The Problem with Off The Shelf WordPress Themes


Web Design

Read Time

11 min


06 November, 2017

With the meteoric rise of WordPress, there are new websites popping up all over the place.

However, a lot of these websites are using off the shelf WordPress themes from market place websites like Themeforest.

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This means there a lot of identical websites out there. And these websites have some big problems.

The best way to get your company’s website up and running, is to partner with a creative agency, not using an off the shelf template.

If you’re thinking of hiring a web design agency, here’s a handy list of things to do first.

Here’s the deal:

Off the shelf WordPress themes have several fundamental flaws.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems with “building your own website” using an off the shelf WordPress theme.

Off The Shelf WordPress Themes Are Not Built For You

The main problem with off the shelf WordPress themes, is the fact that they’re not built for you.

They’re built to sell. They’re a cookie cutter solution, designed and built to appeal to a large an audience as possible.

The only way that WordPress theme authors make their money, is by selling and shipping as much “product” as possible. So they need to appeal to the widest target audience possible.

And because they’re not built for you specifically, you’re always having to make compromises and adapt.

Not only that, but because these themes aren’t designed specifically for you, they’re not taking into account your user base and target audience.

If you’re not sure how to define your target audience, then the linked article is a good place to start.

Your website’s job is to work for your business.

Whether that’s to generate leads, make sales, or raise awareness, and therefore, a cookie cutter solution is never the right option when it comes to your website.

Colourful website code in a text editor

A Bloated Codebase

Because of the fact that off the shelf themes aren’t built for specific needs, and need to appeal to a wide range of customers, the codebase is always bloated.

Now that might not mean a lot to you, but trust me, huge amounts of redundant code in your website is not good for the speed or SEO of your website.

So what does a bloated codebase mean, and how does it happen?

Simply put:

A bloated codebase means there’s too much code in your website. And a lot of it isn’t being used. So it just sits there, when it doesn’t need to.

This happens with off the shelf WordPress themes, because they try and provide a lot of customisation options to the people that buy them.

However, this can create a lot of redundant and useless code with within your website.

Think about it:

If a WordPress theme boasts it has “10 header options” and “10 footer options” – that’s 18 options that won’t be getting used.

However, the code for those 18 redundant options is still sitting there behind the scenes, both slowing your website down and adding a level of complexity that your website doesn’t need.

Slow to Load

Due to having a bloated codebase like we’ve already talked about, off the shelf WordPress themes are often slow to load.

Here’s a quick refresher on speeding up your website:

Reduce Your Image Sizes

Often the biggest culprit of any slow website is the imagery.

It’s important that you scale down your images in pixel size and file size. To do this, you’ll need to use a programme like Adobe Photoshop, or a WordPress plugin like WP Smush.

Pagespeed insights screenshot

Use Google Page Speed Insights to Check

Google Page Speed Insights is a free online tool that gives you an overview of your website, and its speed on both desktop and mobile.

You can use it to get an itemised list of issues and imagery in your website that can be compressed or reduced to make your website faster.

Compress and Minify Your Files

The process of compressing and minifying your files is essential to make your website faster.

You want to look at minifying your HTML, CSS and JS/jQuery files as much as possible. So once your website goes live, make sure you reduce the files down.

You can do this by using a free minifying website such as Minifier, or working with a web design agency to do it for you.

Be aware, when minifying, its always a good idea to keep a version of your un-minified files too! Just incase you ever need them again.

Enable Caching

Caching is the process that your computer uses to “remember” parts of a website.

You can use a WordPress plugin such as W3C Super Cache to enable caching on your own website.

This will allow visitors’ computers to cache your website and therefore, load faster.

Blue shelf

Invest in Better Hosting

Your website hosting also has a lot to do with the overall speed of your website.

By investing in better hosting (think £50-£100 per month, rather than £5-£10) you’ll be greatly improving the server and resources your website uses.

As a result, your website will be faster.

Remember, a slow website is one of the top web design complaints we hear from people.

Although you can make these optimisations to an off the shelf theme, the bloated codebase and cookie cutter approach is hopefully enough to prevent you from wanting to use one.

If not, then read on.

Hard for Developers to Work With

Web developer’s nightmares consist of two things:

  1. Clients that don’t pay, and;
  2. Off the shelf WordPress themes


Because off the shelf themes are a nightmare for web developers to work with. Reading into and adapting other people’s code isn’t easy at the best of times.

However, in these cheap themes and templates, the code is often poorly written and uncommented.

Commenting within code is a technique professional designers and developers use to ensure readability for when others need to access and adapt their code.

Off the shelf themes and templates are often uncommented, and written in a way that makes it impossible for a professional to get to grips with.

One of the core ideas and belief systems that comes with WordPress is that, should for any need, you need to switch agencies or developers, you can, easily. Because of good commenting and coding practises.

“Premium” themes often neglect these practises.

