WordPress is the most dominant CMS by a huge margin, and by one measure it recently passed a 40% share of all websites. As a community, though, we have a relatively poor understanding of specifically what drives WordPress’ growth. If we don’t understand why WordPress grows, we won’t be able to evaluate opportunities or respond appropriately if the growth rate ever changes.

WordPress’ continued growth is very good for the WordPress community and economy 1 1. There is a discussion about whether WordPress' continued growth is good for the web, but I'm not going to engage with that here. × : more users means more opportunities from DIY new users to the largest websites in the world.

For many WordPress businesses, 2020 was a good year: as more people needed to move their businesses online, we saw an acceleration of the “digital transformation” that has been taking place over the last decade.

What was the growth across different parts of the WordPress economy, though? We can use search volume data to get some insight here. Search volume data is broken down by month and keyword, so we can get a good measure of both overall changes and trends in specific areas.

Similar to at the start of the pandemic when we identified a 52% increases in WordPress searches in a single month, we’ve used a “basket” of keywords as the methodology here 2 2. You can see the raw results here. All of these are global and monthly results. × . This is the same method used to calculate inflation: a selection of keywords with the search volumes broken down month-on-month.

Last time we used a basket of ~300 keywords. This time, for additional accuracy, we’ve used a basket for 542 keywords. Here are a couple of headline trends for searches in 2020:

  • WordPress keywords increased by 14.0%
  • Plugin keywords increased 17.8%
  • WooCommerce keywords increased 44.3%
  • Theme keywords increased 8.7%

It’s a great year for WooCommerce, a good year for plugins, and not such a good year for themes. When we look at the contribution each of those areas makes to the total growth in WordPress’ search volumes, we can see the outsized impact of WooCommerce:

For businesses in each of these areas, these are good benchmarks for average growth rates. The “base rate” for plugin businesses is thus a 20% growth rate. For WooCommerce businesses, though, it’s 2.5x the plugin growth rate, at 44%. That’s huge!

There is, of course, plenty of nuance. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.

Each WordPress install is driving 14 searches

Searches for WordPress keywords increased by 14.0% in 2020, from 2019.

We can compare the search volume increases to WordPress’ market share growth. W3 Techs’ finds WordPress’ share was up 4.1% last year, and Web Almanac found a 7% increase.

We can only get absolute numbers from Web Almanac: their data shows 668,972 new WordPress sites in 2020. Our basket of keywords shows an increase of 782,981 WordPress searches/month, so annualising the monthly number and assuming new sites drive new searches, each new WordPress install results in 14 individual searches for WordPress solutions 3 3. I want to acknowledge this is an assumption, but as a Fermi estimate it checks out. We can also source Liquid Web's data that the average site on their hosting has 30 plugins. It's reasonable to assume that 1 plugin install generates at least 1 search, and that Managed Hosting customers have more plugins than average. × .

We can also break down the overall increase a bit more, as this is skewed by the highest-volume keywords. For most product businesses, the smaller-volume keywords are more interesting as you’re more likely to be trying to rank for “WordPress form plugin” than “WordPress”. We can thus look at the mean (average) and median (middle value) increase in volume:

  • The mean keyword’s volume increased 35.8% in 2020, versus 2019.
  • The median keyword’s volume increased 20.4% in 2020, versus 2019.

These numbers are a lot more insightful for most WordPress businesses: the mean increase of 35.8% tells us that searches for keywords with smaller volumes (which are much more likely to be relevant to small businesses) are growing rapidly. A couple of examples here to illustrate:

KeywordAvg. Search Volume
(Monthly, 2019)
Avg. Search Volume
(Monthly, 2020)
% change
wordpress hosting386504740022.64%
wordpress popup5400670024.07%
wordpress crm4650580024.73%
wordpress newsletter plugin3483420020.57%
wordpress react3133380021.28%
wordpress website development2108260023.32%
amp plugin1817240032.11%

“WordPress” is up to 3,040,000 searches/month, though, which is an 8.57% increase. That’s how we can have such a big discrepancy between the overall and average increases.

As the above keywords show, in general it’s been a good year for WordPress keywords. Anyone picking up search traffic for general keywords like the above will have seen an organic increase of ~20% last year.

$50/click for these results – Google is, of course, the real winner here.

Spare a penny for the thoughts of the sites ranking for “WordPress hosting”, though: whilst this term had a 22.64% increase in searches last year, the page is dominated by ads and in the US advertisers are paying $50 per click.

A solid year for plugins

Keywords with the word “plugin” in them had a 17.78% increase in monthly search volume last year. The absolute number on that is 5035 searches/month, up from 4275 in 2019.

Unlike general WordPress keywords, the median increase is very close to the mean. The median keyword had a 18.58% increase in 2020, up to 2500/month from 2108 in 2019.

The ~18% growth rate of plugin searches in 2020 is probably the most indicative of all of these of the growth of the WordPress economy. This intuitively seems like an accurate number for both small WordPress product businesses and very big ones.

Further, if we exclude the top two results, which are for “wordpress plugins” and “woocommerce plugins”, it’s noteworthy how many keywords are bunched around the average of 2-5k searches/month in the middle of the chart:

2-5k searches/month is enough demand to build a solid business, and this is just one indicator of demand.

