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WooCommerce Partners With Square to Expand Services for CBD Merchants

WooCommerce, the open-source eCommerce platform developed and supported by Automattic, announced a partnership with Square payment solutions yesterday. The partnership expands services for merchants who are selling CBD products online. While it is a small step toward making it easier to sell CBD products, there are still many restrictions and pitfalls that merchants must overcome.

Cannabidiol, known as CBD, was removed from the U.S. federal list of controlled substances in December 2018. It is one of 100s of identified cannabinoids in cannabis plants and does not have the psychoactive effects of THC. The Farm Bill (Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) removed some restrictions and provided a regulated path for farmers and merchants to sell CBD-based products.

CBD exists in a legal gray area in some jurisdictions in the U.S. State and local laws may still ban selling CBD and other substances (for example, I live in Alabama where we have some “dry” counties where selling alcohol is illegal). Therefore, merchants need to be aware that there are legal issues to consider, despite it being legal at the federal level. They should always check their local laws.

Other hurdles include finding a payment processor, web host, shipping company, and bank that don’t have internal policies that forbid CBD products or at least working within any guidelines they do have. WooCommerce’s partnership with Square may help U.S. merchants at least tackle the payment processor part of the equation.

“WooCommerce is proud to offer CBD merchants secure, efficient services that enable business owners to focus on improving consumers’ lives,” says Paul Maiorana, General Manager of WooCommerce.

By using Square, U.S. merchants can also use other Automattic services such as Jetpack for backups and malware scanning, WooCommerce Shipping for printing labels, and WooCommerce Tax for automatically calculating sales tax at checkout.

“Because it’s still a highly-regulated substance, CBD products sold online require adherence to a special set of rules,” wrote Lynn Jatania in a how-to post for WooCommerce merchants. In the post, she describes steps sellers must follow and issues they may encounter.

Restrictions on Automattic-Hosted or Connected Stores

The version of the WooCommerce software available through WordPress.com or WooCommerce.com forbids the sale of CBD products because it is hosted by Automattic. Merchants must use the WooCommerce plugin from WordPress.org and run their stores on a third-party host that allows selling CBD products.

The WordPress.com store guidelines state:

For example, you may not sell (or facilitate the sale of) any of the following in (or through) your store:…Controlled and highly-regulated substances (including alcohol, marijuana, cannabidiol or CBD, and other cannabis-derived products)

Self-hosted WooCommerce stores also have restrictions if they wish to connect their stores to any of Automattic’s services. This became a source of confusion in June 2019, when a self-hosted WooCommerce merchant was informed they could not connect to WordPress.com via Jetpack while selling CBD products. The WooCommerce team updated its guidelines to better clarify what is allowed when using Automattic’s services.

The policy is nearly the same today. However, the partnership with Square loosens the rules to a degree. Currently, only U.S. stores are allowed to sell CBD products while connected to WordPress.com. They are also required to use Square for payment processing.

From the WooCommerce Guidelines for CBD and Other Hemp-Derived Products:

Square has a vetting process for stores selling CBD and other hemp-derived products, so we currently require Square as the payment provider if you’d like to connect your store to Jetpack, WooCommerce Tax, and WooCommerce Shipping. We may approve additional payment providers in the future.

Using Square is not as simple as signing up. To sell CBD products, merchants must go through an application process to make sure they are selling CBD products with approval. The industry is heavily regulated, so this process may take some time.

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WordPress 5.4 Beta 1 Ready for Testing and Feedback

Release coordinator Francesca Marano announced the release of WordPress 5.4 Beta 1 on February 11. Most of the work has centered on the block editor. However, at the moment, contributors have closed another 258 tickets for the 5.4 milestone.

A second beta release is scheduled for February 18, according to the 5.4 release schedule, along with follow-up betas and release candidates in the following weeks. The final release of WordPress 5.4 is slated for March 31.

