Pre-built WordPress themes are low-cost alternatives to custom coding, and power millions of websites around the world. However, in the long run they can prove to be costly mistakes.

I’ve been building websites since WordPress released its initial 0.71-Gold version back in 2003, when it was strictly a niche blogging platform.. Over the past 12 years, however, there have been over 50 versions of WordPress released for general use, and the platform has evolved into a solution for creating everything from business websites, online magazines and ecommerce stores.

Insane fact of the day: at the time of publishing this article, WordPress powers over 74-million websites and accounts for over 18% of the entire internet. Say what?

WordPress is perhaps most famous for its user-friendliness, as it allows even those with little knowledge of web development to single handedly build, launch and manage a website. This has allowed WordPress to dominate the “self serve” website creation market, and it’s now the go-to option for those looking for a quick and dirty way to launch on online business.

Theme Crazy

One extremely popular method of developing WP sites is purchasing pre-built templates, or themes that can be populated with content and launched in a matter of weeks, or even days.

Themes are one-size-fits-all solutions that do not require knowledge of programming or even the help of someone who does. The most powerful themes include the ability to change front-end design elements like fonts, colors, icons, content and even page layouts with the click of a button.

However, as we’ll explain later in this article, WP themes have some major drawbacks that should be red flags to anyone in search of a truly viable business tools.

Negative impacts of WordPress themes on the web industry

The just-add-water appeal of pre-built WordPress themes has undoubtedly allowed many businesses  to launch cost-effective websites that have helped them grow. However, it has also been a major factor in the “cheapening” of the web industry.

The ease of building sites in WordPress attracts legions of so-called “web developers”, who use WordPress in lieu of having the development knowledge needed to code a site from scratch. Even worse, it has given rise to two types of web consultants that we can blame for destroying the web industry as we know it:

The con artist selling websites at prices high enough to justify custom development, but building sites on off-the-shelf templates without informing the client.
The novice building sites in his/her bedroom for $500 a pop, and giving the impression that any site can, and should, be priced as such.

To make matters worse, many business owners have adopted the philosophy of the novice, and now compare all web development work to the effort and cost of a WordPress theme.

5 reasons not to build your website on a WordPress theme

1. Branding: Using a pre-built theme means your website will look similar (or even identical) to hundreds or even thousands of other businesses. “Avada”, the most purchased theme on Themeforest.net (the most popular seller of WP themes) has been sold over 139,000 times! Not the best way to establish your presence as unique and worthy of merit.

2. Code integrity: WordPress themes are created by 3rd party developers, and each theme may require the use of multiple 3rd party plugins for features like page builders, contact forms or ecommerce functionality. Theme code is often poor and riddled with bugs that put site stability and usability in jeopardy.

WordPress does not monitor or regulate themes created on its open source platform, so using a pre-coded theme should be done at your own risk. There’s usually no way to verify the legitimacy of the theme creator, or the quality of the code.

3. Site speed: WordPress has some well documented issues related to site performance:

– Poorly coded themes or sites without proper speed optimization will lack in performance.

– Too many plugins can slow a WP site down considerably

– Heavy front-end elements like multiple CSS and JS files, and robust page builders and CMS tools can result in heavy loads on a server.

– Cheap hosting plans from generic providers like GoDaddy and Blue Host, which are not properly configured or optimized to handle WP sites that receive a lot of traffic and usage, can result in sub-standard site speed.

Only within the past several years have dedicated and reliable WordPress hosting options become available. Hosting companies like WPEngine and Synthesis provide solutions only for WordPress, and have dedicated a lot of time and money into ensuring their platforms are finely tuned to handling its nuances.

4. Plugins: WordPress themes rely heavily on plugins that can be installed with the click of a button, and add functionality that would otherwise require custom programming. As previously mentioned, all plugins are created by 3rd party developers and are often unstable and difficult to maintain.

5. Maintenance Costs: WordPress now releases several new versions of its CMS each year. It’s a best practice to keep your website current with the latest release, which often involves a tedious process of ensuring nothing breaks when you perform upgrades.

Also, most 3rd party plugins release new versions, which must always be compatible with your current instance of WP. Outdated plugins can cause major site issues, and need to be replaced.

Still Want to Use WordPress? Here’s What to do Instead

Want a clean, well-built WordPress site that you can rely on to anchor your online business? It’s time to build a bespoke site that uses a fresh WordPress install and has all customization done by a single development team, with minimal reliance on 3rd party plugins or foreign code.

