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Do You Really Need a Custom WordPress Theme?

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Jay Dillon

Director of Strategy and Creative at Inbound Experts
Jay is a digital marketer and producer whose creative and technical skills have developed digital brand strategies and sales campaigns using a range of complex internet applications from stand-alone websites through to Facebook API integrations.
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If you’re building your website with the WordPress content management system (CMS), at some stage you’re going to be faced with the question: “Should I use a custom designed theme or buy one ready-made?”

There’s no simple answer one way or the other, but here we’ll look at a few of the pros and cons, as well as talking about what type of businesses are best suited to using bought vs custom themes.

Before we begin, let’s look at some of the terms we’ll be using:

  • This article is about WordPress.org (self-hosted) websites – NOT sites hosted on the WordPress.com blogging platform (how confusing is that?!)
  • When we talk about a “theme” we’re talking about the template design that informs how the site will look as well as how it functions
  • A “custom” theme is one that’s built specifically for the site on which it’s to be used, often built from the ground up or from a sort of bare bones developer template
  • A bought theme is often also referred to as a “premium” theme. This refers to pre-made themes available from online theme shops for anything from $20-$100 dollars per theme.

Custom WordPress Themes – the Pros

1. It’s Customised (duh!)

As we’ll see when talking about some of the drawbacks of premium themes below, when you buy a theme from a theme shop, you’re getting something that’s a bit of a “one size fits all” solution. You’ll be trying to fit your content into something generic that’s been made to suit the needs of hundreds of different businesses.

With a custom theme, on the other hand, you can create the site “from the ground up” to do exactly what you want it to do. This applies to both the way the site looks as well as how it performs.

2. It’s Better For Branding

I’m often checking out various service providers and competitors (who isn’t?), and it’s interesting going to someone’s site only to see a really familiar bought theme being used. It’s even more interesting (okay so I’m using “interesting” as a euphemism here) when the site in question is a web design and development business, yet they’re using an out of the box template for their own site!

Granted, a lot of people won’t realise this, and there’s really nothing wrong with it, IF they’re not misleading their clients that they’ll be building their site uniquely from scratch.

But if your business wants to stand out from the crowd then it’s probably a good idea to define your brand with a custom website design that your potential customers haven’t seen before.

Pro Tip: Use WhatWPThemeisThat.com to find out if a WordPress site you’re looking at is custom built or using a bought theme.

3. Speed

Custom WordPress sites are built with only the components they’ll need. Nothing more, nothing less.

Plus, they’ll usually be built by someone who knows how to write efficient code.

The above two factors ensure that a custom built WordPress theme will be a lot faster than a bought one. This is important for two reasons:

  1. According to Kissmetrics, 47% of consumers expect a website to load in 2 seconds or less and 40% will abandon a website that take 3 seconds to load. That’s not a lot of leeway!
  2. Tests strongly suggest that Google uses page loading speeds as a ranking factor for SEO. In other words, if your site is fast it will rank better in search results.

Pro tip:

Test your site on these benchmarking sites from the server closest to your target market to find ways to improve your site speed:

4. Security

Anyone who’s worked with WordPress a lot will have had a site “hacked” at some time. This is a horrible experience for anyone relying on their website for income, and basically involves your site being taken over by robots and used to sell Viagra or used for some other unsavoury purpose. Undoing the damage can take some time, and it’s not a pleasant experience.

Security is one of the few weak spots in WordPress as a platform, but it’s part and parcel of having a system that excels because of group input and collaboration – the whole system is only as strong as its weakest link.

In the case of WordPress themes, this weakest link can come from the theme you’re using. If you’re using a bought theme then you’re really relying on the competence of someone you’ve never met to ensure that the code they’ve produced doesn’t have any holes or back doors that could be breached by hackers.

With a custom theme you’re much more likely to have a skilled developer working on the site. One who isn’t using a bunch of third-party plugins to piece everything together (outdated or poorly coded plugins are one of the biggest security loopholes in WordPress).

