What will the future of WordPress searches look like after COVID-19?

Image illustrating key highlights in this article

Last year, Alex wrote two posts about search trends for WordPress: the first observed an increase of 52% in monthly search volume in April. This made us realise we should look into these trends more regularly as they hold fascinating insights, which led to a year-end search analysis wrap-up for 2020. As the final quarter of 2021 rapidly approaches, and our world slowly emerges from the pandemic, it’s a good time for an update!

A lot has changed since last year: COVID-19 vaccine rollouts are gathering speed across the globe, and numbers are showing these do significantly reduce the chances of severe cases of the virus, even if transmissibility may have gotten worse thanks to the variants. This means that even though we’re going through what looks like a global third wave, we’re still seeing more and more countries relaxing their measures around lockdowns (with a few notable exceptions).

More and more retailers are therefore operating relatively normally, and one might think that it could mean the scramble to take business online may have started to slow down, even if we are faced with a new eCommerce normal post-pandemic. 

So how has this all reflected on WordPress? WordPress’ CMS market share is up 1.7% year-on-year to 65.2%. This is outpacing Shopify and Wix, which grew a total of 1.3% and 0.2% respectively, year-on-year. This growth rate is slower than last year, however.

Beyond CMS share, though, how has this growth and the impact of COVID-19 changes translated to searches for WordPress? We’ve heard murmurings of a WordPress slowdown, so have set out to investigate.

To see what’s happening in 2021, I applied the same methodology Alex applied in the last two posts looking at this: I’ve used a “basket” of keywords to unearth what the trends look like.

This is the same method used to calculate inflation: a selection of keywords with the search volumes broken down month-on-month. The sheet with the raw data used as a basis can be found here.

Let’s have a look at the headline takeaways from the research first. Taking the average monthly searches in Jan-Jul 2021 and comparing to the averages for 2020:

  • Overall WordPress searches are down by -6.4%
  • WooCommerce searches are down by -8.8%
  • Theme searches are down by -16.7%

Let’s explore the detail and nuance behind these numbers.

Monthly search volumes seem to return to pre-pandemic levels

The below shows us an interesting trend: searches for WordPress peaked around the start of global pandemic lockdowns (April 2020), then trended downwards gradually, to spike again slightly over January and March 2021. They’re now slightly lower than where we were before the pandemic: monthly search volumes for July averaged ca. 5,000, having peaked at 7,400 last year:

Chart showing the changes in Monthly average Search Volume for 600+ WordPress keywords

The above eliminates searches for the keyword “WordPress”, whose volume would otherwise skew the data. Looking at that keyword on its own, though, reveals more nuance around the current trends:

Chart showing searches for the keyword "WordPress" since 2019

While the peaks roughly correspond to trends observed across other WordPress keywords, the decline is even more pronounced when looking at volume: the average monthly search volume for “WordPress” for 2021 is 2.57m, down from both 3m in 2020 and 2.8m in 2019.

The trendline for this data seems to suggest stability, but the data for July 2021 shows a significant decrease of 500k searches in a single month

This raises a number of questions: could this decline be related to the easing of global lockdown restrictions and the impact of summer holidays after a year and a half of uncertainty? Could it corroborate the slowdown of active installs observed by David Bisset over at Post Status? Or is searching for “WordPress” only one way someone might enter the ecosystem? Have sales of WordPress products slowed down in the same way? We’ll look into potential answers for these questions at the end of this article. 

However, there’s a burning question to add here: will this downward trend continue? To solve this, Alex reached out to Dr Oliver Crook, at the Department of Statistics, University of Oxford, to have a look at the numbers and tell us what they predict will happen next, based on current patterns. Here’s the methodology Dr Crook used, and the conclusion reached with this study:

We’ve performed linear regression on the mean of the keywords, without the top 3 keywords. This takes out the outlier keywords (which have significantly higher volume than the remaining 99.5% of keywords). The linear modelling avoids overfitting to the seasonal trend that searches dip over the summer.

Dr Oliver Crook, Department of Statistics at the University of Oxford

With this, we can project that WordPress search volumes will see a small increase through the end of 2021 and into 2022. The highlighted areas show the projected range of the increase.

