Recently, with lots of marketing being done by theme creators and sellers, there’s been some questions about the idea of purchasing a WordPress theme to either create a new website or revamp an existing one. The idea of being able to purchase a “theme” and have a brand new website with just a few clicks seems to be an attractive and inexpensive option. It recently came up in conversation and its obvious that there are a lot of misunderstandings about what a purchased theme can do, and even what they really offer.

It’s probably a good time to look at both the pros and cons of purchasing a WordPress theme. Indeed, there may be times when purchasing a theme is not a bad idea, and we’ll discuss when that is a viable option for you. We’ll also discuss when selecting a theme over professional help may not be so wise.

I would also like to point out that there are many web developers that use themes themselves for creating websites for clients. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they also understand the limitations of themes and have the skills and resources to optimize whatever they are working on. This includes optimization for SEO (and including the realization that SEO is a process, not a one time “set and forget” task), optimization for visitors, as well as optimization for the primary goals of the website.

The Pros Of Purchasing A WordPress Theme

WordPress on it’s own is not difficult to work with, “out of the box,” and actually comes with a variety of themes that you can use, for free. However, generally speaking, these themes are not always adaptable to businesses, and to customize them, a good knowledge of CSS and other coding may be required.

A Little History of WordPress Themes

Originally, WordPress was created as a blogging platform but has morphed into something much bigger. With it’s “page” and “posts” features, you can build a complete website with a blog, a website that does not have a blog (not recommended though), or, a website that is simply a blog. There are a few default themes that come with a WordPress installation, but it can take some advanced knowledge to modify or create your own WordPress website that is customized to your business or to your own personal tastes, or blog subject.

Going with one of the default themes is not a horrible thing to do if your website is mainly for personal blogging purposes, but even then, it’s nice to have a personal touch to the appearance of your blog site.

Years ago, many developers offered even more free themes that WordPress users could install to change the look and feel of their website, if they were building on the WP framework. Many of these themes were quite good for simple business or personal blog sites; some were actually very insecure and additionally some were only created for SEO purposes – not SEO for the theme installer, but rather for the theme creator. Creators would add footer links to websites they had an interest in getting better search engine rankings for, and release a theme with a back link to their website in the hopes that many would install the theme and automatically increasing back links substantially.

Since then, theme creation has become a big business. There are a large number of businesses that create themes and sell them with the idea that using their “theme” can make web development faster and smoother. In many ways, calling these products “themes” is a bit of a misnomer as they often come with many templates as well as proprietary or other site building frameworks.

So, what exactly are some of the benefits of using a WordPress theme?

  • Little technical knowledge is required of HTML or CSS
  • If using a provided template, little time or thought is needed for design
  • If you’re a business start up on a shoestring budget, a theme can help you get content on the web
  • What you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) – without waiting for customized design

Disadvantages Of Using A WordPress Theme

While the advantages of purchasing a theme may appear to be strong, there are actually a number of disadvantages and possible challenges as well. Let’s take a look at some of these so that you have a better understanding of what exactly you face if you choose to go with a theme combined with a site building tool:

They Might Not Save You Time.

While many themes appear to have a selling point of “saving time,” this is not necessarily true. If you are just starting out and have none or little knowledge of WordPress, web development, search engine optimization including optimizing for local search, there will be a learning curve in which you will be spending time just “figuring things out.” You are looking at a minimum of several hours of reading documentation just to get going, and up to several days of work ahead of you to get your website up and running. While theme sellers suggest that you can simply drag and drop some things, click on a few things, and “Voila! You have a website!” – that’s not the way it works in reality.

We’ve seen reviews of some website themes where someone has written, “I had a new website up and running in two days with this theme…” but when you look further, you’ll find that the author of the review already has a great deal of experience with web development. Even here we’ve worked with some clients that have purchased a theme and it can be time consuming to understand how that particular theme works.