At this point in the development cycle, WordPress 5.4 is in a feature freeze, which means no new enhancements or feature requests will be considered. Only bug fixes and inline documentation are planned for the remainder of the cycle.

Developers should follow the beta testing handbook page to test their plugins and themes. Users who want to try out the upcoming release can do so via the WordPress Beta Tester plugin.

Block Editor Changes

New welcome modal for the block editor.

WordPress 5.4 will comprise of 10 major releases of the Gutenberg plugin, which is the development project behind the block editor. The oldest update, version 6.6, was released on October 2. The latest update, version 7.5, landed on February 12.

For end-users who are still using the classic editor, version 5.4 is an opportunity to see if the block editor has improved enough to use. While it may not be ready for everyone, the user experience continues to get better with each release.

The block editor will feel much improved to users who have not yet tested the new features within the Gutenberg plugin. There is a welcome modal to introduce end-users to the block editor, which probably should have been added in WordPress 5.0 when the block editor landed. This update will also feature two new blocks: a social links block and a buttons group block.

The new navigation block will not land in WordPress 5.4. “The Navigation block is usable right now,” said Mark Uraine in a post explaining the decision. “But we don’t think it’s useful yet – at least not until it has an intuitive place to live.” The goal is for it to be available to users in the context of adding it to the header, footer, or sidebar rather than post content. It will make more sense for it to land in an update that branches the block system outside of the content area.

Several blocks now have extra text and background color settings, including gradient backgrounds. Users can set the image size for galleries, drag and drop a featured image, and change the title attribute for the image block. Multi-block selection is much improved along with numerous other user experience and accessibility improvements.

The following is, mostly, our coverage of each major Gutenberg release, dating back to version 6.6, along with a few links to the release announcements for versions we did not cover:

Important Developer Changes

Developers should begin testing their plugins and themes to make sure there are no breaking changes with the 5.4 beta release. Most changes will be with the block editor. However, there are some noteworthy updates to other areas of WordPress.

The get_calendar() function and anything that uses it, such as the calendar widget, have a breaking HTML change. The previous and next month links have been moved below the <table> element and within a new <nav> element. This may potentially break calendar designs for theme authors.

A new apply_shortcodes() function was added as an alias for do_shortcode(). The purpose of the function was to distinguish between do_* functions, which imply an action, and apply_* functions, which imply a filter or something that should return a value. It is purely a semantic change. It would be nice to see further cleanup of the function-naming mess that represents much of WordPress’ core code. With 16 years of technical debt, it could use an overhaul. Perhaps the acceptance of this four-year-old ticket on a simple shortcode function can start a trend.

Like plugins, themes can now set minimum version support. By using the Requires at least and Requires PHP headers in a theme’s style.css file, theme authors can set the minimum WordPress version and PHP version, respectively.

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EditorsKit Tackles Typography With First Premium Add-On

Jeffrey Carandang released the EditorsKit Typography Add-On today, the first commercial extension to his EditorsKit WordPress plugin. The plugin provides page and block-level typography options. It works with Google Fonts, includes preset font combinations, and allows users to create custom typography rules.

Unlike many other block editor plugins that offer a library of blocks, EditorsKit does not add custom blocks. Instead, it focuses on creating a better block editor experience. It enhances the editor interface, adds extra options to the editor toolbar, and extends options for existing blocks. It is a toolkit that is almost experimental, handling user-requested features long before they land in core WordPress or even the Gutenberg plugin.

Until now, EditorsKit has remained a free plugin with no commercial components. However, it was almost inevitable that such a plugin would need some financial backing, particularly with the pace that Carandang is adding new features.

“The plan was actually for Gutenberg and EditorsKit to mature enough, then create premium add-ons or services,” said Carandang. “But, the circumstances changed when I created ShareABlock. There are so many things that I want to achieve when creating a layout that core blocks cannot do yet.”

