencies and freelancers, you can see that they’ve established some very strong beachheads.
As an agency, buying-in to the WP Engine ecosystem is an easy decision, since there are multiple points of integration. On the other hand, if you just want to build a site without any development experience, GoDaddy makes it easy with Go + CoBlocks.
Interestingly, the poorest user experience for both WP Engine and GoDaddy is their core offering – their managed hosting. In both cases, managing your WordPress sites is clunky and difficult.
Flywheel’s management interface is the total opposite – a genuine delight to use. If WP Engine can learn a UX lesson or two from their friends at Flywheel, they’ll have a killer combo.
Or better yet, bring Genesis and Atomic Block to Flywheel customers!
A Consolidated Web?
The thing about ecosystems is that they create sudo-monopolies. Does Apple have a monopoly on computers? No, but they have a monopoly on MacOS – and if you’ve invested into that, it’s very hard to escape.
It’s simply not possible to compete with integrated ecosystems in the long-term. I feel safe in predicting that WordPress hosting providers will consolidate over the next 5 years, to the point where there are really only 3 or 4 options, each with its unique set of products and services.²
What does this mean for the open web?
Is WordPress still distributed if it’s primarily hosted by just four different providers?
Yes – it is. When we talk about an open web being distributed, there are two aspects that matter:
The URL layer – what visitors see in the address bar
The CMS layer – portable and non-proprietary software
WordPress sites can still be built in weird and wonderful ways, and exist outside of a centralised domain, even if they’re all hosted in the same place.
1. An interesting obstacle to keep an eye on is block-based themes. The entire concept of a theme in WordPress will experience some major disruption in 2020, which could potentially upset Genesis and Go (though Go seems better positioned for agility here).
2. Not discussed in this article is Automattic, who could easily make a Managed WordPress play. In the case of WordPress.com, there’s a tight integration between the “Management Dashboard”, and the WordPress installation itself. Add to that Products like Calypso or WooCommerce, and you’ve got an easy entry into the WordPress ecosystem market.
Every year, Talia and I have a tradition of creating a quiz for family and friends, testing their recollection of world news, entertainment, sports, technology, and current-affairs over the past 12 months.
Here’s the Trivia questions for 2019. There’s a link to the answers (and the 2018 quiz) below.
Who won the 2019 Australian Open Men’s Singles?
Name the actor, film, and character who won the Best Actor Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards.
In the wake of New Zealand’s deadliest ever mass shootings, Jacinda Arden wore what as a sign of solidarity?
A massive fire tore through which famous 850-year-old landmark, nearly destroying it beyond repair?
Named by Time magazine as a “next generation leader”, who was featured on the Time May cover?
Samsung cancelled the release of their new Galaxy phone, after multiple review units were found to be defective and easily damaged. Which feature, unique to this phone, caused these problems?
Which national team won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup?
Felix Kjellberg became the first ever YouTuber to pass 100 million subscribers. Kjellberg is more commonly known online under what moniker?
Hurricane Dorian was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones to ever strike which region of the Americas?
Police used a water cannon to spray a mosque with blue dye, in retaliation against protestors. Where did this happen?
A TV character named “The Child” took the world by storm after being introduced on a new television show. What name is “The Child” more commonly known as?
President Trump became the third president in history to achieve which political status?