The downside is it will cost substantially more than opting for a pre-built theme; however, the upside is you’ll have a stable and reliable product, devoid of extraneous code and plugins that put a damper on site speed, performance, usability and your bottom line.

If you’re serious about your digital footprint, why risk damaging it by repurposing code created by a developer you’ve never met and that is not tailored specifically for your business needs?

by Fuze June 11, 2015
  • Frank

    This is a great article. There are many themes out there that are garbage but not all of them are. When I’m dealing with clients who don’t have money to spend on a custom built site, what else am I suppose to do? So I go purchase a theme, hack it up, and by the time I’m done it doesn’t even look like the original site and I’m using plugins to help improve speed and cache of pages. Many sites I use themes on are generating low amounts of traffic other than a few that get about 20K views a month. I still use themes with the 20K a month and site speed is no issue. It really comes down to choosing the best theme, reading comments, viewing sites that use it, and then purchasing. People make the mistake of purchasing to quick because they see fancy pictures. Good article.

  • Tom Hayes

    Hang on… this is a WordPress site that uses Visual Composer… hypocrites much?

    • Jose

      This may be very well be a WordPress site that uses a visual composer but that isn’t their point at all.

      • http://design-kink.com/ Craig Brown

        Why isn’t it the point? WP promised to deliver a publishing solution to everybody, which it did, just because some mega-huge companies have jumped on the bandwagon, why should we stop using themes and plugins that give the functionality of 5 or 6 figure websites? If a company asks me to produce bespoke code for a membership driven ecommerce site that backs itself up regularly, has a bookings calendar and puts latest events on a rotating banner with 3D effects, they can expect a quote at least 20X more expensive than regular, then when it comes to updating that site to conform with the latest WP updates, same thing. Oh, and if I get hit by a bus, probably best to code the site again.

        There are some good points made in this essay, such as preferred hosting solutions. But to embrace WordPress in my opinion is to create a framework of preferred themes & plugs, not all of these are sloppy, some of them are created by 3rd party devs who are good at what they do and passionate to sell and support their product.

        • Josh Lee

          Yes, I think the author of this post drifted off of her main point a little bit. Earlier in the article, the author bemoaned the fact that novices who *can’t* build a bespoke website from scratch are doing these WordPress theme-and-plugin hack jobs and passing them off as professional websites.

          I agree with you that reinventing the wheel is just stupid — so I’m going to interpret the article generously and take away that plugins and themes are OK, as long as the person choosing them *could* write them from scratch and thus is competent enough to judge their value and/or recode them if necessary in the future.

        • Jose

          Brother – I think you misread my comment. I really don’t disagree with anything you stated on your comment but rather first one on the thread about it being hypocritical that this very same site we are commenting uses a visual composer. I could care less, to be honest. As long as they know what they’re doing. And they do.

          • Tom Hayes

            I don’t think you understand… not *a* visual composer… Visual Composer. VC is a WordPress page builder plugin that’s well known for being super bloated and is pretty much the epitome of several of the points made in this article.

  • zombietimeshare

    And when the client says, of your hand built pricey custom build—complete with maintenance contract, “How much?!? Screw that! We are going to use a purchased theme. You can either modify it for us or we will find someone who can.”

    What then, bucko?

    • http://pdxiii.com/ PDXIII

      Maybe you should look for clients, willing to pay for your service, bucko!

  • http://atlasrewards.net Atlas Rewards

    Interesting that you’d choose to use an ET screen shot for your biased opinion, given that it’s got something like a quarter million customers, and you don’t even mention it in the article.

    And I did indeed call it a biased opinion – you’re welcome to believe that the only way is your way, but the fact is that is not true. Many premium theme houses have good support, are very customizable and offer a great value for the money. Fact is, not everyone is building the next TechCrunch or similar, and there are excellent themes out there that are usable out of the box for most applications. There are also a number of good themes in the repo, and with a little time and effort, can be made to look less cookie cutter, if that’s what the user wants.

    I’ll completely agree that there are a lot of s**t themes making the rounds as well, and plugins too. But there is zero reason, other than to spend money for spending’s sake, to reinvent the wheel. I’ll take ET themes, Pippins plugins, WooCommerce and a host of other great products any day. We also run a 1400 line plugin that was custom built for us on one of our multisite installs, so there’s a time and place to start from scratch and get things done that way too.