ShareABlock is Carandang’s community website for sharing blocks and templates. Site visitors can download block files directly from the site and import them into the block editor. Members can also share their custom block and template designs with others. Everything on the site is free to the community.

“For this specific add-on, I was trying to solve the issue when it comes to typography in the Gutenberg Editor that I’ve experienced when creating templates and block patterns for ShareABlock,” said Carandang. “I always find myself doing custom functions to use specific Google Fonts when creating a template. I figured there might be others that are having the same problem.”

The typography add-on for EditorsKit is a value-add on top of the normal free version of the plugin. For users who decide to purchase, they can choose between three plans that range from $29 and $99 per year, depending on the number of sites they need updates and support on.

“My main focus is still on the free version,” said Carandang. “There will just be a few add-ons that will be built along the way whenever the circumstances need it.”

This add-on is just the first step into a larger goal to add some other commercial add-ons and integration into EditorsKit. “I have a couple of other ideas,” said Carandang. “I plan to turn this into a bundle to make it easier for users to manage them inside the settings page.”

How the Plugin Works

Yesterday, Carandang launched version 1.2.5 of the primary EditorsKit plugin. Along with a handful of new features and bug fixes, he added a new “Extensions” tab to the plugin’s settings screen. End-users can grab the typography add-on from that new page. Once installed and activated, users can view and set a default font combination from that same area in the plugin.

Typography Settings on the EditorsKit settings screen.

The plugin adds typography options on the post-editing screen. It provides a custom sidebar that allows end-users to select a font combination for the entire post.

End-users can also create custom typography rules from this same sidebar. Any custom rules created are stored for use on other posts and pages too. There is also an option to apply the rules to the <body> element on the front end and override the theme’s typography.

Screenshot of the post/page-level typography options in the block editor for the EditorsKit typography add-on.
Post/Page-level typography options in the block editor.

On the block level, each block allows users to select a font family and weight. This is handled through a custom “Typography Settings” panel. Currently, there are over 60 choices from Google Fonts and a few system fonts. The add-on also automatically updates the font-weight options on a per-font basis (not all fonts are built for all weights).

Screenshot of the per-block typography settings for the EditorsKit typography add-on.
Per-block typography settings.

The one potential downside to this add-on is how easy it is to go overboard when adding external fonts. When using too many on a page, it will slow down the page-loading speed. As a general rule of thumb, users should not select more than two or three fonts to keep speed in check. It would be handy if the plugin added a warning message somewhere in the UI to let users know of the dangers of using too many fonts.

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Awesome Motive Acquires the All in One SEO Pack Plugin

Last Thursday, Awesome Motive CEO Syed Balkhi announced his company acquired the All in One SEO Pack (AIOSEO) plugin. Michael Torbert, the plugin creator, first released AIOSEO in 2007. Since then, the plugin has been downloaded over 65 million times. It is currently active on over 2 million WordPress sites.

Balkhi said his company acquired the project for two primary reasons. “First, because our users continuously asked us to build an SEO plugin that’s easier to use and is more affordable,” he said. “They specifically wanted an SEO plugin that was reliable and results-focused like some SaaS software is.” The second reason was that he did not want the plugin to end up in the wrong hands. “All in One SEO has played an important role in the history of WordPress, in the history of WPBeginner (since this was the first SEO plugin I used), and there are a lot of users who rely on All in One SEO Pack to optimize their WordPress site for SEO.”

“I’m confident in handing over the reins to such a great organization in Awesome Motive and excited to see what the next chapter brings for AIOSEOP under your leadership,” said Torbert in response to Balkhi’s announcement.

For many years, AIOSEO enjoyed the spotlight. It was the go-to SEO plugin for a large segment of the WordPress user base. However, in recent years, Yoast SEO has captured a larger share of the market. It is currently installed on over 5 million websites. Other plugins such as The SEO Framework have also eaten into the market. Plus, newcomer Rank Math SEO has been making waves and picking up users at a steady clip. Needless to say, there is much fiercer competition among SEO plugins than in AIOSEO’s heyday.

