Enabling the big CMS wins

Google is a top player in the WordPress ecosystem, and their rise has been nothing short of amazing. In addition to everything you know of Google (from search to maps and beyond)—they’re also a market leader for free WordPress plugins.

A few years back, I was a key participant in all of this, and it’s been a great journey to watch it grow.

FIrst, we focused on making websites a little bit faster and easier to use in one of their earliest efforts to “hop in” to the CMS pool—overhauling the AMP for WordPress plugin. Well, you might not know that term but consider this: Billions of pageviews everyday from some of the biggest sites on the web depend on this work, and all it’s sprouted, including the great Web Stories plugin, too.

Here’s a brief retelling on my time on this project.

The beginnings of Google on the world’s biggest web creator platform

I was tapped from another XWP team (working across CMS migrations and rebuilds) to join in as the team’s product owner for the Google projects, focusing on ways to expand and develop features. We roadmapped far into the future, building a path to simplify dynamic storytelling on the web.

When Google and Automattic sought a bridge into the WordPress universe, they turned to us—the trusted architects of digital transformation. As a WordPress VIP Gold Agency Partner, we were the only experts who could wrangle the AMP for WordPress plugin.

The challenge was simple, but complex

Starting off with an exhaustive discovery to validate the optimal path forward, I developed a plan to iterate the plugin through real user research. I wanted to see how real websites used the plugin.

And we came across some technical challenges, and heard a variety of frustrations from users.

Constantly, I heard the same message: Find a way to get out of the way! Small publishers and enterprises alike depended on this tool that they didn’t really understand. It was a gateway to lightning-fast content delivery, but how does it work?

As the case study describes well, I found a clear roadmap forward to deliver:

  1. Requirements for a scalable technical design, including a structure to support the development of new features, unit testing, and enforcement of WordPress code standards.
  2. A healthy backlog of requested features and improvements drawn from feedback provided by existing plugin users.
  3. A roadmap to bring the plugin’s features in line with the core AMP spec, and to do so in a manner that was maintainable and future-proof.

Really big websites (which had tens of millions of unique visitors a month) struggled with the AMP framework and the older template approach. The guardrails that it had did dramatically improve page speed, all I had to do was surface both a clearer pathway to using the tools, and ways to learn the rules. Then they’d understand what’s going on and actually stick around to use it the way it was intended.

So charted a course that would spike demand for the plugin.

Our incredible team constantly thought of new ways to improve problems: Whether it was static server-side rendering, CSS treeshaking, error collection, or better onboarding, every step we took was in service of a solution that made the payoff worth the work.

And it worked!

We grew our numbers steadily, focusing on user feedback from beta testing and wp.org plugin reviews. Each version got faster, smarter, and easier. At its peak over 600,000 active sites and networks were using our plugin, powering billions of pageviews every day.

And sitting right in the helm of it all, I championed users and priorities, focusing on ways to get our Agile-scrum team to develop features that would help improve the myriad of user frustrations, with the eventual goal to spike demand for the plugin.

The work from the initial AMP plugin lives on today

As most web developers today have chosen alternative page experience approaches that don’t depend on the AMP framework, the plugin’s feature development has dwindled and is focused primarily on minor bug fixes and updates to align with WordPress. It’s great that it mostly “just works!” as XWP’s engineering focused on best practices at every decision of the build.

Some key learnings from this big project

A key element of this success is our priority on intuitiveness. Just as a chef depends on mise en place to have tools and ingredients next to the task they’re doing, users expect the same from their applications—both editor and reader.

Whether it’s an error panel, creation tool, or unsupported code, I think we owe it to the human who’s trying to view this content to find a reasonable path forward and to not hide it all in a cabinet.

I was especially proud of a few things from this time period:

  1. Bringing life to a misunderstood tool and going way further: Instead of sticking to just “fixing bugs” our user research exposed how important page speed was. AMP—a great (for the time) way to speed up sites—started an obsessive focus on user experience and page speed, eventually becoming a pillar of XWP’s entire business. A fast website is something that everyone wants.
  2. Release notes written for humans: Each milestone was celebrated with bespoke release notes—a testament to our commitment to excellence. I tried to show the “we actually heard you” part that so many teams fail to do in their releases because saying just “bug fixes” in a changelog isn’t uninformative, it’s a missed opportunity to thank the reporting and celebrate your hardworking teammates.
  3. Global presentations at conferences and boardrooms on 3 continents: It was incredible to present AMP to big publishers across the globe, ranging from Europe to Australia and all across the USA. Our presentations echoed across continents, empowering creators and developers alike to rethink their approach to making fast user-focused content.

Also our prototype experiments to use WordPress’ block-based editor would break apart into a second (and equally incredible) Web Stories plugin that brings an incredible “Stories” editor (Think Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger, but open source and written in HTML.) A successive team took our earlier ideas and made something beyond our wildest dreams that now is on over 100,000+ websites. It’s easy to say I’m proud that the ratings continue to sit above 4 stars.

Web Stories, too, became important: I advocated for and trained major newsrooms like the Wall Street Journal, Cowgirl Magazine, and Australian Geographic about this incredible tool, which had impressive results for our publishers.

In summary, our partnership with Google and Automattic birthed more than plugins—it ignited a movement.

In total across all plugins, Google currently has almost 6 million active installations that I’d like to think came partly due to our fervent passion arguing on behalf of building better tools for users… Including others, like Jetpack Boost, one of the passion ideas I had with the partners at Automattic.

As we sail forward, I remain committed to shaping the digital landscape, one new story at a time.