The continued growth of WordPress is something to behold. It seems like just yesterday that we were watching it surpass 30% market share (it was at 29.2% on January 1, 2018), according to the W3Techs survey. Now, the versatile content management system (CMS) has reached a whopping 40%.

While there is a wide array of CMS options on the market, WordPress continues to outshine the competition. As of this writing, Shopify occupies second place with a 3.3% share. From January 1, 2020 through February 15, 2021, WordPress usage grew by 3.7% to Shopify’s 1.3%. Even as some competitors grow, WordPress outpaces them.

It’s quite an achievement – and one that brings up a few key questions. How did WordPress gain such a massive market share? And what does it have to do in order to maintain its dominance?

I’m going to take a stab at answering these questions. However, note that I’m not what I would consider to be a WordPress insider. My perspective is that of a freelancer who builds websites with the CMS and writes about it. Therefore, my conclusions may be different from say, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg or other major players.

Let’s get started!

People Want Established Tools and Technology

It’s no secret that the world of online technology has become homogenized. Google wields massive power over search and online ads – along with ruling the browser market. Facebook trades our personal information like kids trade Pokémon cards (that is, if those children had a really big collection). Complaints aside, they’ve implanted themselves right there into our daily lives.

Web development has taken a similar course. We tend to seek out established tools that are both reliable and familiar to us. WordPress fills this space so incredibly well.

Back in the early 2000s, it may have been acceptable to experiment with an immature CMS on client projects. The market was still searching for the right tool. One that offered up a measure of stability and was extensible enough for customization.

WordPress is the lone CMS to have proven itself on such a large scale and over a long period of time. It can power everything from a tiny landing page all the way to an enterprise network of sites. And custom solutions either exist in the form of plugins or can be built from scratch. The same can be said of themes as well.

Many of us who started out with one WordPress website have come back again and again. Eventually, that worked its way up from individual users to large companies and hosting providers.

The software is everywhere. Why? Because people trust it. I believe that has led both web designers and website owners to stick with WordPress year after year.

The word

Community Matters

For an open-source project to grow to the size of WordPress, there needs to be a flourishing community around it. People must be willing to participate; giving their time and sharing expertise.

WordPress has as devoted a community as you’ll find. Whether it’s those who volunteer to build and maintain the core software or everyday users who attend WordCamps – there are no shortage of evangelists out there.

It’s fascinating that WordPress has been able build up and maintain such a high level of participation. While there have certainly been bumps in the road, there still seems to be a lot of enthusiasm. And I think the community itself is a big reason why.

Of course, the ability to monetize the software keeps plenty of entrepreneurs around. But at the grassroots level, it’s a culture of sharing for the benefit of all that drives people.

Through the exchange of code, tips and friendly conversation, relationships are built. Once established, those relationships give us a reason to stay engaged. As great as the software is, it couldn’t thrive nearly as well without this human touch.

A group of people watching the sky.

How WordPress Can Stay on Top

One can make the case that WordPress has defied the odds (and maybe even logic) by grabbing a large market share over such a long period of time. For that, it should rightfully be mentioned alongside the other titans of technology.

But its continued dominance isn’t a given. WordPress has its vulnerabilities and imperfections – just like everything else on this planet.

So, how can it stay at the top of the CMS landscape? Here are a few ideas:

Continue to Innovate

Here’s where I have to give both Matt Mullenweg and those at the upper levels a lot of credit. They haven’t taken their collective foot off the gas pedal when it comes to innovation. Instead of resting on their laurels, there has been a big effort to keep WordPress both improving and evolving.

The Gutenberg block editor is a prime example. There was plenty of grumbling throughout the community during its development. Yet, this feature was seen as a means to keep the software relevant amongst modern competitors.

I think the strategy has paid off. New features such as full site editing (FSE) and compatibility with headless configurations will help WordPress keep up with the times.

Keep the Community Informed and Involved

New features aren’t as great if they create fault lines within the community. That’s one of the primary lessons from the Gutenberg experience – one that I hope leadership keeps in mind.

The idea isn’t to make everyone happy. That’s virtually impossible in a community of this size. Every decision made is bound to rub at least some people the wrong way. So be it.

But it should serve as an impetus for better communication. It should be clear, concise and open. And it needs to be available in a centralized and highly-visible space. Right now, so much of it is buried within various Make WordPress blogs or other sources that the average user can easily be left in the dark.

In my view, this has been the Achilles heel of WordPress. It’s as big of a threat to growth as any competing CMS on the market.

Don’t Raise the Barrier to Entry on Developers Too High

There was a lot of concern from the developer community when it was announced that Gutenberg was going to make heavy use of React. Those who were used to working primarily with PHP were now being told that wasn’t going to be a big part of the new editor.

While evolution is often necessary, it should be noted that the low barrier to entry has been a big part of the WordPress story. It was my first real introduction to using PHP and MySQL on a site-wide scale – I suspect that’s been the case for many others as well.

The more complicated things become, the less friendly it is to beginners. That could lead to them cutting their teeth with another CMS.

I’m not sure exactly what is possible in this area. But I think it’s important to keep in mind for the next generation of WordPress developers.

WordPress: A Remarkable Climb to the Top

As of this writing, there are 50+ CMS with at least a 0.1% market share. Still dozens more are being utilized in lesser numbers.

For one application to reach 40% in such a huge market is impressive. It’s also a bit of an artificial milestone, in that no one really aims for this kind of number. Really, it’s just another sign on the highway you pass on your journey.

But we humans love round numbers. And we also enjoy opportunities to look back at where we’ve been and how we got to this point. For WordPress, it truly has been fun to watch the software go from a small open-source project to something bigger than most of us could have imagined.

So, let’s clink our virtual glasses to 40%. See you again when we hit the next milestone!

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