This results in developers having to “hack around” existing code. Resulting in dirty techniques and dodgy solutions that are born out of necessity – just to get something working.

In contrast, when a professional developer is building something from the ground up, they have complete control and can write nice clean code that is easy for others to read and expand upon in the future.

They Require Plugins, Lots and Lots of Plugins

A lot of off the shelf themes and templates require the use of plugins to make them look and function exactly like the demo website.

I’ve use a theme that required as many as ten plugins before. And that’s a really bad way of working.

Again, because of the wide and general appeal these off the shelf themes need to have, the plugins they pick are also often big and bloated too.

Things like sliders and accordions shouldn’t require 5mb-20mb plugin files, when you can load them in with a 100kb-200kb file of your own.

Plugins are great, for specific things.

For example:

Woocommerce and any of the plugins by the Woo team, are great. We use them to build out and extend sites.

But, you shouldn’t need plugins to add simple functionality to your website.

Use them sparingly!

Design Limitations and Lack of Flexibility

Here’s another problem:

Off the shelf themes can be super limiting in terms of design.

They only come built with a certain number of options and ideas built into them. And then if you need to break the mould, you hit a brick wall.

You can’t.

Again, this happens because they need to appeal to a wide range of people to make sales.

So if you want to expand into eCommerce, and your theme doesn’t account for that, you’re out of looking.

By using a pre-made theme, chances are you’ll have to “shoe horn” your content into place – to fit a mould that someone who doesn’t know your company at all.

When you buy a theme like this, it’s a very “cookie cutter” approach. A mould exists, you have to bend to fit it, not the other way around.

And that’s the wrong way for a website to work. You shouldn’t be serving your website, your website should be serving and working for you.

This leads us nicely on to…

People using laptop and writing in a book

No Relationship with a Design Agency or Designer

When buying an existing theme, the chances are – the only touchpoint in your relationship is going to come in the way of the “comments section” of the theme website.

Or, perhaps some support forum that takes three days to get an answer from.

You can remedy that easily, by working with a design agency to build your own WordPress theme.

Building a relationship with a design agency can add value to your business, by making your life easier.

Rather than having to customise a pre-made theme, your design agency can build you one from the ground up.

This way, they can take into account what you need from your website, and work with you to develop the best solution.

By having a design agency to help you, you can avoid web design mistakes, can reach out to them with thoughts and ideas, and they’ll be willing to help you as you scale and grow your business – with your needs developing or changing.

And the future is an important consideration.

The Future

We see it happen all of the time.

A company has paid a poor design agency, who bought an off the shelf WordPress theme for their website. Within two or three years, the theme looks dated and the company have outgrown their website.

So they need to change.

This means all of their initial outlay has now gone to waste, and rather than redesigning the site, changing how it looks – they have to start again from scratch.

That’s money down the drain.

Sure, it’s lasted them two or three years, but now, it needs replaced.

A Comparison of Off the Shelf Themes vs a Custom Build

Let’s take a quick look at your two options:

Off the Shelf Themes

  • Will be cheap to buy and pay someone to setup initially.
  • Will only last you two or three years before needing a full web overhaul.
  • Easy to outgrow.
  • Can have a negative effect on your SEO efforts.
  • Can prevent you building a solid relationship with a design agency.

Custom Builds

  • Will seem expensive initially, but over time will prove its value.
  • Can be built upon and added to, or redesigned, rather than ripped up.
  • Will grow alongside your company.
  • Built right, will have a positive effect on your SEO.
  • Helps you build a solid relationship with a design agency.

Website cost

So, What’s The Cost?

Here’s the thing:

A cheap off the shelf theme, implemented by a poor quality design agency will appear to be cheap at first.

However, when it comes to two or three years down the line, and you’re facing the same bill again, and then again, and again, the cost won’t seem as reasonable.

By having a professional design agency work with you to design your website, the value, over time, will become apparent.

Provided your website has been built properly, and you’re creating great content, your website will:

  1. Attract organic traffic and visitors to your website
  2. Convert your visitors into customers or leads

And that’s what you’re paying for. The expertise and advice to get your website working for you.

In the near future, we’ll be publishing a post called “How Much Does a Website Cost?” – where we’ll be investigating the price of websites, and putting some figures out there. So check back for that!

The Problem with Off The Shelf WordPress Themes

The problem with off the shelf WordPress themes is massive.

They’re a “one size fits all” solution, and you’re probably not a one size fits all type of business.

We use WordPress to build all of our websites here at Canny. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it!

Cheap themes will work, for a time. They’ll be cheap to setup, for a time.

But nothing compares to working with a professional design agency to build your website, and make it work for you!

What do you think? Are you using an off the shelf theme? Or are you working with a design agency? Let us know in the comments below.

Hey I'm Tony, Founder and Director of Canny Creative. I eat, sleep and bleed Canny to be honest. I'm an absolute workaholic (and yes, I know that's not a good thing!).

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