By Dan Knauss and David Bisset ️ April 8, 2022

Do the WordPress.com pricing changes represent an opportunity for the WordPress product ecosystem, a blow to democratized publishing, or the beginning of a slow pivot in the service’s identity away from blogging to managed WordPress hosting?

WordPress.com released new pricing plans this week, reducing its five plans down to two: Pro and Free. This change was announced after it went live and was quickly criticized.

Reaction and Response on Hacker News

One of WordPress.com’s many critics was “VM” whose blog post (hosted at WordPress.com) was widely shared and discussed. VM noticed the new pricing had “reduced the storage on the free plan” sixfold, from 3 GB to 500 MB. It “also imposed a traffic ceiling on both plans where none [had previously] existed: 10,000 visits a month and 100,000 visits a month.”

More important for the larger WordPress ecosystem, VM also noted the “new full-site editing option has rendered premium themes, and thus the premium and business plans, redundant.”

More important for the larger WordPress ecosystem, VM also noted the “new full-site editing option has rendered premium themes, and thus the premium and business plans, redundant.”

That will likely prove true for older, “Classic” themes as long as they’re supported. But it’s also likely that the ability to build a site from scratch with a base theme will open new markets for block-based themes, block patterns, specialized blocks, and even a variety of opinionated and unopinionated base themes.

VM’s post attracted a lot of comments on Hacker News which then received a response from WordPress.com CEO Dave Martin. Martin apologized for the lack of communication in the rollout:

“You’re right to call us out. I did a poor job of sharing context around why we are making change, so I can see how they could come as a shock. I’m sorry! That’s on me.”

Martin went on to explain that traffic limits would be based on the honor system and à la carte options for the free plan are coming soon.

“[The change] means plugins and themes (which a lot of folks here sell!) will be available on every paid .com plan. Also SFTP, SSH soon, wp-cli, etc. The idea is to simplify into one plan, and a more limited free tier. Any existing free sites above usage will be fine, it’s just a going-forward thing.”

Matt Mullenweg

Discussion in Post Status Slack

As usual, a conversation emerged in Post Status Slack with several people agreeing the free plan’s limits are low, even if they’re not strictly enforced, as Dave Martin indicated on Hacker News.

Matt Mullenweg also stressed the opportunity for plugin and theme owners in Slack:

“[The change] means plugins and themes (which a lot of folks here sell!) will be available on every paid .com plan. Also SFTP, SSH soon, wp-cli, etc. The idea is to simplify into one plan, and a more limited free tier. Any existing free sites above usage will be fine, it’s just a going-forward thing.”

Rob Howard at MasterWP interprets the WordPress.com pricing changes as an indication Automattic is deprioritizing WordPress.com’s free users as part of a larger pivot. Rob speculates that WordPress.com is “stuck” between its past as a blogging site, like Medium, and “its web-hosting future.” The pricing changes are part of a larger strategy to get “unstuck” and — in Rob’s view — put WordPress.com on a footing to dominate not only the low-end site-building and publishing market but also join with the middle and upper-tier markets for managed WordPress hosting.

That’s an interesting speculation, and it’s not inconsistent with Automattic’s emphases in hiring and acquisitions. As Rob notes,

Automattic is also already in the higher-end web hosting business, with its enterprise-level WordPress VIP offering and its investment in WP Engine, which now also includes Flywheel.

In this view, the Gutenberg era is a transitional phase on the way to WordPress.com capturing “the low-code and DIY market” (Wix and Squarespace) by leveraging Automattic’s substantial advantages in hosting. Meanwhile, WordPress VIP — and don’t forget Pressable — are strong players in the middle and upper tier “high-code” custom WordPress market.

In this view, the Gutenberg era is a transitional phase on the way to WordPress.com capturing “the low-code and DIY market” (Wix and Squarespace) by leveraging Automattic’s substantial advantages in hosting. Meanwhile, WordPress VIP — and don’t forget Pressable — are strong players in the middle and upper tier “high-code” custom WordPress market.

Which WordPress Has the Mission of Democratizing Publishing?

Rob also expressed a common concern about a future where today’s major hosting companies, including Automattic, have absorbed much of the independent WordPress commercial ecosystem. If that happens, would the WordPress ecosystem be fragmented between a few different hosted WordPress platforms and their own ecosystems, or would they cross-pollinate each other as they continue to share WordPress core as their commons?

We’ve never interpreted “democratized publishing” as a relatively cost-free blog hosted at WordPress.com — it’s WordPress as a freely available open-source web app you can install where you please, no doubt at some cost.

That seems like a scenario worth considering for its likelihood, risks, and opportunities — not how the world might lose cheap and easy blogging. Strangely, that’s where Rob went:

[this] business model seems to be at odds with WordPress’s long-time fan base (bloggers like the person who wrote the takedown of the new pricing) and the WordPress mission statement, which is to ‘democratize publishing.’

This is a surprising conclusion. We’ve never interpreted “democratized publishing” as a relatively cost-free blog hosted at WordPress.com — it’s WordPress as a freely available open-source web app you can install where you please, no doubt at some cost. What WordPress.com does to support democratized publishing (the WordPress project) is to promote the brand (albeit in a way that confuses the distinction between .org and .com) and help provide some of Automattic‘s significant resources for steering and sustaining the project. Along with Rob, we “hope Automattic succeeds in a way that enhances the WordPress brand and gives them tons of money to funnel back into the open-source community.”

Lessons and Opportunities

We’ll have to wait and see what the ecosystem effects are from the changes at WordPress.com and whether they touch the overall mission of the WordPress project. It may not be the “app store” many product owners have wanted, but WordPress.com is opening up some new channels for revenue in the WordPress economy.

It may not be the “app store” many product owners have wanted, but WordPress.com is opening up some new channels for revenue in the WordPress economy.

It’s too bad the initial pricing changes weren’t part of a communication plan scheduled prior to those changes being made. A CEO should not be discovering how “getting an official blog post drafted and reviewed by those working on this project and by our legal department [can be] challenging on a Sunday.” A little extra care with public relations goes a long way — from the smallest entrepreneur to a company valued in the billions.

As for the idea that WordPress.com is on its way to becoming part of a large, managed WordPress hosting conglomerate, we can’t see that far into the future, but maybe you have thoughts to share in the comments or Post Status Slack. [DK&DB]

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