WordPress Themes Are NOT SEO Optimized

We’ve seen this claim many times but it always falls short. First, search engine optimization is an ongoing process and is not a one time thing. Even on-site seo is not a one time “set and forget” kind of action. Algorithms change constantly. What worked a year ago has less impact today while other optimizations have positive effects that might not have even existed last year.

When a theme makes a claim that it is “SEO Optimized,” what is more likely to be the case is that they are making this claim based on the fact that out of the box, WordPress doesn’t really harm search engine optimization. But there are many technical aspects that are not included, that should be implemented and that you will need to learn about if you hope to have any worthwhile search engine rankings with your website. There are plugins that an assist with SEO, but many of themes do not come with them, let alone teach you about SEO.

If you’re relying on local search, there are on-site optimizations that many web developers don’t even know about including mark-up language that Google recommends based on schema.org. A recent theme we looked at comes with templates that are completely lacking in SEO elements, and yet they make the claim their theme is SEO Optimized. But how would you know that? You don’t – unless you’ve studied and keep up with SEO.

Some Themes Are Far Too Bloated

In attempting to sell you their theme, developers might make a lot about the “hundreds” of features that come with the theme. This is actually a negative though. We recently saw one theme that makes such claims but further investigation reveals it relies on providing many features – not through it’s own framework, but by requiring you to also install more than 20 additional plugins! That’s just.. .insane. Requiring that number of plugins in order to just be able to work on your website is enormous software bloat and carries with it a number of risks. Let’s look at some of those risks:

  • Broken Websites During Updates. Often, themes, plugins, and WordPress core itself need to be updated due to newly found vulnerabilities. Failing to do security updates puts your website as well as visitors to your website at risk if your site gets hacked. If your website depends on lots of plugins for it to “work,” there is a greater risk of one of those plugins not working correctly when an update is applied. Plugin developers sometimes stop development and don’t update when something changes. Or there are times when a plugin developer is a bit slow to respond to changes that are needed when there is a major WordPress core update. We saw this recently when WordPress had to fix a known security vulnerability, but when the WP update was applied, a number of plugins were not only useless, but caused entire websites to stop functioning.It is possible that this could occur to a website that has a limited number of plugins, but the risk is much lower. Additionally, it’s often possible to make temporary fixes or find another plugin that provides the same functionality and that is compatible with the most recent version. But if your theme requires specific plugins in order to “work,” you’re pretty much at the mercy of the plugin’s developers.
  • Bloated Themes Don’t Save TimeIn one particular theme that was recently released, it came with it’s own tool (called a “Wizard”) for installing the theme and related plugins. There were a number of complaints that it does not work well, and installation problems are a big complaint. One very experienced web developer reported that it took hours to install the theme. There were initial installation problems using the theme’s “installation wizard,” and in order to finally get it up and running, he had to completely wipe his database and start over from scratch. About one such theme, Kevin Muldoon recently wrote,

    “A lot of the suggestions I made to Template Monster were about the installation process of Monstroid. It was, and still is, cumbersome.

    Cumbersome is me being nice. It is far from being cumbersome. It is a royal pain in the ass.”

    Okay.. if that is an experienced web developer saying that.. who knows his way around WordPress and has worked with themes, what frustrations might you have if you have no experience in this field?

  • Bloated Themes Often Ignore Best Practices. In a race to try to sell the most themes, many theme developers are trying to sell based on features and trying to provide “everything” so they can stack up the feature list on their sales pages. In doing so however, they are ignoring best practices and simply focusing on selling to technically unaware buyers. As pointed out above, you should not be requiredto install a plugin that you won’t actually need or use. One theme we’ve seen requires that some WooCommerce plugins be installed – even if you have no plans to sell products online!Other best practices that you might run into include your own images – and optimizing them. Recently, we needed to help an associate who had tried to build their own website – but were using enormous images that had not been optimized for the web. We see this frequently in our SEO audits – where even experienced web developers have used images that are over 3 MB in file size! Little thought was given to user experience and download times – and yes – this is an SEO issue. Google has stated that website loading times is a consideration in search engine rankings. This is but one example of where people can go wrong when they have not kept up, on a daily basis, or learned much about the technology behind the scenes.

