Difference between WordPress templates and custom developed themes

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WordPress teme - kupljene ili prilagođene?
WordPress themes – templates or custom development?

When it comes to paying someone to develop your website, there` always that lingering question – do I pay someone to develop a custom website, or do I buy a template and get it sorted out for 100 bucks? Now, seeing as the marketing budgets are always an exotic topic for our clients, we wanted to delve into the subject of the real live difference of having a website created by a web agency that will also handle your marketing (copywriting, content, promotion), and taking the shortcut and buying a WordPress template (as we are primarily a WordPress development agency, our focus is WordPress, this is what we`ve been doing for a long time and have a good working knowledge of).

Before we kick things off with some solid information, we just want to say that in no way are we against using WordPress templates – very often they are a solid alternative for companies with really tight budgets that just want to get online as quickly as possible for as little money as possible. Also, if your marketing objectives are not yet defined and your content is not developed,, than there is no point in paying the big bucks for a shiny new website that`s just going to sit there, dead in the water. You`re better off with a WordPress template, that will clearly display your company name, brand, logo, contact information, and, generally, allow people to find you and contact you via the internet.

Having said that, let`s move on. As we are a web agency that`s been doing WordPress development and internet marketing for some time now, we`ve had the opportunity to witness, first hand, the real world examples and the consequences of using both – custom developed WordPress themes, and WordPress templates (both paid and free). We`ve seen it all, the good, the bad and the ugly from both worlds – we`ve also seen practically every single issue that can arise from using free/paid WordPress templates.

Now, of course, we can`t help but being just a tad biased (and for good reason), so when we tell you that WordPress templates can wreak havoc on your marketing budget and cause serious damage, you would see that coming, right? Well, we`ll back up these claims as we go deeper into the topic. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will see my point.

Instead of it being adapted to your needs, you adapt to its functionalities

WordPress templates can be briefly good for your budget, but, there are some very important facts to face before taking the easy way out:


Zašto neke teme rade sporo?
Why are some themes slow?

1. WordPress templates contain large number of static files, each one serving its purpose – whether supporting certain functionality (a lot of times these are JavaScript files), or contain styling instructions for a certain website section (as a rule, these are CSS files). WordPress templates usually contain more than one homepage version so that they better appeals to a wider audience. They can have multiple predefined inner page templates, or contain different shortcodes, and so on. All of these functionalities need different JavaScript and CSS files to be able to function and look properly. This problem usually manifests itself into the following ways:

a) A large number of files being requested during every page load. The larger the number of these files, the more http requests are made to the server – serves has to process each request and return a response. Each request puts more load on the server, and in turn slows down the website. Average WordPress template can contain up to several hundreds of static files. This means that, on every single page load, a visitor is sending several hundreds of https requests to the server. Multiply one visitor with just 10, and you have a real problem, and, if on shared hosting, you just might have your service temporarily suspended. Apache, the most popular web hosting software in the world, used in the majority of hosting environments (especially shared), has  particular issues in handling large volumes of https requests.

b) Developers often try to mitigate server load caused by large volumes of https requests by placing static website files into CDNs – content delivery networks – servers specially designed for hosting static files to end users. In this way, your web server does not have to handle those https requests – the CDN does it for you. The benefits of using CDNs are great, don`t get me wrong. But, there`s a lot of shady CDNs out there (some paid and some free), and some developers just don`t choose carefully which ones they use. This can be a problem of catastrophic proportions for your website. Do you think I`m exaggerating? Softpedia article says that rogue CDN networks caused a 52% increase in malware distribution. Consider the following scenario – a certain JavaScript file is being loaded and executed by your website from a shady CDN. In reality, you are loading a piece of executable code from a remote server. If someone who has access to that server changes the contents of the file you are loading, and injects malware into it, this malware goes straight into your website. It can take over your site, it`s functionalities and appearance, and even infect your visitor`s computers. You get blacklisted, and your reputation is in a grave danger faster than you can say “CDN”.

2. Just like in the last point, a WordPress template can be installed with a large number of subpages, shortcodes and homepage variations. This also means that “under the hood” there`s a large number of files and code lines that probably aren`t necessary, but are executed to some extent. This code can make unneccessary queries to the database, which in turn puts a significant load on the server.

3. Since the whole point of a WordPress template is to make it usable to buyers who are not tech savvy, this means that a lot of WordPress themes are shipped with complex background management system (usually called a framework) that operates certain aspects of website`s appearance and functionalities. Even though this sounds like a good thing, in reality, all of these aspects are set once and, for the most part, are never used again. But, under the hood, the story goes a little differently.

Puno dizajna znači i puno koda
Lost of design means lots of code

On each page load, your website`s code is querying the database for framework settings. The more complex the framework, the more queries are made. What your template is actually doing on every single page load (for each visitor), is asking the database how things should look and where they should be placed on the front end of your website. This can also put a significant (and unneccesary) load on the server.