  • dview

    I agree, that’s why when I’m designing WordPress based sites, I used the Roots Sage/Bedrock combo. https://roots.io

  • Christina Smith

    If you do your research on different WordPress themes in regards to reviews, support forum posts, and overall technical requirements, you can find really great solutions for your clients. And if you’re a savy designer, who knows HTML/CSS and can successfully use custom CSS codes with your WordPress template, then it’s a home run, you’re happy with the results as well as your clients. Finding a unique WordPress theme can be difficult, but you can always customize a WordPress theme and brand it well so your client does stand out from other sites that are using WordPress. It takes a lot of dedication to customize a wordpress theme – between branding the site properly, finding the right plugins, and reading through forums and messaging theme developers to get that exact right way you want a section of a page to look, it’s that dedication and research that shows your clients you aren’t just giving them a cookie cutter website. The problem with a lot of agencies who use WordPress sites for their clients is they don’t know how to properly customize the template by using Custom CSS fields, resulting in most WordPress sites looking the same.

  • http://larrysawyer.me/ Larry Sawyer

    There are times when using a popular theme is the right approach, and there are times when doing a custom theme base off of something like Twitter Bootstrap is the right approach, then be very selective about the plugin’s you use and why you use them. I will say that even if you get a popular theme, there is skill, expertise and talent in using that theme to take things to the next level. Just because you can build a theme or a plugin and sell it on Envato, doesn’t mean it’s good or well coded.

    The author does make a good point there are far too many hacks out there charging thousands of dollars for using a popular them and the pre-loaded content. I found a company using the most popular theme out there, and for fun I called them as asked about the price of a custom site ‘like their site’. Well I was give the song and dance and the cost was way more than was fair, given what they were doing and their approach.

    Even with WordPress, all the great themes and plug-ins out there, there isn’t a one size fits all. There is still a lot of skill and expertise to doing it. There is the whole UX side of things, conversion and lead generation strategies, SEO, social media intergration and marketing, link sharing and a dozen other things that need to be taken into consideration even for a simple site. Bottom line, just because you know WordPress and can get around a good theme doesn’t mean you know what you are doing, and you are even doing the right things for the right reasons. The days of just slapping up a WordPress site and calling it a day are over!

    • http://larrysawyer.me/ Larry Sawyer

      Ok, upon some digging, Fuze might have some ‘splainin’ to do. Have a look. They did this site: http://www.forevermakeupnow.com/ Well looking at the code on that site, I found this theme: http://themeforest.net/item/beautyspot-wordpress-theme-for-beauty-salons/8020062

      Then I found this site Fuze did: http://wearemadeinmia.com/ which uses the ibuki theme here: http://themeforest.net/item/ibuki-creative-multipurpose-shop-theme/8179978

      They do seem to do some custom development work on other sites as well. So again, my point is there are different needs and different projects. We shouldn’t judge because we on the outside are not always aware of the details of a project. WordPress is a great tool, so are themes and plugins. The point is you still need to know what you are doing to do things well and correctly.

    • jasonlenker

      Larry… you said; “There is the whole UX side of things, conversion and lead generation strategies, SEO, social media intergration and marketing, link sharing and a dozen other things that need to be taken into consideration even for a simple site.”

      Maybe that’s why they were charging you a lot.

      • http://larrysawyer.me/ Larry Sawyer

        Jason, yea I asked about that, and they didn’t have a clue. Their site was literally Avada, with only minimal changes. I asked about SEO and creating brand awareness and lead generation, and they really didn’t seem to have any background or experience at a professional level, but wanted to charge professional level rates.

        • jasonlenker

          Gotcha… Sounds like a ripoff. We do both… hand-coded and WordPress depending on budget. Some of the better WP themes like Avada really do offer a great deal of customization if you’re willing to do a little work.

          Enjoyed your article. There’s a tool for every level I suppose. ッ

          Have a great weekend.

  • Chris Raymond

    IMO, I can more easily spot a Drupal site than a WordPress site these days. WordPress is a lot easier for a decent web designer with good css skills and solid UX and content strategy chops to modify to create other-than-blog sites that look distinctive and are more easily maintained than ones built in Drupal with infinite nested divs, spans, and other crud. WordPress classes are pretty standard and enables one to readily target them for styling. You have more control over the markup.

    Design in general has become a commoditized profession, the reality is that the clients willing to pay for bespoke WordPress sites is smaller and smaller. You can’t eat principles, nor can you pay the rent with it.

  • alexeiramone

    I’m against WordPress for some reasons, but it’s undeniable it’s an awesome tool and it will keep evolving and having more and more templates.