Chart showing a linear regression of the mean, showing that WordPress search volumes should see a small increase in coming months.
Dr Crook’s ​​chart a linear regression on the mean, projecting future WordPress search volumes.

We’re thus expecting a return to growth in searches through the rest of this year, and start of next year. This looks at our total basket: we can, however, look more specifically at what people are searching for.

How are WooCommerce searches impacted?

Last year WooCommerce search terms outperformed WordPress ones. Is this still the case?

I split out WooCommerce keywords (170+ kws) into their own basket and plotted the search volumes against the remaining keywords from the original group. The result is that WooCommerce is now performing in extremely similar patterns to the rest of WordPress: exhibiting growth and declines in an almost mirror-like fashion: 

Chart showing % change in month-on-month changes for WordPress vs. WooCommerce keywords

This means interest in WooCommerce has probably stabilised to the same level as the rest of the WordPress space: an overall decline after last year’s boom, but still on similar numbers to 2019’s pre-pandemic search volumes.

The most significant downwards search trend continues to be in themes

However, searches for themes keep trending downwards: the average monthly search volume for the keyword “WordPress themes” in July 2021 stands at 135,000. This is still a big number, but just one year ago, this number was 246,000.

This doesn’t mean themes are out of the picture, though: I believe their relevance is still unquestionable, as can be seen when comparing overall volumes of searches to other WordPress keywords. To illustrate, Astra has lost some ground since last year, and is averaging 27,100 monthly searches (-18.1% compared to July 2020). But this is still more than July 2021’s searches for Contact Form 7 (25,400), Beaver Builder (13,000), OceanWP (14,900), Ninja Forms (10,600) and most other plugins, themes and builders featured in the top searches. 

The overall trend in searching for themes is downwards, though, which seems to imply what we suspect: users’ relationship with themes is changing significantly, as fewer WordPress users search for them directly. There is one notable exception of growth in this space: Blocksy has grown by 190% YoY from 1,000 brand match searches a month to 2,900 in July. This is a decrease from a peak of 4,400 in March 2021, but still a significant gain overall.

With this in mind, how have builders, traditionally blamed for the downturn in themes, fared? Have they seen similar patterns? I looked at Elementor for an answer here: it’s recently celebrated its 5th birthday and now powers 5% of all websites. Looking at its top 190+ brand match kws reveals a trend upwards that continues mostly unabated until March, where it declined slightly alongside the rest of WordPress terms. Interestingly, it has regained a lot of its volume as of June, and hasn’t experienced a decline:

Chart showing the changes in Search Volume for brand match terms for Elementor

This means Elementor is actually still enjoying roughly the same amount of searches as it did during last year’s spike and on average is up by 12.2% in 2021 versus 2020 as a whole, contrasting with the overall performance of the WordPress space.

To get a bigger-picture view of how significant the volume of searches for Elementor is, I decided to compare its top brand match terms’ volume with those of Wix and Squarespace, which together account for 5.2% of the CMS market in August 2021, similar to Elementor’s 5%. I looked at the top brand match terms for both companies and extracted monthly volumes (190+ kws each):

Chart showing the search volumes for Elementor, Wix and Squarespace since 2020

This showed a startling revelation: over 2020 and 2021, the total volume of searches for Elementor keywords has accounted for an average of 9.8% those of Wix’s and 35.4% those for Squarespace. Keeping in mind Elementor accounts for use across almost the same amount of live websites as both combined, this speaks a lot about the decentralised nature of WordPress as a CMS compared to its competitors and the relevance of brands in the WordPress space.

With Squarespace and Wix there’s only one way “in”, and adding features to your site requires users to look up solutions directly available on their platforms. This implies that getting the awareness part of the marketing funnel is important to being able to lead customers into further discovery and purchase. This is probably why their brand match terms volumes are so high, and why their investment in awareness makes sense for their solutions. 

