The Pros and Cons of Pre-Built WordPress Themes

February 24, 2016

WordPress is awesome.

One thing that makes WordPress so awesome is the vast community that has grown around it. The WordPress community is arguably the largest tech community in the world, consisting of millions of people who have created tens of thousands of WordPress themes and plugins that extend the platform’s functionality and ability to provide excellent web services.

We at Cornershop specialize in custom WordPress development, particularly with designing and building sophisticated themes. This means that we create custom solutions for our clients, rather than taking something prebuilt and fitting your site into that.

However, we understand the realities of small budgets and fast timelines, and sometimes a completely custom theme just isn’t possible.

In these cases, there are many high quality, pre-built WordPress themes that provide beautiful design and quality functionality at a much lower cost that creating something nearly from scratch. Some of our favorite sites started with a pre-built theme that we customized to meet our client’s needs, including Outdoor Voice, Save Our Wifi, and Hollywood Food Guild.

So if pre-built themes are so sophisticated and affordable, why not always use them? Well, before deciding to use a pre-built theme, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

Advantages of a Pre-Built Theme

  • Faster & Cheaper. This is typically the main reason people use a pre-built theme: it’s usually much faster, easier, and cheaper to build. Think of a website as a house: with custom development, you’re starting with a great foundation (WordPress) but need to construct most aspects of the building. A pre-built theme, on the other hand, is more like renting: you can bring your own couch, hang some curtains, and maybe paint, but you’re not choosing where to put walls since someone else already put them in.
  • No Coding Required. Another reason people use these WordPress themes is that a developer usually isn’t needed to get up and running. Many themes come with pre-built layouts that let you simply turn them on and — voila — you have a site!
  • Theme Options. Most themes give you a variety of options to customize colors, fonts, layouts, social icons, and other variables. This provides a lot of flexibility and control to any site.
  • Updates. Many themes send out periodic updates, giving you more and better features on your site.

Disadvantages of a Pre-Built Theme

  • Code Practices & Formatting. Clean code is important for the performance and functionality of your site, not to mention it affects how search engines look at your site. While sophisticated pre-built themes look great on the surface, many don’t look great under the hood, using badly-written code that can affect performance and stability. Theme developers can get away with this because their audience is non-developers — people who are less likely to know how to spot “bad” code.
  • Load Time. Many pre-built WordPress themes have such a wide range of features and options that they wind up including dozens of Javascript libraries, CSS and other components on every page load, on the off chance one of them is necessary for a particular page. While this variety of functional options is great for site maintainers, it can have a huge effect on end-users, slowing down load times — which hurts SEO scores as well as user satisfaction and engagement.
  • Personalization. With a pre-built theme, it’s difficult to truly make it your own. Oftentimes, you’ll wind up wanting to use a feature built for a slightly different purpose than its original purpose, making things not work quite right. For example, your “client stories” might only be buildable in an area called “testimonials,” or staff bios might have to be listed under “Employees” and may not have photos, when something else like “Meet Our Team” with large images might be more appropriate.
  • SEO Practices. Themes vary a lot in their SEO compatibility. Many have some support built-in, but since pre-built themes are “one size fits all,” a given theme probably won’t be built for your specific SEO needs. And many themes out there downright violate standard SEO rules and practices.

In short, while it can be appealing and sometimes valuable to take advantage of pre-built WordPress themes, there are tradeoffs. You sacrifice the ability to perfectly tailor every aspect of the site in favor of having a broader set of features and functions — which may or may not work exactly they way you’d prefer.

We’d be happy to chat with you about your specific needs and how we can help make your website dreams come true! Contact us today.

By Ira Horowitz

With 15 years’ experience, Ira is an expert in nonprofit online communications and online fundraising. His work has resulted in increased funds and resounding supporter engagement for hundreds of organizations. Ira oversees our project management team and works with clients to provide our clients with the best possible final product. He also manages all of our strategic engagements and helps guide nonprofits to determine their long-term strategy goals for online communications.