    To your 5 reasons: (they = most people using wordpress)
    1. Branding: They don’t care, as long as its visually ok (without crappy antialized gifs in other bg color)
    2. Code Integrity: They don’t care, as long as it’s up and running
    3. Site Speed: They don’t care, as long as it’s up and running

    4. Plugins: They don’t care, as long as those basic ones are up and running
    5. Cost: They don’t care, it’s way cheaper.

    When the WP site starts to grow, time to optimize and/or move on. Time to learn more about WP…

    WP is a step in the process…. for many people.

    • Bogdan Calapod

      I agree – my first encounter with web development was… making WordPress sites. Now I’m making my own CMS, writing as much code as possible and relying as little as possible on third party frameworks.
      But I also agree with the author – there are a lot of script kiddies who rely on wordpress and nothing much.

  • evnture

    I could not disagree more completely. The proliferation of WordPress themes let agencies refine their processes and increase throughput while providing a path for selling additional services or solutions as companies grow. If anything, it has made good agencies stand out and become more accessible to start-ups and mom & pop shops – positioning them as a trusted parter to help their clients succeed.

  • Martin Yoakum

    So many things wrong with this article.

    One of WordPress’s strengths is that it’s easy to USE. Not every site owner has — or wants — to know in detail how websites work. They just want to post new items for sale (for example). And not all sites are for businesses. Some people just want to blog, but want something prettier than the default theme. These people aren’t concerned about the ‘cheapening of the web industry’, if that’s even a thing. (It’s not.)

    Guess what? As an open source project, ALL WordPress themes, ALL plugins, and even WordPress core is written by ‘3rd parties’. Implying that all 3rd party devs are inherently worse doesn’t really make sense, let alone hold any kind of truth.

    Your use of overgeneralization makes you look stupid. You cannot say that we should get rid of themes. WordPress must have a theme to operate. What you mean to say, but have trouble saying, is all ‘pre-built themes purchased from a source and not specifically customized to the current project’ are inherently poor quality. Which we all know is not true.

    Overall, this article is filled with misleading statements meant to scare the uninformed. Whether that is intentional, or because you yourself do not know any better does not make much difference.

  • Mordecai

    This is insulting. I develop WordPress themes for those developers and we all make a living from WordPress. Customers want WordPress because its easy to use and very easy to maintain. Supply meets demand!!!

    You need to look deeper into how good WordPress is; my favorite is backward compatibility. Don’t just look at 3rd party stuff. That can be fixed if the 3rd party developer no longer maintains his plugin bacause there is an alternative of using another similar plugin or hire a qualified developer to fix the current broken one.

    WordPress is just getting started and more is to come.

  • Trevor James

    What a lovely idea to boost traffic to your site, slate the most widely used method of creating websites on the internet. That’s a little old skool even for fuze!

    You are of course ridiculously off piste with this post but I’d imagine you know this already. At no point in time do you even consider the end goal, customer requirements. Only a fool with zero business sense would say this. If your customer has limited budget, you work to their requirements not your preference. If clients need a startup site quickly there is no better solution in the world than a wp theme. We’ve helped launch countless businesses via themes and if/when they’ve been successful a huge part of it is always attributed to the quick low cost option that got them their online presence.

    When the functionality requirements grow, the budget increases and the need for something more bespoke arises, then we go for the full custom wp site.
    As long as you are 100% transparent with your methods, backup your methods with proven results, you will have a client for life.

    That is what makes WordPress themes the most incredible solution beyond any other. long may it continue to develop(and it will!)

    VIVA LA WORDPRESS!

  • Paul Ellsworth

    I agree with much of what the author says… so much so my person choice is that “twist my arm with a big support contract, and I’ll use WordPress, otherwise no.” My last round with “yeah, our favorite and yes it’s easier than others blogging app suite” convinced me that my coding time is best spent elsewhere. Even sticking to themes and plugins from ONE company that prides itself on integration — I spent more time fixing and searching for the where-to-fix-bits were hidden “THIS time” (aka version whatever of WP, Theme vX.Y, child them B, plug in VN.M.O… to the extent that it was wasting my client’s time and money instead of letting us further their best business interests. Since then for basic site’s I’ve started developing tools that integrate several of the key microformat-standard oriented data tables into an app framework, then let the client look at pretty WP, drupal, CSS, or whatever demo themes, and use what they like to make my back end pieces work and result in YASC. Yet Another Satisfied client.

  • Trevor James

    An article like this could only be written by someone who has been developing wp since the start… and clearly has changed a bit.