WordPress is by far the most popular content management system out there. And this popularity has spawned a healthy ecosystem of theme developers and theme foundries who sell, or even give away themes by the bucket-load.
A search for ‘wordpress themes‘ returns almost 96 million results. Any theme you download from one of these theme foundries is called an “off-the-shelf” theme, for the simple reason that you can pluck it from the shelf and install it on your site in a matter of moments.
It seems like an attractive offer, but as a business owner should you use an off-the-shelf theme for your company website? Or would you be better off investing in a bespoke theme instead?
Read on for a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of off-the-shelf WordPress themes for your small business or startup website. To help you make a decision, you may also wish to learn more about why choosing a bespoke WordPress theme might be best for your business.
You can get many high-quality off-the-shelf templates for free. Decent premium themes are normally very affordable too — expect to budget $50 for a theme that’s suitable for a basic portfolio or simple ecommerce site.
The initial cost is low. But do consider how easily you’ll be able to set it up, and what you will do if you need to customise it.
Website build time
If you have simple requirements, and have the content ready to roll, we can set up a pre-packaged website for you very quickly indeed.
This is handy if you want to test an idea without making a significant investment, or if you’re launching a startup business and just want to get something off the ground quickly.
It’s a start
There’s only one thing worse than having no website at all, and that’s having a dreadful website. If your website stinks, it’ll be damaging your brand. No doubt about it.
An off-the-shelf solution probably won’t do everything you want. But if you have a modest budget it will make it easier to put together a website that is acceptable. Having a real, live website will give you data you can use to improve it further — something a holding page simply can’t do.
If you don’t have the budget for a bespoke theme, at least you can make a start. But do keep in mind that is all an off-the-shelf solution provides — it doesn’t make for an ideal long-term solution.
Not what was promised
The screenshots for off-the-shelf templates often look fantastic (especially the premium ones), but these are just screenshots of a theme mockup, not a live business website.
How it will end up looking once your branding and content is shoe-horned in to the layout is another matter. And you’ll always find something your off-the-shelf theme just can’t do, which brings us on to…
There has to be compromise somewhere in every website design and build. However, with a pre-packaged template it pays to remember it wasn’t built for your company specifically — it was built to appeal to broad audience.
Finding an attractive theme that is suitable for your needs, mobile-friendly, optimised for SEO, and that offers the right level of customisation options can be a challenge. It’s easy to spend several hours just looking for the right theme. That’s time that could be invested into building the right one instead.
Usually, something has to give. So keep this in mind when deciding whether to pay extra for a bespoke WordPress theme.
With a good pre-packaged theme, tweaking typefaces, colour schemes, and adding in your own custom logo and background is simple enough. Some might even give you a selection of different page layouts if you’re lucky.
But generally if you want to change anything more fundamental to the design you’ll need to pay extra for customisations. The cost of doing this can rapidly add up. So if you have specific needs, a custom-built theme from the ground-up may turn out more cost-effective.
There are some brilliant free off-the-shelf themes out there, such as Parabola. I’ve built a site for a client using this theme before. My client was happy with everything it could do, apart from a few details which it simply wasn’t capable of catering for out of the box.
The solution we agreed on was for me to create a child theme. This is a good compromise between a custom build and a prepackaged template.
The drawback is that the cost of this approach can rapidly increase depending upon the nature of the changes required, and how well put-together the theme itself is. Some are much better than others, believe me — some people’s code stinks!
Added to this, you have the simple fact that everybody codes differently. When I build a custom theme, the code makes perfect sense to me.
But when I work with somebody else’s code, I have to work out what their intentions were, which bits go where, and why the hell they’re doing that! This takes an amount of time that is disproportionate to the perceived value of the end result.
It also pays to think about your future requirements. An off-the-shelf template might appear to cater for your every need now. But what about in 6 months time when your business has grown, or changed direction?
I often find that the scope of the projects I work on grows steadily as my client sees their website taking shape. As the process continues they begin to fully appreciate what a website can do for their business. It’s at that point they come to understand that a custom-built solution is actually what they’re after.
Developing a brand that is distinctive and consistent is very important, and your website is a perfect opportunity to either reinforce — or ruin — your branding.
Not being able to have a truly distinctive website is one of the biggest compromises you’ll have to make if you choose an off-the-shelf template.
The best off-the-shelf templates tend to be the most popular. And because of the sheer number of WordPress websites out there, chances are you’ll end up with a website that looks very similar to thousands of others. Some of those sites might even be your competitors…
If you download a free off-the-shelf theme you shouldn’t be too surprised if the theme author is unable or unwilling to help you with any problems that may occur.
Many theme authors create themes as a hobby. That’s just great for them, but if your business depends upon having a fully-functional website you might find yourself having to hire a developer to fix things. This will be the point at which you’ll be glad to have a reliable WordPress developer (ahem) who can help you out.
If I were buying a website, I know which solution I would choose. Off-the-shelf themes are great for blogs and personal websites. They’re also a handy way to test an idea cheaply or to get a foot on the ladder when you’re just starting up.
But if you’re serious about your business, you should also give some serious consideration to investing in a bespoke WordPress theme.
We’re happy to help, and we don’t believe in forcing our customers to buy things they don’t want. So get in touch and we’ll talk through your options.
Image of Parabola WordPress theme, by Cryout Creations