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Vital Building Company | Pixel Whip Creative

Pre-built vs. custom-built themes

With the rapid growth of accessible web design services, it’s easier than ever to get your website up and running. While there are a host of free services available, most professional users will likely be turning to WordPress and will opt to pay for a better result for their business, and they’ll quickly find themselves weighing up two options: a premium, pre-made WordPress theme or a custom built WordPress theme.

Premium themes are inexpensive, offer more flexibility than their free counterparts, are designed to be easy to use and allow users to get their website built quickly. Sounds perfect right?

As good as they sound, pre-built themes aren’t without their downsides, and for many people a custom-built WordPress theme will be the better option. Some of the biggest companies out there are using WordPress to power their websites, and they’re doing it with custom-built themes.

Understanding the Wordpress core

For those who may not know, WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS) and is one of the most popular out there for a host of reasons. CMS’s are web applications used for creating and managing different types of content via uploading, editing, and publishing posts containing text, images, videos etc. A WordPress theme acts as the visual frame around your content, and is basically a set of templates that determine the overall visual style and layout of your website.

If we were to think of it like a car, WordPress would be the engine, while the theme used (and other functionality added to it, such as plugins) is the body panels and paintwork built on top. Like a car, visitors to your site don’t see the engine, they only see this outer shell. The engine always serves the same purpose on any WordPress website, allowing data (such as pages, comments, images etc) to be stored and distributed where needed.

Using a pre-built theme

When building a website with a premium theme, you are simply skinning your website with a pre-determined set of templates and visual elements, usually integrated with third-party plugins for additional functionality. More advanced premium themes will usually provide a greater level of customisation to the theme elements, but also bring with them a lot more code to account for every possible option you might select. It’s like carrying an entire toolbox when all you need is a single screwdriver. Sometimes, a premium theme will fit your needs out of the box, and may give you the exact look you want for your website. In that case, they’re certainly a viable option.

Premium themes are intended to be sold in bulk, which means getting your website to stand out from the other using the same theme can be difficult. So if having a unique looking website for your business is important to you, you’ll be unlikely to achieve that without heavy customisation.

Premium themes can be customised, often with the use of a ‘child theme’, however this is usually more time consuming, and in turn costly, route to take, and heavy customisation is often difficult to implement and will introduce even more code into the mix. Remember the car? Imagine you wanted a red car, but instead of buying a red one, you bought a white one and opted to paint it red afterwards. Sure, you get a red car in the end, but you could have just bought the one you wanted and saved yourself a tonne of time and effort!

What is a custom-built theme?

A custom-built theme is built specifically for your website, and your requirements. In most cases, this means the theme is being developed for only one website – though it could of course be developed for more where applicable (for example, a franchise business or a business with sub-brands).

Perhaps the most significant benefit of having a custom-built theme developed, is that it can be completely unique to your business. Want a really eye-catching or unusual navigation system? Want an customised system to archive and display your business’ extensive event calendar? It’s all possible with a custom-built theme, and every part of it is built to work seamlessly with each other. There’s nothing unnecessary built in, and it’s more flexible for future additions or updates.

Faster development time

It’s a common assumption that a custom-built theme is a more expensive option, but this is not necessarily true. If you found a pre-built theme that met your requirements for both looks and functionality, of course it would be hard to argue against using it! But if you needed even a small amount of customisation to that theme, you’d be looking at dramatic increase in development time, with the developer needing to dive into the inner workings of another developer’s work and often undo or overwrite something that isn’t necessarily intended to be undone or overwritten.

This can introduce additional problems, with modifications possibly having unforeseen effects on other parts of the theme, increasing the risk of broken code, site crashes or bugs. In this instance, it would be faster to custom build a theme to suit your needs, even if it were built to look exactly like it’s pre-built counterpart. Custom-built themes are generally faster to create anyway, as the majority of business have no use for the extensive options that most premium themes provide. This means we can focus on developing only the things you need, and focus the time and resources to developing them to the highest quality possible.

Protecting against site-breaking updates

As we mentioned earlier, premium themes typically come with a lot of third-party plugin integrations (a big chunk of which you’re unlikely to be actually using anyway), which can create additional issues down the line when a plugin update is not supported by the theme. Even with an unmodified theme, an unsupported plugin update can break your site completely, and according to Murphy’s Law, this inevitably happens when your theme no longer supports updates. If this were to happen, there would be very little that you (or we) could do to resurrect your website.

As an added headache, extensive plugin use can really clutter up your WordPress admin area, making it difficult to navigate your website’s backend as you try to update it.

When creating a custom theme, plugin integrations are kept to a minimum, with only the most robust and popular plugins being used where needed, which means a whole lot less to worry about when that update icon pops up.

Improvements to page speed & website performance

We mentioned earlier that premium themes are made of pre-determined options to account for every possible combination of choices the user can make. While on the surface this sounds like a high level of choice and customisation, it’s actually baggage – a lot of baggage. What you may not realise is that regardless of the options you chose, they are all being loaded on the front-end of your website.

Let’s say your theme gives you 10 options for your website’s header design. Each one of those options is made up of separate HTML and CSS (and often additional JavaScript). You of course pick your preferred, however your choice only determines which template is shown on the surface. Behind the scenes, the code for all 10 of those headers is still loaded, even though 90% of it isn’t actually being used.

This impacts your website’s speed and loading times, and with theme customisation added to the mix, it can seriously slow things down. Not only does this negatively impact the user experience (recent statistics state that 53% of visitors will abandon your website if it takes more than 3 seconds to load), it can also negatively impact your SEO performance, with Google now penalising poor page loading speed.

A custom-built theme includes the header design you need, and that’s it – no unnecessary code in sight. That philosophy applies to every aspect of your website, dramatically minimising the amount of code required and improving your website’s performance.

Tailored customisation

We often hear concerns that using a custom-built theme removes the customisability that their premium counterparts offer. While you may not get the extensive number of options from a premium theme (more on why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing later), custom-built themes can still be built with customisability in mind. The level of customisation is instead tailored to your needs, and the way you intend to maintain and add content to your website.

Premium themes often include a lot of custom content types added to the WordPress core, which are known as ‘Post Types’. By default, WordPress supports two main Post Types: posts and pages. However, adding ‘Custom Post Types’ is easy and a key part of the WordPress development experience. A lot of premium themes will come loaded with a host of these Custom Post Types, such as projects, team, testimonials, galleries – you name it. However, you’ll likely find that you don’t need all of these and may only require news and events for your business. Part of custom theme development includes creating the content types you actually need and tailoring the way you manage their data to best suit you.

Future proofing

While a custom-built theme may be a more expensive option in the first instance, most client’s will find that their money goes a lot further when it comes time to update or modify their website in the future. As your business grows, you may need to add extra functionality or modify existing components on your website, and often such changes can take more time to implement into an existing theme than it would take to rebuild the entire site from scratch.

And sometimes, rebuilding can be worth it. Though spending 2 days adding the functionality may seem preferable to spending 4 days rebuilding it, such issues are only compounded when it comes to adding even more functionality on top for the third, fourth or fifth time.

So what's best for me?

Premium pre-built themes are still a good option for many users, particularly those with very limited budgets or with small scale websites in mind. But if you need a unique design to fit your business’ aesthetic and functional needs, a clutter free back-end with only the options you need, the ability to easily modify or add to your website in the future, avoid site-breaking updates and want a website with optimised page loading speed, built to the highest quality, then a custom-built WordPress theme is the right choice for you.

We specialise in custom-built theme development, and love working with our clients to create unique and bespoke website designs. If you’re looking for custom theme development, we’d love to hear from you. We encourage you to…

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