These are just a few of the major issues with many of the themes that are available. Even if you decide to go with a purchased theme, you still should have a professional looking over your shoulder to help you with the technical aspects of web development, SEO, and general optimization. There are even some templates out there that, while on the surface might look nice, are actually rather poor for some websites and businesses.

Many Of The Reviews You’ve Read Are Fake

Recently, we researched a particular theme that seemed to have dozens and dozens of great reviews. But in looking further, it was odd that there were so many websites giving the theme a great review… yet were not actually using the theme! Isn’t that odd? Looking deeper, what we discovered that the vast majority of these “reviews” were not likely to be real reviews. Rather, they were internet marketers who have an affiliate account with the theme developer – so every time someone clicked their link and purchased the theme, the affiliate made some money. Of course, this is often not fully disclosed or is disclosed on some other page of the website that provided the review, that you probably won’t read.

You also need to read between the lines of some reviews. When a web developer writes that it took them “only” two days to get a website up and running using a particular theme, that’s still 16 hours at least, of time. And that web developer likely had some kind of plan in place, as well as some previous knowledge as to how things work.

Who Should Consider A Theme?

We actually use from time to time, when appropriate, a WordPress website building tool here. It can save us time in producing responsive websites. At the same time, we can get into the code and CSS and customize websites. It also comes with a large number of site templates; we’ve never used them though. But we’re not against themes or tools! But they have to make sense.

It makes sense for a person who is considering a business start up, or for a new business that is operating on a shoestring budget to consider purchasing a theme. But the purchase should not solely be made based on the “feature list” on the sales page. If you have the time to learn some things yourself (no matter what a theme claims, there WILL be a learning curve that you will need to budget time for), and at this point, aren’t too worried about search engine optimization, a purchased theme might be a strong consideration for you.

You’re Beyond A Do It Yourself Theme When…

If you’re an existing business and are wanting to either get your first website or update your present one, it really is a good idea to work with a professional that understands the technology behind both web development and search engine optimization. Obviously, you’re in business to make money, and working with someone that can help at least guide you through the planning and building process will in the long run, be the most effective method. Instead of spending your own time trying to figure things out, or learning about the latest SEO optimizations, working with a professional will likely save you from a lot of headaches.

You’ll need to know how to initially set up WordPress, the best URL structure to use, what is important and not important in Title and Meta Description tags, and even what is the best SEO plugin that offers this functionality in WordPress. Again, this is an area that is important to know – one SEO plugin that is quite common is also guilty of “bloat” in that it runs over a thousand lines of code every time a webpage is visited! There are some hosting companies that suspend accounts that use this particular plugin because it impacts severely upon server load. Additionally, it slows down the website itself.

Working with a professional can also help you create content. While it’s great to have a website that is image rich, you do need content – and especially content that you want to rank for. While there are some very rare cases of websites ranking for an obscure term in which there is little content on that term, this is not the general case. A professional can help by examining what your competition is doing, and how to catch up or keep ahead.

If you have an existing website and want to update it with a new one, you might need to understand about how 301 redirects work, how to incorporate them into an .htaccess file in order to ensure old links to your website still work and don’t cause 404 errors.

The Most Important Aspects Of A New Website

Regardless of whether you use a theme or get the help of a professional, the most important and critical part of creating a new website is planning ahead. While it might seem that a theme might help you with this process, selecting the wrong theme that does not have search engine optimization, or may actually be harmful to your present search engine rankings, there is something to be said for planning out the content of your website ahead of time.

There are of course some standard menu items and pages that you should have, like a Contact Page that is easily found by visitors, possibly a Privacy Policy page which tells visitors what you do with any information you collect, and an “About Us” page. Then, you may want to plan as to how you will add or categorize other content such as your products and services, what products and/or services are higher priority than others, and what information you want visitors to easily access. Will you have a Promotions page? What images do you have that can be used on your website? What images do you need to create? What business data needs to be on the site? This is a very important and key question; how you format your business data and what you put on your page can affect local search rankings, either positively or negatively! Commonly used short cuts in this area can have negative repercussions.

