WordPress – Custom Theme vs Off-the-shelf Theme

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November 13, 2019

While submitting WordPress website proposals, one of the first things we need to understand is what’s best for the project’s requirement – shall we suggest building a custom WordPress theme or recommend going with an off-the-shelf theme. Understandably, this debate raises a question – what is the difference?

Any WordPress site comprises two basic things –

  1. Theme
  2. Plugins

What is a WordPress Theme?

A WordPress Theme provides all of the front-end styling of your website. This includes layouts, fonts, colours etc. All of these elements combined together define the overall look and feel of your website.

What is a WordPress Plugin?

A WordPress Plugin provides specific functionality to your website. For example, if your website requires to have eCommerce, this functionality can be achieved by using a plugin. However, depending on your specific requirement, even this functionality will have to be customized, if needed.

What are Off-the-shelf WordPress Themes and what do they offer?

Now that we know what a WordPress Theme is, let’s take a look at the Off-the-shelf WordPress Themes.

Off-the-shelf WordPress Themes come with premade layouts and page builder elements and demo content.

There are two types of Off-the-shelf WordPress Themes –

  1. Free Themes : These tend to have a fairly minimalist design because they don’t have a lot of premium features and widgets. Since these are built with beginners in mind, these are reasonably simple and easy to use.
  2. Premium (paid) Themes : These tend to offer more layout and customization options. Premium Themes can be categorized into two flavours –
    1. Single Purpose Themes : These themes come with one or more designs for a specific line of business. As a result, these offer some premium features useful for the given line of business.
    2. Multi Purpose Themes : These offer a number of layouts for various businesses and provide multiple features and widgets.
      Most of the Premium Themes come with page builder to facilitate custom designs.

What is a Custom WordPress Theme?

A Custom WordPress Theme is a one-off theme that’s tailor-made for a given project. It is built from scratch to cater to the specific designs and functionalities required.

What are the pros and cons of each of these and how do I select a theme for my website?

Free Themes : While these are beginner friendly, these usually have limited features and hence may not be suitable for many larger and more professional websites. In addition, free themes offer no support if there is any issue and are rarely updated which might leave them being incompatible with frequent version updates of WordPress CMS.

Free themes are not usually recommended. However, for startups or small businesses with little or no budget to test out their ideas, Free Themes can be used with a few caveats – the design of the website won’t stand out and there won’t be any support if they run into issues.

Premium Themes : These offer flexibility and a variety of features, including animations in some cases. As a consequence, they come with additional code to provide all the features for the wider user base. This will have some adverse impact on website’s performance and SEO. Also, if your site requires a lot of features, then customizing premium themes can become an overhead. However, websites that are built using Premium Themes usually cost less than those built on custom themes.

Premium Themes can be used for companies with a very restricted budget and time. Another reason to go with Premium Themes is if you are happy with your website looking like a particular theme and do not need much customization on top what the theme provides out of the box.

Having said that, there are cases where some plugins broke a website because of the conflict with the theme that’s being used. Another concern is that the code generated by these themes may not be optimised for SEO. Since, Google changes its SEO algorithms periodically, there will be dependency on theme author in doing on-page SEO optimisations for your website. So, one need to choose both theme and plugins carefully if one chose to go this route.

Custom Themes : These offer the best flexibility and performance. If you want a unique design for your website, this is the best option. Since we will be building the site from scratch, the web designer is given freedom to start with a “blank slate” and come up with creative ideas for that unique look of your site. Consequently, this allows the more traditional approach of starting with content organization and user flows, then head into visual design followed by development. Since we will be coding what is required for the design and functionality, there won’t be any additional/unused code. This will have a positive impact on page loading speed and SEO. This results in the most successful and satisfactory outcomes for our partners.

The downside with this approach is the cost – because everything will be built from scratch, a lot of effort will go into design and development. While this doesn’t seem like the best option in the shorter term, we have seen this providing fruitful results in the long run.

Conclusion

To sum up the comparison between off-the-shelf theme based WordPress site and custom theme-based WordPress site, following are the main considerations for you to choose one over another.

Go with a free WordPress theme if you

  1. Have very little budget
  2. Are looking for a simple site with static content and a few forms
  3. Don’t need your site to have unique design
  4. Don’t need support for the theme

Go with a premium WordPress theme if

  1. You need a small website without much functionality and no plans for future scalability
  2. You found a theme that you think would work for you perfectly
  3. Performance is not a major concern
  4. You have limited budget

Go with a custom WordPress theme if

  1. You need a unique design for your site or rich functionality
  2. You can’t find any theme that fits your requirements without any modifications
  3. You have plans to scale the site in future as per your business needs
  4. You want your site to be performance optimized and have an edge in SEO