WordPress off the shelf themes: Expectations v reality

Phil Sola avatar
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WordPress has just turned 18 years old and is the largest, most popular CMS (content management system) in the world, powering over 40% of the web in 2021. With this popularity, the number of premade, cookie-cutter themes available for free & to buy has risen hugely. These themes are available directly from the official WordPress theme repository or any number of third-party websites such as Themeforest and Qode; in fact, off-the-shelf themes are big business with an ever-growing market.

What is an off-the-shelf WordPress theme?

In essence, themes are the design of a website that is pre-made and developed, with the idea being that you, the customer, can simply install the theme inside of WordPress and away you go with a new website. The problem is, it’s not always as simple as you might think and there are a number of potential downsides to this approach. Let’s explore this further.

A number of themes, including the free themes on the WordPress repository, have a demo preview allowing you to open it up and take a look around before deciding to install or buy it. The problem is, that not always what you see on the demo is what you will actually see if you decide to use it. You find one you like the look of, you install it, and it’s basically a blank theme – nightmare! This is because the demo version text and images are not always included in the installation, leaving you, the user, to try and rebuild what you thought you were getting. You can try to use a plugin to pull the content through, but often it doesn’t work and you’re left feeling frustrated.

Clever marketing

As I said earlier, WordPress themes are big business and many of the big themes and marketplaces are brilliant at marketing themselves with terms such as ‘Number 1 theme’,  ‘best selling’, ‘All in One’, but when everyone is advertising the same thing with the same buzzwords it can be really hard to discern what is true, often leaving you confused as to what will really suit your needs. The price points on some of these themes can vary anywhere from free to over £200 so getting sucked into their marketing without understanding what you’re buying can be a costly error.

Poor quality

These themes are tailored to everyone, which means they’re tailored to no one, and when you try to cater for all in a single theme it results in a poorer-quality end product most of the time. Some of the themes available (without mentioning names) are renowned for how sluggish and slow they are when you start building pages out with them. They’re being weighed down heavily with features you will never use, excess code that is redundant and most of the time not developed with modern best-practices in mind, making them even harder to maintain and support. Google is putting an ever-increasing focus on performance and speed when it comes to SEO, something we know is important if you’re trying to grow a business online.

Design Limitations

There are so many great looking themes out there, that can be super enticing if you are looking for a new look to your website, however, once you buy your chosen theme, you are nearly always met with some sort of design limitations meaning you can’t achieve the look and feel you really want. You end up having to keep bending to what the theme can and can’t do, rather than having something more bespoke tailored exactly to your needs. That might not be the end of the world if you are just starting out and needing something basic, but you will almost certainly outgrow it as your needs change.

Technical Issues

What happens when something inevitably goes wrong with the cookie-cutter theme? At some point when you’re working with technology, especially code, the chance of something not working as expected or breaking is high, especially when dealing with these kinds of sites. A lot of agencies & WordPress developers won’t work on these premade themes as it is more efficient to simply start over with a custom build. It takes too long to dive into the codebase and understand how they have been put together, that’s before actually finding a way to fix the problem. If you’re not technical and don’t have experience in maintaining and managing a website, it might be better to partner with an agency from the beginning who can help support you.

It’s not just WordPress themes that can be confusing, there are many page builders and no-code solutions such as Wix and Squarespace which seem enticing due to the low price-points and the ability to ‘have a go yourself’ but I would always recommend building a good relationship with a local, trusted agency, regardless of your budget and ideas. Speak to an expert who can help steer you in the right direction, you’ll be glad you did.

Phil Sola avatar

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