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We made a WordPress page builder, scrapped it, and here’s what we learned

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Two and a half years is a long time in WordPress. We’ve seen nine major releases, huge new trends emerging, and big technological changes that will power the next decade of WordPress growth.

It’s also been two and a half years since we launched ZOOM Builder, our WordPress page builder.

 

ZOOM Builder was an innovative take on page builders, offering a product which could be used with any theme, pre-built templates and support for widgets. All of these were new at the time. To prove the flexibility, the demo for the plugin ran using the default WordPress theme.

We were offering business templates, landing pages, magazine layouts, agency portfolios, app layouts… and a bunch more, and it was really easy to use.

Here’s what one review written just after release said:

I really enjoyed using ZOOM Builder and would highly recommend it to anyone…Before using it I was a little bit dubious about its claims to be compatible with all WordPress themes but it looks like this is the case…The range of modules or elements that can be added to your layouts was impressive, but the fact that you can use any widgets that are active on your site means the possibilities of what you can add to your layouts are endless.

ZOOM Builder was a great product and given the explosion of popularity in page builders since our launch, it was a prescient call to build our own page builder. The appeal is obvious. As Chris Lema puts it:

[Page builders] offer customers a solution for personalization that mass-produced themes can’t offer, while at a lower price than working with a professional web developer and web designer.

The future for ZOOM Builder looked bright, and the future for page builders looked even brighter. ZOOM Builder quickly added over $20k/year to our revenue.


Page builders get criticised by people who don’t use page builders.

There’s no doubt that page builders are tools that users are craving, but they get a ton of criticism. Developers perceive them as clunky or inferior to writing code, for instance. There’s some truth to this: some page builders add hugely to load times, and the “cater for everyone” approach values adding features for features’ sake rather than building a lean product.

Here’s Pippin Williamson, creator of many excellent plugins:

Pippin went on to further explain his thinking (and give page builders a very fair review) in a blog post:

Page builders currently pose a severe problem to the WordPress ecosystem. They have become so ubiquitous that many site owners do not even realize that page builders are not part of WordPress… The page builder ecosystem is a wild west right now and is in a gold rush.

Our experience with ZOOM Builder was very similar. We identified three problems from customer feedback:

1. The plugin created too much confusion. Some customers thought they had to have it whilst some customers just wanted a simple theme and didn’t want anything to do with a page builder. All our themes were fully functional without ZOOM Builder, but they were enhanced by it, and when we tried to show this off in theme demos, it just created confusion. Did you need to buy both? What if you just bought the theme? Could you buy the page builder and use it on another theme? There were simple answers to all of these, but they weren’t immediately clear to customers.

2. The secondary problem was one of standards. We proceeded with what we thought was the best way to approach a page builder, but it differed from everyone else’s perception, and with page builders bolted on to WordPress rather than integrated seamlessly, there were problems to fix every time a new version of WordPress was released. Pippin is quite right to call for standards and proper integration with WordPress.

3. The final problem was simply one of resources. We have a small team and needed to focus on releasing WordPress themes. The hyper-competitive page builder space required more resources than we were able to throw at it; with our competitors producing better solutions at the time than we were able to, ZOOM Builder was discontinued a few months ago.


“I’m all for a good page builder”

Whilst we stopped building our own drag-and-drop page builder, the product was still something customers wanted and a useful feature to offer. As outlined above, page builders offer a good compromise between the flexibility of hiring a designer and developer to build a website and the affordability of a pre-built theme.

It’s grossly incorrect to claim that “all page builders are bad”; there are good page builders and bad page builders just as there are good themes and bad themes. As Pippin said at the end of his tweetstorm, “I’m all for a good page builder”:

When we discontinued ZOOM Builder, we still wanted a good drag-and-drop page builder solution to use in our themes – it just happened to be one that didn’t exist yet. We had four criteria. A page builder we could use needed to:

  1. Integrate nicely with WordPress.
  2. Be easy to use.
  3. Be free (or at least freemium) and available from WordPress.org.
  4. Use a templating system that we could use for pre-built designs.

Earlier last year, when page builders started to emerge that met all of these criteria, we started building on top of these.


Themes can utilise page builders without including page builders.

We’ve started recommending Unyson to customers and have integrated it into two of our recent themes: Delicio and Presence. We’ve also released recently a major update for Inspiro theme that also includes integration with Unyson.

Tailor and Elementor are promising options, but we chose Unyson as it fitted all our criteria – plus the team that makes it are based in Moldova, same as us, so we wanted to support them :)

Other popular options such as Visual Composer were rejected as we needed something our customers could install from the WordPress.org plugin repository. For a more detailed look at nearly all the different page builders, see Pippin’s post.

The approach we’ve taken with our latest themes is the way forward. Themes can utilise page builders without including page builders. Offer page builder support, but don’t necessitate users use it or bundle the plugin with the theme.


The page builder marketplace is incredibly competitive (as we found out), and it’s unclear whether we’re going to see a single monopolising player emerge, as with WooCommerce, or something closer to perfect competition with lots of decent options, as with themes.

A single monopoly page builder would almost certainly be bad for consumers as it would drive the price up, but at least with a single option, there’d be something closer to standardisation. Side note: the web as an unregulated global marketplace literally looks like the economic textbook on perfect competition and monopolies.

There is, of course, a way to achieve standardisation without seeing a monopoly force take over: formal standards. Again, we return to Pippin’s comments:

There is zero standard to how page builders should work. This shouldn’t surprise anyone as this is exactly what happens in every ecosystem that experiences a gold rush. Just look back a year or three to the commercial theme industry to see an excellent example of this. Thankfully these lacking standards tend to work themselves out as products mature.

We’re looking forward to products maturing; drag-and-drop page builders still have an incredibly long way to go.

For now, however, we’re very happy to be including Unyson in our latest themes.

Our multipurpose theme Presence does it best: the page builder enhances the theme experience, and we’ve pre-built layouts to include, but without the page builder, the theme works perfectly.

After all, “decisions, not options” is the guiding philosophy for WordPress.

See how Presence does page building right.

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