We see that “wordpress membership plugin” is the top keyword on this list, with searches up 28.72% last year to 9,300/month. Membership is one of the most competitive spaces in WordPress, and this increase in search volume is only going to make searches for that keyword even more competitive. You may spot a trend here:

When people wonder if SEO works for WordPress products, you probably don’t need to look much further than two ads and three organic results Awesome Motive has for this keyword. 4 4. I don't want to get too sidetracked here, but Elementor's paid ad strategy is noteworthy here too. They appear to be buying traffic to all their blog content. Note one of the quick links is "Frustrated with WP?", which takes you to a landing page that presents Elementor as a better alternative. ×

The plugin keywords are up across the board, which doesn’t make for especially interesting analysis. The ~20% growth rate for plugin keywords is pretty evenly applied. There is one outlier, though: the biggest increase is for searches for “wordpress popup plugin”, which are up 592.59%. 2020 was a big year for popups!

A huge year for WooCommerce

Searches for WooCommerce keywords were up 44.30% last year. That outpaces the overall increase in WordPress keywords by over 3x.

The average monthly search volume for Woo keywords in 2020 was 3,764, up from 2,609 in 2019 (44.30% increase). The median monthly search was 600 in 2020, up from 413 in 2019 (45.16% increase).

The mean and the median being so close together tells you this growth rate is applicable across the board. 2020 was a big year for WooCommerce.

As discussed above, WooCommerce’s growth had an outsized influence on WordPress.

What’s noteworthy here is the quantity of good volume long-tail keywords: 355,000 people/month are searching for WooCommerce (which is up 46.54%). This keyword has by far the biggest search volume. Those people are then doing all sorts of different things with their stores, though, and they’re searching to meet individual needs:

  • ~12,000 people search every month for a booking solution
  • 6,500/month are looking for a membership solution, and Stripe
  • 4,300/month want to use their store for dropshipping
  • 3,100/month want a point-of-sale solution for using WooCommerce in a physical shop

The list goes on to 180+ individual solutions store-owners are looking for. Currently these searches are met by a mix of product makers selling independently, and products on the WooCommerce marketplace. This creates a very low barrier to entry and means, like with WordPress, you have a decentralised demand-driven market.

Except, unlike WordPress, there is an official marketplace for products on WooCommerce.com. If we look at the keyword “WooCommerce POS” (POS is “point of sale”, or a system for accepting orders and payments in a physical shop), which was up 36.26% last year, we see these results:

You, an experienced searcher and member of the WordPress community, might be able to judge which of those is the best option for a mission-critical part of your store, but can a consumer? There’s massive potential for WooCommerce extensions in general, but there are also challenges to work through.

Not such a good year for themes, but there are specific winners

Themes are the only of the three big product niches in WordPress to see an increase in searches below the overall WordPress average. Before we announce the death of themes, we should still note: there was still an increase in theme searches last year, and this is mostly indicative of a rapidly changing theme market. Themes searches were much more volatile than other categories.

The average search volume for WordPress keywords with the word “theme” in theme increased 8.67% in 2020, with the median increase only 6.35%.

Theme searches were extremely volatile last year. Of the keywords we looked at, 40% had a search volume decrease last year. That compares to 26% seeing a decrease across 26% all WordPress keywords.

The big winner is Astra, whose monthly searches were up a massive 85% from 17025 to 31500. That quantity of brand-match searches/month is approaching the likes of Gravity Forms (34k/month) and is higher than Beaver Builder, Akismet, OceanWP, Contact Form 7, Ninja Forms, Wordfence… pretty much everyone.

We also need to talk about Elementor, which arguably goes in the “plugin” category but has a sufficiently large impact on themes it warrants discussion here: searches for Elementor keywords (we counted 16) were up 85% too, for a total of well over 100k monthly searches.

That makes Elementor the most searched WordPress brand behind WooCommerce, and when we talk about WooCommerce driving WordPress’ growth we also need to put Elementor in a similar category.

It was common for these “brand match” theme searches to be down, though:

  • betheme was down 16.15%
  • “kalium theme” was down 25.00%
  • “x theme” was down 11.94%
  • “optimizepress” was down 11.89%

This is where we saw the volatility in theme searches: whilst themes rise quickly, it also seems they go out of favour faster than other categories. We should also mention Visual Composer, which is also technically a plugin, but had a similar impact on themes to Elementor: searches were down 30% last year. It seems Visual Composer and WP Bakery are now separate companies: searches for WP Bakery were up 25% last year, so one party may have got the better deal of that transaction.

A big year for WordPress

One of the interesting comments during Matt Medeiros’ interview with Matt Mullenweg was Matt Mullenweg commenting on how Automattic entering a niche in WordPress makes the niche bigger.

We see this overall here: WordPress is growing quickly, and right now nearly all of the opportunities here are “positive sum”. There is space for new market entrants, for products to improve, and whilst WordPress is growing quickly that can happen in a way that means everyone wins.

It’s too simplistic to focus on WordPress overall, though. The analysis here hopefully helps you fill in some of the gaps on specifically where WordPress’ growth comes from.

WooCommerce plays a huge role, but so does Elementor, and people are choosing or sticking with WordPress because of the range of problems the plugin ecosystem can solve. The WordPress economy as a whole is growing rapidly, and 2021 is going to be a very interesting year.

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About Alex Denning

Hey, I'm Alex! I'm the Founder of Ellipsis, and I co-curate the really good weekly newsletter MasterWP. I'm @AlexDenning 👏

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