“The SEO plugin market is definitely a competitive one, but I feel it’s only competitive by quantity,” said Balkhi. “WordPress as a platform is flourishing, and one of the reasons for that is the choices/freedoms that WordPress offers to users, including the choice of which SEO plugin to use.”

Balkhi has a knack for growing products, and the WordPress ecosystem is steadily growing. Currently, over 14 million websites use his software. He launched WP Beginner, a free WordPress resource site, in 2009. Since then, he’s launched successful products like OptinMonster, a conversion optimization toolkit; WPForms, a drag-and-drop form builder; MonsterInsights, a Google Analytics plugin; and more. In 2019, his company launched RafflePress, a contest and giveaway plugin.

Balkhi noted that he does not manage all of these properties on his own. “The truth is that I’m blessed to work alongside with some of the most talented people in the ecosystem that are my partners in various ventures, such as Thomas Griffin, Jared Atchison, Chris Christoff, John Turner, Blair Williams, Steve and Stephanie Wells, Josh Kohlbach, and now Benjamin Rojas,” he said. “Without my partners and the rest of our amazing Awesome Motive team, none of what we do would be possible.”

The question is now whether his company can grow AIOSEO’s audience from its current 2 million users while turning a profit.

“Our growth plan for the next year and beyond is to make an SEO plugin that’s geared towards beginners and non-techy business owners,” said Balkhi. “An SEO plugin that’s always reliable, comes with exceptional customer support, and most importantly is results-focused. I believe when we meet these three criteria, we will have done more than enough to set ourselves apart from the competition.”

Except for Torbert, the entire AIOSEO team is joining Awesome Motive and will continue working on the plugin. “Some of the team members were previously part-time contractors, but now they will be working full-time on AIOSEO, so you can say that the product team has actually grown,” said Balkhi.

Benjamin Rojas will be taking the lead role in managing the plugin. He was previously one of the senior members from Awesome Motive’s OptinMonster team. Alongside this change, the company is planning to add two new hires in the coming weeks. Balkhi expressed a desire to “hit the ground running at full speed.”

The Future of the Plugin

Screenshot of the main settings screen for the All in One SEO plugin.
Primary settings screen for the AIOSEO plugin.

The current version of AIOSEO (v.3.3.5) feels a bit dated. It lacks integration directly with the block editor, relying on the older meta box system. The settings screens do not fit completely into the WordPress admin UI. Cleaning up these areas could offer some quick and instant wins in the short term.

AIOSEO and other SEO plugins, in general, need to make the complex simple.

SEO plugins can be painfully complex to configure. At times, the user experience can be overwhelming. The average user should not need to be an SEO expert or spend half an hour configuring a post’s SEO options. It should not feel like work before sharing content with the world.

“Aside from SEO experts and consultants, just about everyone else finds SEO to be confusing,” said Balkhi. “How do you know whether the SEO settings that you have are driving results? Is the green light enough or is it lying? Is the green light even relevant?” These are the types of questions Balkhi said his company receives from users. “Unfortunately there isn’t a single solution in the market that solves these problems,” he said.

Based on what is currently available, there’s a gap between the set-it-and-forget-it type of SEO plugins and highly-advanced plugins. There’s an unclaimed middle ground that guides users without complicating things.

Balkhi is not yet prepared to provide specific details from the roadmap, playing it a little close to the vest. “I want to build a WordPress SEO plugin that’s both reliable and results-focused,” he said. He will be working closely with the team as they work to revamp the plugin.

“I have a lot of plans to improve the product, and I’m really excited to be bringing several of our internal SEO tools into a single plugin suite to share with the larger community,” said Balkhi. “My goal is that after our series of updates and new features, All in One SEO will give WordPress sites an even bigger SEO advantage over other third-party CMS platforms.”