With WordPress, however, while there’s a multitude of ways which enable discovery and purchase, including pre-installed solutions with hosts and WordPress.org among others. Most importantly, searchers are probably looking more for specific solutions to their WordPress site problems, rather than specific brands they have been made aware of. This means that specific brand awareness which would lead to brand match searches seems to carry less impact, relevance and correlation to the sales volume and success of the product. This is a critical component of why getting a WordPress marketing strategy right is very different to that of other industries.

This discovery made me think about the brand awareness of the top 5 CMS, to see how much the above theory counts for the WordPress space as a whole. By looking at search volumes for their single brand keyword, what can that tell us about how many people have encountered each brand across other channels and been triggered to search for it, reflecting perhaps on each brand’s marketing efforts? The result is interesting:

Chart showing the search volumes for the main keyword of each of the Top 5 CMS in 2020 and 2021

A look at the SEC filings and shareholder updates for the publicly-listed CMS reveals the extent of this: Wix is spending around $400m/year in marketing, with a significantly larger investment in Q1 2021 which decreased slightly for Q2 2021. Squarespace, on the other hand, spends around half of that, at around $200m/year. Conversely to Wix, they seem to be focusing on growing their investment moving forward, saying that

“In order to continue to grow the number of unique subscriptions, we intend to continue to invest in our marketing efforts, develop new points of entry to our platform and expand internationally. We increased our marketing and sales spend over 33% during the six months ended June 30, 2021 relative to the six months ended June 30, 2020.” 

Quote from Wix’s SEC filings: they spend approx $400m/year on marketing.

Mixing in the size of WordPress’ market penetration vs. the other solutions, this seems to add further proof that the above theory as regards brand awareness’ relevance for WordPress products holds true. The volume of searches Shopify, Wix and Squarespace are getting is potentially attributable to the significant investment both are making in pushing their platforms across multiple channels to aid discovery, as opposed to how WordPress discovery journeys work. 

But WordPress marketing is decentralised, like the system itself. How, therefore, has advertising for WordPress solutions changed over the last year?

WordPress searches are 34% more expensive this year

Here’s where I came across one of the more intriguing, yet least surprising facts: Google is, in fact, the overall winner in all of this change in the WordPress and eCommerce space. 

We can see this by looking at CPC: keyword costs have increased by an average of +34% from May 2020 to July 2021. CPC is driven by competition, so this suggests competition for ads against WordPress keywords has increased significantly.

This increase compares the period from where the upswing in searches was at its peak, to the most recent data available. These are global averages and there will be significant variation for local markets, but this is accurate as a broad indication of trends.

Chart comparing average CPC in 2020 vs 2021 for WordPress terms

The differences in some areas are staggering, including a +641% increase for the keyword “woocommerce membership”. The following are the top increases in CPC we tracked across all keywords:

KeywordCPC/USD(May 2020)CPC/USD(Jul 2021)% Change
woocommerce backorder plugin$1.13$11.16888%
woocommerce customizer$1.74$13.50676%
woocommerce membership$0.56$4.15641%
wordpress crm woocommerce$1.83$11.74542%
wordpress analytics plugin$0.80$4.53466%
wp woocommerce$0.89$4.96457%
woocommerce catalog plugin$1.18$6.37440%
woocommerce product page plugin$1.65$8.45412%

The impact of COVID-19 probably had a huge influence on the first keyword in the list: with many products being on backorder thanks to the upswing in eCommerce, the need for plugins which could handle that has probably skyrocketed. WooCommerce, though, is clearly where the biggest competition is: 7 of the top 10 biggest upswings include the keyword!

The above analysis revealed something I wasn’t expecting, though: the increase in CPC has not been matched by a similar increase in keyword difficulty. The average increase across the same terms is of just 6%, with many actually declining significantly: as an example, the CPC for “WordPress CRM WooCommerce” increased by 542%, but difficulty actually decreased by -28%. 

This probably indicates that pushing WordPress and WooCommerce solutions via Google Search Ads has been given more priority than creating SEO content, which can rank reliably. This opens up an opportunity waiting to be explored by the right businesses, as Google Search Ads stop working the minute you stop paying for them, while SEO content is an investment which, done well, can keep bringing in results reliably in the long term.