The difference with a custom built theme, is that the website`s appearance is designed and put together by the developer. A framework can be in place for managing some smaller sections of the website`s content, but this is miles away from complex frameworks modern WordPress themes have, that allow your average user to play god with the website`s appearance and layout.

A custom built WordPress theme is not just a layout and design of a website – it is a thougthfully and strategically crafted thought process converted into a website layout with planned out content sections, where everything has it place and purpose in terms of user experience, and of course marketing goals. This makes sense on a lot of levels – the only one who should be making desinger and layout changes to the website, is the web developer / web designer in cooperation with a person who understands online marketing and user experience.


Teme mogu biti zaražene
Templates can be infected

4. Free WordPress templates are a potential hotbed of malware infections. This is especially true for paid WordPress themes that are distributed through shady websites for free. Even if you get away with a free WordPress template that is malware-free (most of the themes from WordPress directory should be clean and safe, even though every now and then issues arise), there is a reasonable possibility that the template is “enriched” with a couple of spammy backlinks that are not easy to spot or can be even hidden by using obfuscated code (non-readable code that is often encoded by using base64 encoding scheme).

These templates can then be used by hackers to spam, distribute malware further, create bot farms, and a lot other nasty stuff. All of this can seriously hurt your online reputation. Consider the possibility of some business partner of yours landing on your website, only to find that your site is blocked by Google or some anti-virus solution he/she has installed on the computer – how much would that cost you in the long run?


5. Limited tech support – unlike custom WordPress websites that guarantee limitless technical support, warranty and user instructions, free (and sometimes paid) WordPress templates are usually shipped with little-to-no documentation. Most of the time, if anything goes haywire, you can expect at best a limited (usually none at all!) support from the original developer. Time is money, so be careful if for a second you might think there is such a thing as free lunch.


6. Buggy or unfinished templates – WordPress templates developed for mass sale are usually never completely finished in the sense that they usually contain certain bugs that developer fixes along the way, as soon as the buyers start to notice and report them. This way, the developer can shorten the development time and costs, and start shipping the theme quicker. When problems arise, they are carried over the shoulders of users, who are asked for patience. The development of an average WordPress template sold on directories such as Themeforest, usually costs between 10 – 30 thousands of dollars, and are sold for anything in between $20 to $60 to the end user, so it makes sense for the developer to try and squeeze as much juice as possible out of  them.


7. Hidden costs – more often than not, WordPress templates can lack certain functionalities that might even be considered fundamental (even though this is more often the case with plugins, but since they are an integral part of a WordPress based setup, we can take a look at them as a whole). The developer would then charge custom development for a particular functionality, which usually costs hundreds time more than it cost you to by the template in the first place. Don`t get me wrong, this is quite legitimate and a viable business practice (as long as the developer clearly states the theme and plugin functionalities in advance, and perhaps even discloses the lack of certain features that are only custom developed), but is worth mentioning as an argument against using free and pre-developed WordPress templates and plugins.


Oblak riječi

8. Instead of it being adapted to your needs, you adapt to its functionalities – an average WordPress template contains a finite appearance, and a fixed scope of functionalities. Whether you and your content fit into this, is not the responsibility of the developer who created the theme. Most of the time, these functionalities and presentation abilities are not enough to arrange your content in an attractive and high quality fashion. In most of the cases, anyone who buys a WordPress templates, usually ends up paying someone to upload, arrange and style the content. The big reason for this is that the CSS code that the designer / developer wrote for the website`s appearance, has no regards to how your content will look and be structured. This is something that web agencies normally take into consideration at the very first stages of project planning.


A website tailored to your business and marketing goals


Custom developed WordPress themes turn all of the above mentioned issues, into advantages. This means that custom themes:

1. Contain and load only those files that are truly vital to the appearance and functionalities of the website. High quality developers take it up a notch – before a website is deployed into production, all of the static resources are minified (removing unnecessary characters, spaces, etc.) and concatenated (merging of multiple files into one or as few as possible) to reduce https requests. End result is usually faster response and slower page loading time. Page timings are essential in search engine rankings.

2. Custom developed template only contains the code that is actually used. No bloating, unused functionalities, etc.

3. One should be completely honest in stating that not all custom developed themes are safer. If the developer does not understand the best programming and security practise, you could have on your hands a template with serious security holes. But, if your web developer knows his/hers stuff, you can rest assured that you are getting the safest possible solution for your website.

4. Complete tech support –  the person who developed your website, in 99% of the time, will provide you with an unlimited tech support while you get the hang of working with your website. This person will also provide you with an unlimited warranty that every single piece of code will work immaculately.

5. Every custom developed theme (except in the cases of development of large scope web apps that are developed as they go along), most of the time contains little to no bugs. If some arise, they are usually easy to spot and quick to address.

6. Unlike WordPress templates, custom themes are planned from the beginning with regards to your content, and business and marketing goals. This is why such solutions usually provide much greater benefits.


As a rule, when developing custom themes, developers normally choose the best technological solutions for a particular case, and is not limited to a particular technology or practice, which does not have to be the case with templates.