Content really is a very important consideration. While very large companies that are well known can get away with having little content on their website, most businesses cannot. Today, being found in search or on Social Media is extremely important and that takes content creation. This is another area where a professional with knowledge of SEO can help you. Going it alone can be pretty tough and if you lose search engine rankings because of that, well – that is lost business potential that can be difficult and expensive to recover from. When people are looking for your services and/or products, it’s guaranteed that the first place they are going to search is on Google (or Bing). They are not going to Yellow Pages (although for citation purposes, a basic business listing is good to have), or some other old advertising medium.

In the end, no matter what you choose to do, it’s probably very important to have input from a web developer who also keeps on top of the SEO end of things, understands Local search rankings as well as Organic SEO (they are different but related) especially if you are beyond the start up stage of your business.

Be Wary Of “Trendy”
It’s also important to not get taken in by whatever is now “trendy.” While being seen as “trendy” can have some benefits, it can also cause some major setbacks which are not worth the benefits. Remember when Flash was trendy? So many people wanted a “cool” Flash based website but Flash based business websites were a horrible idea. While Flash was suitable for web based games and perhaps for some small elements of a website, they were often very annoying to the end user. As well, it was generally impossible for search engines to index Flash content. As a result, those websites that were Flash based could not generally be found in search results. Flash on mobile devices? Let’s agree that Flash is pretty much dead.

Today, we are seeing a trend towards a design that is sometimes referred to as “infinite scrolling.” This is where all your content is placed on a single page, and the visitor scrolls down the page to see everything that is there. While Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest might get away with this kind of design, for most small to medium sized businesses, it’s really not a great option. We’re seeing this kind of design listed as a “feature” with some themes, but unless you’re Twitter, you probably shouldn’t be using it. At least at this point in time. It’s a totally horrid concept as far as search engine optimization, and again, while perhaps “looking cool,” it does not always offer a great experience for visitors to your website. Unless as mentioned, you are Facebook or Twitter. Very few people enjoy scrolling past information they don’t need to try to find the information they are looking for. Keep your visitors and their experience in mind.

Your website is one of the most important, if not the most important marketing tools your business has today. It’s important to get it right, or at least be able to adjust quickly to security threats, to search engine ranking changes, to dealing with possibly broken plugins and even broken themes (which does occur from time to time when something is updated). When trying to decide whether to go it alone or with a professional, you’ll want to consider the real time consumption that will be involved, how much time and energy you want to spend on learning and keeping up with changes in technology and search engine optimization, being responsible for WordPress security updates, backups, Plugin updates and what you’re going to do when things go wrong.

We’d love to help you out and make sure your website is your best marketing tool, and is optimized for search engines, for all devices including mobile, and to help you succeed! Call or email ([email protected]) us today!

2 Comments

  1. Brenda Short on January 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I saw this article linked from Twitter. You have summarized some of the dangers of trying to use a WordPress theme very well. I thought I could save some money by trying to create my own business website in-house but it turned into a disaster. There were a number of issues that you wrote about including:

    We didn’t know a thing about SEO but believed it when the theme was advertised as “SEO Optimized.” We learned the hard way.
    Having lots of templates to choose from can actually be quite overwhelming. I went with one that looked nice, but I had to create new photographs to replace the template’s images in order to have some uniqueness to the site.
    The theme or some of the plugins (I can’t remember which was the problem) relied heavily on “short codes” and so we were one of the businesses hit by the WordPress security update last year. Our site was not functional for several days and I had no idea what to do. It was very nerve wracking and that’s when we hired some outside help to get us back up.

    I am still not happy with how we rank in Google. I will be giving you a call next week to discuss your rates and let you know the website URL. I’m thinking it might be best to start from the beginning again, with someone that can just do it all and do it correctly in the first place.

    Brenda.

    • admin on January 23, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Brenda! Appreciate you letting us know about your experience and look forward to speaking with you!

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