As we’ve said many times before, SEO Content Marketing is one of our favourite marketing strategies. Where it’s a good fit for businesses, it brings in traffic with high purchase intent each month. The above only shows the amount of potential there is in investing in it right now: getting your rankings in will mean your content will be right there when your competition can’t afford to keep paying high CPC costs. We can help you with getting this right: find out more about what we do here, and do feel free to get in touch for a chat to see what we can do for you.

So, taking all of the above into consideration, what’s the big picture from a WordPress business owner’s point of view? To get our finger on the pulse here, we launched a survey asking questions about results being observed in sales right now. While it must be noted that the amount of responses is not statistically significant, the results are a strong indicator of the common sentiment on the market right now.

WordPress businesses are doing better than ever

When asked how business was faring, not a single respondent told us performance is bad, with 82% rating it as “Good” or “Amazing!”. Interestingly, the positive sentiment seems to be more prevalent in larger businesses: 12% of the remaining 18% of ratings which opted for just “Okay” performance told us their business is in the $0-$10,000 monthly revenue bracket.

Could this be due to the higher volatility which is typically observed in smaller businesses? One respondent in this bracket told us “We had a record month in June, sales fell off a cliff in July, and have been building since. Sales seem to tank at around the time of US public holidays. Once Labor day is over there’s a clear run until Xmas”

We also asked respondents to specify whether new sales have increased or decreased in 2021, vs. 2020:

Chart showing responses to the question "Have your new sales increased or decreased this year, vs. last year?"

The vast majority are indicating that sales have increased: this does fit well with the peaks experienced in searches at the beginning of the year, but has it stayed the same over the last 3 months (where we observed a significant downturn in searches) to pre-pandemic levels?

Chart showing responses to the question "How about sales in the last three months (May-July)?

Most respondents have actually observed an increase, directly opposing the current downward trend in search volumes and the slowdown of active installs on the WordPress.org repository observed over on Post Status.

In fact, another two respondents whose businesses fall in the $10,000-$100,000 MRR bracket told us that they’ve “Never been busier” and that they “Have had a fantastic year and seen strong growth year over year even after the increase in 2020”.

The future for WordPress seems brighter than ever

We wrapped up our survey by asking respondents how confident they are about the future of WordPress. None of our respondents chose to express “no confidence”, with 64.7% choosing “very confident”, and 35.3% going for a more cautious “somewhat confident”. Interestingly, all of the respondents in the $100,000+ MRR bracket expressed a very high level of confidence in the future of WordPress

All of the data observed through this research, therefore, seems to allow us to extrapolate a number of conclusions. Search volumes may be down, but interest in the WordPress platform and solutions based on it has actually increased. This could indicate that we are entering a period of post-pandemic stabilisation and reliable growth: the early urgency to take your business online fast has dissipated, but the importance of eCommerce clearly hasn’t, as the pandemic has highlighted. 

Competition has also heated up around taking up more business, with significantly more marketing investment across WordPress, especially as the CMS competitors up their advertising budgets across channels. But advertising budgets are not necessarily an indicator of performance, as we can see from Elementor. Interestingly, the entirely different role of brands in WordPress as compared to other industries comes into sharper focus: marketing for WordPress isn’t about raising general brand awareness, but rather about finding ways to make sure customers find your solution at the appropriate moment.

We also seem to be entering a space where consolidation and diversification is key to long-term growth: larger WordPress businesses, which in all probability have a more diversified portfolio of products, are growing at speed and have more bullish confidence in the future.

The swift manner in the way themes were experiencing a change in role has only been accelerated by the current growth: a clear indicator that diversification is key to riding the wave successfully. This could mean this is truly the perfect time to sell if you’re a smaller business, as we’ve observed in recent months

The key takeaway is that the future is brighter than ever: the WordPress ecosystem is experiencing healthy growth, and there seem to be no signs of a significant downturn in this pattern as more of the world comes online.

There’s definitely never been a better time to invest in your WordPress business’ marketing strategy to ensure you are making the best of it in the long term!

James Baldacchino

James Baldacchino

Hi, I’m James! I'm the Head of Strategy at Ellipsis, and when I'm not working on client strategies, I probably have my nose stuck in a book.

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