WebP: a “new” format for your WordPress images

Ross Hall

June 29, 2021

Illustration of a building in Japan with a bright yellow background

WebP’s arrival is getting WordPress fans excited. As a photographer, I’ve been watching this image format evolve for a couple of years. It promises much, delivers some of it and is gaining popularity. Question is whether now is finally the time to make the switch from trusty JPEG.

Some history: what is WebP?

Although you may only just be hearing about it, WebP has been in the works for a decade. Designed from the outset for the web, Google is pitching it as a replacement for the venerable JPEG. With support for both lossy and lossless compressions, animations, and transparent backgrounds, it looks like a solid option to replace JPG photos, PNG illustrations and countless animated GIFs.

What does it offer to the humble photographer / blogger / SEO guru?

The key selling point of WebP is smaller file sizes, anywhere between 10 and 30% smaller for similar JPEG compression quality. For content consumers this smaller size demands less bandwidth and processing power, ideal for the mobile-first world we find ourselves in. Given Google et al. are placing some importance on page load speeds, that also translates into a boost for SEO.

And the downside of WebP?

Support is a little on the patchy side. According to CanIUseIt, as of June ‘21 about a tenth of web users can’t access the format. This isn’t just the usual “Internet Explorer” hell we developers can find ourselves in. Apple users who haven’t upgraded their operating system in a while could draw a blank, and Firefox was a little late to the party. You can use a fallback though and offer a JPG if you’ve got one available.

Not all photo editing tools support WebP exports either. My beloved Affinity Photo doesn’t export as WebP, nor does Google Photos or Snapseed (Android / iOS ) if you’re blogging on the go. You can get around this using online tools, although it is disappointing it’s not supported in-app.

More important to a photographer, I have found a few issues with subtle tone variations in images being compressed as solid blocks of color.

So why now? Oh, WordPress is adding WebP support.

The upcoming WordPress 5.8 has gotten people excited because it’s adding support for WebP. To be clear, this support isn’t sophisticated – it’s adding the format to the list you can upload to the Media Library. It won’t do the conversion from JPEG to WebP for you, nor will it offer the JPEG fallback. It’ll just create the myriad of additional files it thinks everyone needs.

If you want to experiment with WebP, there are plugins available that will do the job for you.

Longer Term?

Better image formats such as AVIF and JPEGXL already superseded WebP. These have even less support though, and given the glacial speed at which WebP took off, they’re unlikely to be troubling a web browser near you soon.

What are you doing, Ross?

For the time being I’m staying with JPEG. It’s ubiquitous, not just in browsers, but also social media apps, editing software and the vast majority of tools.

That said, I am keeping an eye on developments. If WordPress widens support for WebP and starts offering conversions and fallbacks, it might tempt me to switch. Whether I’ll do it by exporting a WebP file for upload, or use an in-WordPress conversion depends on how support pans out.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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