Custom WordPress Theme vs Customized WordPress Theme?

There is a divide among WordPress web design agencies on the topic of whether it’s better to build a website using a custom WordPress theme or customizing a premium WordPress theme.

I recognize the fact that web developers who have the ability to build custom themes are effective web developers because this requires a great level of knowledge and skill. However, I question their  choice & the necessity to build all sites using custom themes, especially given the advancement in premium themes.

Are their clients really getting a better WordPress website for the increased cost?

In this article I’d like to give weigh in on common myths and opinions mentioned on blogs comparing custom themes vs premium WordPress themes.

What is a WordPress theme?

A WordPress theme is collection of files that can define the appearance of a website. By most definitions they are used to control the frontend styling such as layout, colors, fonts, widgets and other stylistic details.

What is a Premium Theme?

Premium themes are pre-built WordPress themes which are developed by professional web designers and often times large teams as high as 100 people. They are typically developed with advanced features and functionality that can be controlled through the WordPress dashboard.

They typically cost for a premium theme is $50 USD and can be purchased from websites such as themeforest.com.

These themes are the best option when customizing WordPress themes instead of free themes which tend to be poorly coded and aren’t well supported.

What is a Custom Theme?

A custom theme is a unique WordPress template that is designed specifically to meet a business’s unique design needs.

Typically they are created using web design languages such as HTML, CSS, PHP and JavaScript.

Pros & Cons about Custom Themes

Below are common pros and cons that were mentioned on several web design agency blogs who primarily develop websites using custom themes.

 Pros:

  • Are more versatile or adaptable
  • Can provide a unique design and set of features
  • Less bloated with unnecessary features and extraneous code
  • Loads faster (relative to previous point)
  • Are more search engine friendly
  • Have better support

Cons:

  • Requires more development time
  • more costly
  • may require dependency on a web developer for updates
  • require more time to develop
  • may experience plugin incompatibility

Custom Themes load faster

False.

In theory this is true as a custom themes would not include extraneous code & files.

To see if this was true, I went ahead and tested several websites from various web design agencies who exclusively developed websites using custom themes and had stated the opinion on custom themes loading faster than premium themes.

I tested several websites using online tools such as Google Page Speed Insights, GTMetrix.com and Pingdom Speed Test to see how fast did custom websites load in comparison to websites that I developed using premium themes. The end result was page speed loading times were anything but impressive.

In fact, several tests resulted in page speeds greater than 6 seconds, which is 3 seconds too long.

In a study, 40% of visitors admitted they would a site if it took longer than 3 seconds to load.

Page speed results from a site developed using a custom theme.

Page speed results from a site developed using a custom theme by a company that boasted about how fast custom themes were. 

I agree that premium themes can be bloated with tons of code that as a result affect loading time. However by choosing the right WordPress theme and configuring it properly, you can get near perfect page scores with sites speeds under 2 seconds.

Many popular premium themes now include options for caching, minifying & combining code, image optimization and turn off unneeded theme features. These additional options all contribute to page speed optimization and can make website run up to 50% faster.

Poor page isn’t just relative to WordPress themes but instead the quality of web hosting and size images used on a page are the common culprits to slow loading websites.

Custom themes offer better support

False.

This is another common claim made by several web design agencies and I’m really not sure how they arrived at making such an odd comparison.

Whether you’re developing a custom theme or customizing a premium theme, it’s up to the web design company to provide support to the client.

However, many premium themes have online documentation, customer portals which include a ticketing system for customer support and community forums where theme authors and members can connect. The DIVI theme has a staff of 85 employees supporting it. That’s a pretty big company behind one WordPress theme.

Custom themes are more versatile

False. 

Versatility and adaptability are not exclusive to custom themes.

Just as there are poorly coded premium themes, it’s also possible a custom theme can be poorly coded and experience similar issues and limitations.

Recently I was contacted by a financial institution who were desperate to restore their custom website which crashed after an intern tried installing a plugin. *So much for adaptability.*

They also needed landing pages created which took hours as I followed the same standards as the developer had done before. The website was a nightmare to work with.

Had the site been originally developed using a quality premium theme all the changes I made could have been completed in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost.

Premium themed websites all look the same

False.

There are literally thousands of premium themes available and it’s true many of them aren’t very user friendly, coded well or versatile. However, Several of them such as as Avada, DIVI and XTheme come with multiple layouts that look completely different from one another.

If you’re an experienced developer you can further modify the appearance & layout using custom CSS to the point you where wouldn’t even know what theme it originally was.

If you’re choosing a theme based on its design or because it had some fancy stock photos, this is a mistake.

Many themes have evolved into frameworks, so it’s better to choose a theme that has a flexible layout. You can always change photos, colors and fonts.

Building websites with premium themes is fast and easy

True & False. 

True, premium themes can certainly cut down on time, but it certainly isn’t a 2-day process as some would lead you to believe.

False, it isn’t as easy as they would suggest. There is still planning, design, custom CSS, functionality and integrations  with every project.

Many web design companies downplay the effort involved when building a website using a premium theme.

A common comparison I came across was between building a custom theme and installing one. These are two completely separate tasks which makes this is a false equivalence . Clearly there is more to the development process than simply installing a WordPress theme.

From my experience, I’ve never spent less than 80 hours on a corporate website that was built using a premium theme.

Custom Themes are better for SEO

False.

This is a very disingenuous claim. As someone who has spent over 15 years in SEO, there is literally no truth to this whatsoever.

YOAST for SEO has is the most widely used plugin that can be installed on WordPress websites to optimize html elements, create XML sitemaps, set canonical, setup schema and much more.

WordPress by default allows you to manage content where you would set your heading tags, site links, custom urls and text.

Really not sure how a custom theme is better for SEO but if you can prove me wrong, please leave a comment below.

Should you use a custom theme?

Custom themes certainly have their place. If the design requirements are unique and a premium theme will not work – then Yes.

Premium themes have evolved over the last 10 years. You are no longer limited to what a theme looks like out of the box. Many are extremely flexible and can act as a framework for your project.

A custom theme does not always equal a quality theme. It’s just as likely that a custom theme was poorly coded as a premium theme.

The end result of a website has less to do with the choice whether to use a custom theme or premium theme, but more so which web developer or agency is chosen.