WordPress is a brilliant platform for creating all kinds of websites and its popularity is well deserved. However, it was originally conceived as a simple blogging platform and if you use it for anything other than blogging, it does sometimes show its humble roots.
As soon as you want to create content that goes beyond text with basic formatting (e.g. columns, tabbed content, etc.), the WordPress editor can feel awfully limited. In response to this problem, various solutions have sprung up, that replace the WordPress editor with sophisticated drag-and-drop interfaces.
What do these plugins actually offer and do any of them really improve upon the standard editor? Read on to find out.
Here’s a video, where I go through the pros and cons of six different page layout builders in rapid succession:
For reference and a quick overview, here are the pros and cons of each of the plugins in text form:
Aqua Page Builder
Aqua Page Builder is a free WordPress plugin. It adds a new “Template” button to your page and post editors and a template builder, which is separate from the page editor.
In the builder, you can add text blocks, columns, widget areas, tabbed content and alert boxes/notifications. In a few supported themes, there are more (theme-specific) building blocks available.
The level of abstraction is very high, in Aqua Page Builder and I get the impression that the word “Template” is a misnomer, in this case. You aren’t really building templates that you can insert and use in different ways, since you can’t use the same template on two pages, but with different content. In practical terms, that means if you want several pages that all have a two-column layout in common, but with different content, you have to create a separate “template” for each one of those pages.
Content Builder replaces your regular WordPress post and page editors with a visual drag-and-drop interface. You can add columns, test blocks, images, image galleries, videos, tabbed content, embed Google maps and add content dividers.
The user interface is intuitive and (apart from difficulties when moving elements around) very easy to use. The biggest issue with Content Builder is that it’s not compatible with the regular WordPress editor. If you switch from Content Builder to the regular editor, all the formatting goes lost and doesn’t recover when you switch back to the visual editor.
Elegant Builder is a plugin that adds a new layout and content editor to WordPress. Using the builder is a two- or three-step process: you create a basic layout with columns (optional), then add various elements to the columns and then edit the elements and add your actual content to them.
This is all done in a very nicely designed drag-and-drop interface. Elegant Builder boasts an impressive range of well designed elements ranging from regular text and image blocks to buttons, pricing tables and image sliders.
Unfortunately, the builder is very abstract. When you’re working in it, you never really know how the layout will translate to the front end and the only way to find out is to save the layout, then update the page and then check the front-end to see for yourself.
In the end, it’s an abstract and somewhat clumsy process.
Personally, I love Elegant Themes and have been a member for a long time, but this particular plugin is not the reason to join.
Ether Content Builder
Ether Content Builder is another plugin that essentially replaces the regular WordPress editor. The best thing about it is that it offers an amazingly expansive array of elements: columns, buttons, message boxes, embedded maps, twitter feeds… you name it, Ether Content Builder has it.
The user interface is a bit hot and cold. On the one hand, it seems very solid, the editing and drag-and-drop is easy to use and understand. On the other hand, it’s very abstract. In the editor, you’re just looking at an array of grey blocks that barely hint at what the content on the front-end looks like.
Ether Content Builder is one of the better builders, but it’s still far from perfect.
Page Builder is the second free plugin in this roundup. It adds a third tab to the WordPress editor, in which you can create columns and add various content elements. There are many widget-like elements. For example, you can add a search box, a list of recent posts or a custom menu.
There are also a few design elements such as buttons, pricing tables and styled lists, but the selection is relatively slim, compared to some of the other candidates.
Page Builder also has the same abstraction issues that several other builders in the roundup have. In the end, though, it’s a pretty good plugin, considering that it won’t cost you anything to use it. Hats off to the developers.
The final plugin for this roundup is Visual Composer. The greatest advantage Visual Composer has over the other candidates is that it is less abstract: what you see in the editor more or less represents what you see on the front end. For example, Visual Composer displays the full text of all your text-elements, tabbed content is displayed in tabs, a blue box looks like a blue box in the editor etc. When you’re building large pages with lots of content, this seemingly small detail ends up making a big difference.
The user interface is a bit messy, with icons scattered all over it, but it never fails to be at least somewhat intuitive. There’s a good selection of elements as well. Ultimately, Visual Composer is the only plugin in the roundup that I actually ended up using for several pages, after I was done with the testing.
After using many different visual layout builders, my impression is that nothing matters more than the level of abstraction. You can have a brilliantly designed and fully-featured plugin (e.g. Ether and Elegant Builder), but if you’re looking at a set of abstract blocks and you’re always two or three clicks away from actually editing your content, the builder turns into a hindrance.
The two page builders that get it right are Content Builder and Visual Composer. Content Builder has the better user interface of the two, but it has a smaller selection of elements to choose from and it K.O.s itself with compatibility issues and the way it locks you out of using the regular WordPress editor.
In the end, Visual Composer is the best of the bunch and my only warm recommendation from the roundup. It’s far from perfect, but for complex pages (e.g. long sales pages with many elements) it provides a far superior experience to messing with short codes in the regular WordPress editor. In the end, that’s what matters most.
What’s your experience with replacing and improving the WordPress editing experience? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Due to the research I did for this post and some of the comments made by readers, I decided to create a visual editor plugin myself.
The goal was to create a content builder that takes all the best elements from the ones tested here and makes none of their mistakes.
I think we succeeded with that in a rather spectacular fashion. :)
You can see what we came up with here: Thrive Content Builder