Pippin Williamson Shakes Up Page Builder Plugins with Critical Review

photo credit: ruudgreven DSC_0012 - (license)
photo credit: ruudgreven DSC_0012(license)

Pippin Williamson has published a comprehensive review of some of the most popular WordPress page builder plugins. The post has received more than 90 comments and is already inspiring changes across the page builder plugin market. Williamson, a prolific plugin developer and mentor to many others, is one of the most authoritative voices in the community on the topic of plugins, which has caused this post to be well-received.

The idea started with a Twitter rant where Williamson collectively slammed popular page builder plugins for their “subpar user experiences” and compatibility problems they cause for other plugins. After realizing he had never truly used any of these plugins, he decided it would only be fair to try them and give a full review.

Williamson’s review is written from the perspective of a developer who supports a large number of plugins and routinely deals with plugin conflicts caused by page builder plugins.

“The page builder ecosystem is a wild west right now and is in a gold rush,” Williamson said. “A lot of different players are building their own versions and many are reaping good rewards for their efforts…What the page builder industry is severely lacking is standardization.”

Williamson compared the current state of the page builder ecosystem to that of the commercial themes industry a few years ago before theme developers agreed on the standards that now guide their products. His critical review examines each plugin’s usability, UI, content “lock in,” and whether the plugin interferes with filters, such as the_content, that might cause incompatibility with other plugins.

Page Builder Plugin Authors Are Responding with Updates to their Plugins

Many of the plugin authors whose page builders were included in the review were quick to respond and are already working on changes based on Williamson’s feedback.

I spoke with Ben Pines, CMO at Elementor, a newer page builder plugin included in the 13 reviewed. After just three months on WordPress.org, Elementor is active on more than 10,000 WordPress sites. The plugin’s contributors continue to add new features to the free version and Pines said they hope to release a commercial version in the next two months.

“We release new features and bug fixes on a weekly basis, based on our user feedback, so of course we take Pippin’s feedback seriously,” Pines said. “We have addressed the only two issues he critiqued us about, and will release an update next week that will address how shortcodes and widgets load scripts on Elementor.”

Brix Builder, a GPL-licensed commercial plugin, was criticized in the review for major compatibility issues: restricting other plugins’ ability to utilize the_content filter and shortcode enclosures not working across builder elements. Apart from these and a few other issues with the plugin’s UI, Williamson ranked the plugin near the top of the list in terms of usability.

Brix co-creator Simone Maranzana was quick to respond in the comments that their team has already fixed some of the issues Williamson pointed out and they are working on the others.

“Concerning the other issues you mentioned, we are going to release an update to our plugin tomorrow that will add support for shortcode enclosures,” Maranzana said.

“Also, we’ve corrected how we hook into the_content for display: this way, other plugins will be able to hook either before or after the content generated by Brix, just like they’d do normally.”

I spoke with Matt Medeiros, whose Conductor plugin was included among the page builders Williamson reviewed. He said his team has never considered Conductor to be a page builder similar to others on the list, as the plugin focuses on giving users control over their content displays without framing a fully-designed layout.

“We wanted customers to easily stack types of content, display custom fields, and drag-and-drop blocks of that content around a page, not design a layout,” Medeiros said. “Since we launched we’ve had over 500 customers using it, and Pippin’s findings are something we’ve always struggled with — finding people who want to shape their content displays, but not buy a full page builder.”

Medeiros said his team will be acting on this feedback in the coming months with the launch of a new website that better communicates the purpose of the plugin, differentiating it from more traditional page builders. They are also working on making their flagship Baton theme support Beaver Builder layouts, as Medeiros said they do not intend to compete in the page builder space.

Beaver Builder, one of the most popular plugins reviewed, does not support multisite in its standard license, something Williamson only discovered after installing it.

“I’m entirely fine with limiting the number of domains the plugin is activated on but this limitation should not affect my ability to use a core WordPress feature,” Williamson said.

Robby McCullough, co-founder of Beaver Builder, was quick to respond to the feedback on the multisite settings and said the team will reconsider its decision to restrict the feature.

Page Builder Sandwich, a commercial plugin that has a free version on WordPress.org with more than 6,000 active installs, was criticized in Williamson’s review for the “rainbow of unnecessary colors” used in its interface. This issue plus a few editor glitches prevented the plugin from being listed among his favorites.

Benjamin Intal, the plugin’s creator, said that his team is working on toning down the colors used in the interface so that it’s not such a jarring experience.

“I agree with you regarding the interface, it does need some toning down,” Intal said. “We’ve been rethinking the interface for the past couple of weeks on how we can improve the user experience. We are revamping it, and the colors are now being adjusted to be more subtle.”

Williamson Finds 3 Page Builder Plugins Worthy of Recommendation

Williamson concluded the review by selecting three favorites, which he said he could happily recommend to his customers: Tailor, Pootle Page Builder, and Beaver Builder. As he is not an affiliate with any of the plugins and has stated multiple times that he has no interest in creating his own page builder, his selections were based solely on the criteria he identified before testing.

One important aspect of the plugins Williamson did not take into account was licensing, which he said was “not relevant for the review or the vast majority of end users.” The license may not be something users care about but it certainly can impact their ability to fork the plugin or improve upon it if the company abandons it or goes out of business.

I spoke with Luke Beck, founder of ThemeFusion, which packages its Fusion Builder plugin with Avada, one of the most widely used WordPress themes. His team was not immediately available to answer questions pertaining to the review, although we will update if we receive comments from them.

Beck was hesitant to answer whether Fusion Builder is 100% GPL and directed me to ThemeForest, which lists Avada as split GPL. Avada’s creators also require users to purchase multiple licenses when using the theme on WordPress multisite. Visual Composer, another plugin included in the review, shares the same kind of split licensing. It only offers the PHP under GPL, restricting the Javascript, CSS, and images. Putting part of the product under a proprietary license severely restricts users’ freedoms and should be disclosed as part of any future reviews.

All three plugins that won out are 100% GPL and two out of the three have fewer than 4,000 active installs. This demonstrates that high quality WordPress plugins may not always be widely known and the size of the user base is not always an indication of the plugin’s code quality.

After receiving several comments about other page builder plugins not included in the review, Williamson said he may try to do a second set of reviews. Despite not being especially fond of these types of plugins, he recognizes the demand for page builders and their usefulness to the community.

Williamson’s critical review is a powerful example of the change that can be precipitated by one highly-regarded expert offering constructive, unbiased feedback to plugins that fall into a particular niche. Hopefully this and any future reviews will be the first cracks in the ice towards accelerating standardization of the disparate products in WordPress’ page builder ecosystem.

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