The end result is a more secure site that’s less likely to end up making some Viagra kingpin rich.

Pro Tip: Use IsItHacked.com to test your site and make sure there’s nothing untoward going on in the background.

Custom WordPress Themes – the Cons

 1. Cost

There’s really only one downside to custom made themes, but it’s a biggie, and that’s the price. A custom built WordPress theme can set you back anywhere from $2000-$100,000, depending on the functionality you need. For many smaller businesses this is an overwhelming and unnecessary expense.

Premium (Bought) WordPress Themes – the Pros

1. Price

A premium WordPress theme from a site such as ThemeForest will set you back somewhere between $40 and $60. That’s around 1% the cost of a custom made site, right?! But wait … before you start rubbing your hands together and deciding how you’ll spend all the money you save, there are a few things to consider:

  • Even though WordPress is comparatively user-friendly, there’s still a learning curve. You need to weigh up how valuable your time is in learning how to add content to the theme and get it looking how you want it to look. (Of course, you could hire a web developer on a site like Elance to help you out – just make sure you choose someone who knows what they’re doing.)
  • When you set up a purchased theme, it never looks the same as the theme demo. There will be a lot of time spent fiddling around to get your site looking as amazing as the demo looked. In many cases you soon realise that you need a designer’s eye to get it looking good and that theme that looked so incredible on the demo site now looks like a dog’s breakfast with your content in it.
  • You might need plugins to get it do everything you want it to do. Often you’ll want to do more than the basic theme functions allow. For example, you might want to show your social media feeds on your site, or have a big slider with text and images on a certain page. This can usually be achieved with the help of plugins, but some plugins cost money and most will slow down your site even more. A custom site will have all these functions built in.

2. Time To Implement

Unlike a custom site, which could take weeks or months to be finalised, you can be up and running in a few hours with a purchased theme.

3. You Know What You’re Getting

Every theme available for sale comes with a “demo” which lets you try before you buy. You can see exactly how your site will look and feel before buying it, unlike with a custom site, where you might only see rough wireframes or static images before committing to a design.

4. Flexibility

Premium WordPress themes these days are pretty amazing when it comes to what you can do with them. You can get sites now that are virtually a CMS in themselves. They come with visual builders where you can drag and drop elements around, allowing you to build an amazing looking site without every having to write a single line of code. A good example of this is a theme such as “Bridge” on ThemeForest. The staggering 38 demo variations show what’s possible just with a single theme.  A web design company could use a theme like this to build dozens of client sites without it being apparent they were all made with the same base theme.

Premium WordPress Themes – the Cons

1. Speed

But all this flexibility comes at a price. The more bells and whistles on your theme, the slower the site becomes. This manifests in the site taking longer to load pages to your visitors because there’s excessive jQuery and Javascript libraries being used in many premium themes. This is because the theme is made as a virtual Swiss army knife. It has lots of functions you’ll probably never use, but behind the scenes it’s still loading the mechanisms for these functions, resulting in a slower website (see above for why this is a problem).

2. It’s Not Unique

Despite there being so many new themes being released, many of these themes look very similar. They’ll often have the same typography, the same visual elements, and similar page layouts. The end result is a bit of a “vanilla” experience for the person visiting your site. A custom designed site will be more aligned with your brand and will often have custom made visual elements such as icons and images that work together seamlessly to present a unified experience for your site visitors.

Bottom Line

A common theme running through this discussion is the amount of your own time you want to spend figuring this stuff out. If you’re a boot-strapped startup or small business with enough time to play around with setting up the site yourself (or hiring a developer to implement your content) then a purchased theme will definitely do the job.

But if you’re a larger organisation who’s thinking about the long terms benefits of building a strong, branded web presence, and you have the budget, then a custom WordPress site is preferable.

Where do you stand on bought versus custom WordPress themes? Share your opinions in the comment section below.

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