In the past few years WordPress and other Content Management Systems (CMS) have become increasingly popular. There has been an explosion of prebuilt themes available. Some are prettier than others. Some even give you options to change elements of the styling, such as the background colours of specific parts or the position of the sidebar. Many are free, for other ‘premium’ themes you can pay up to $299 (just over £200). What is the difference between these CMS themes, website builders and a bespoke design? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach for you and your business?
What’s under the hood?
“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
As a web developer I know how important it is to write effective, versatile and simple code. Having code that is well written will make your site perform better across the board. Google now looks for sites that are fast, accessible, responsive in their layouts and easy to use for all users. Finding CMS themes that tick all of these boxes is not impossible, but it can be a very delicate balancing act to find one with the look and functionality you require that also works well.
In many ways, premium themes present more problems than the free ones from a web development point of view. Yes, they will give you much more control over the design and they will give you added functionality over a free theme. However, the cost of all of these extra features is often hidden from view of the front-end.
An example of the pitfalls of premium themes came from a potential client of ours who was looking to have some changes made to their website. The WordPress theme they had used offered a whole range of options for adapting the website design – colours, layouts, positioning and much more. What it displayed on the front-end looked very sharp, slick and professional. However when we looked a little deeper into the website, we found that every page contained over 5,000 extra lines of code which contained all of the styling options. This bloating of the code slowed the site down drastically and had a seriously adverse affect on the way that Google viewed the site.
A quick word about functionality – CMS themes will almost certainly not do everything you need them to. Additional plugins will be required, and these can be slow, cause conflicts that can break your site and may contain security vulnerabilities giving hackers access to your site. Is it worth the risk?
Can’t I build my own website now?
Website builders are relatively new pieces of software that take the concept of CMS one step further. They give users the ability to ‘build’ websites by selecting from a number of options and possibly using ‘drag and drop’ methods to allow users to add design elements.
These solutions do offer a very budget price and the appearance of a bespoke design, although they do present a number of potential technical issues:
- Firstly you are locked into the functionality they offer, and any additional features generally have a price tag.
- You also have no way of knowing if the sites they create will work well across different devices and browsers.
- It is impossible to tell if they will be fast or if they will contain all of the things that Google looks for in a well made website.
- There is a massive potential risk for security vulnerabilities. Sites built upon the same system will all contain elements of the same code, and if that code is exploited by hackers then every site using that code becomes wide open to attack.
WordPress is updated regularly, and any exploits in the core code are fixed as soon as they are noticed. Also, much of what runs a WordPress site comes from the theme which means that the code is entirely different from one theme to the next. If a theme gets exploited, only sites running that theme have the potential to get hacked. We build our own themes, meaning each site is individual which almost completely removes that potential for attack.
A bespoke website design will by it’s very nature do what you need it to. Professional developers will also be able to write all the code needed to make your site work. Where plugins are required they will make sure that they cause minimal impact on server response times and that they are fully secure. It may seem at first like the costs of bespoke design are high when compared with the other options. When you consider that you are paying for experts in their fields with decades of experience it becomes clear that you are getting more than you are paying for. If you opt for a theme you don’t really know what you are getting, and that might just cost you a lot more.
We at Soapbox Digital Media build all of our websites from scratch, and we code as much as we can by hand rather than using plugins for added functionality. We make sure that our sites are up to date with the latest information from Google regarding accessibility, usability and technological considerations. This means we give all of our customers the best possible chance to get their websites performing well and generating real business.
It’s all about the looks
“Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.”
While many themes do look good visually, that doesn’t necessarily mean they work. Theme designers don’t know what your business is or what the goals of your website are. For most businesses, the primary aim of the website is to get users to make contact. Many themes don’t even contain contact forms. A bespoke design will take these things into consideration, making your website more effective than themes.
We use data-driven design to improve the conversion rates on our websites. We test every element of the design to give us insights into where is best for that contact form, which buttons should go where and even what words are more likely to be clicked. Good web design and great web design are very close in many respects but poles apart in others.
- Surely if something looks good, then it has good design?
Well, not always I’m afraid!
- Does a visually appealing website always generate more business?
- Will a theme speak to your brand identity?
It’s highly unlikely.
- That website looks really flashy with lots of animations and cool effects, doesn’t that improve the user’s experience?
Website builders appear to give you a bespoke design, however, they actually only present you with a series of options for you to select. So while they may appear to offer you some versatility in the design, they don’t really give you full control over it. That only comes when you write your own code.
Many business owners know what they want in a design. They know what the colour scheme should be and what feeling they want their customers to have when using their website. The technical aspects of achieving this, however, are often a little beyond their particular field of expertise. You wouldn’t build your own car, so why would you want to try and build your own website?
Professionals in web design and web development who have a proven track record will know what looks good and what works. They will be able to give you a website that performs well, is on-brand and generates more business for you. It makes sense to work with people who have built many websites as they will have the hands-on experience of building sites, giving them the knowledge of which approach is best for your business.
Good web design firms listen to their clients, spend time with them before the site is designed to find out what they want from their site. This covers not more than the looks; it covers the feel and functionality as well. Having a professional translating your ideal website into reality is much easier than either trying it yourself or looking for a theme that fits.
Cost Analysis – is cheaper actually cheaper?
“Good design is good business.”
Everyone wants to save money. In business, it makes perfect sense to look for easy ways to increase your profitability. However, cheaper isn’t always better and, in the long run, can often end up costing a lot more. Web design is no exception to this rule. Downloading WordPress is free, and there are many free themes out there, but free rarely means it has no cost.
Here is a handy checklist of everything you will need to do to get a free theme up and running:
- Install WordPress and configure the settings; a daunting task if you are not used to the world of web development.
- Source a theme that looks good and install it – this can take some time!
- Find plugins to add the features you require; assuming you know what you need or what that functionality is normally called.
- Prepare and add your logo and business graphics (or pay a graphic designer to do it).
- Write the text for your pages and add them in, although a content writer will know how to make your content SEO optimised.
- Prepare and add graphics to be used within your pages (or pay a graphic designer to do it). Balancing this with the design takes a keen eye and a lot of practice to get right.
- Test it all to make sure it works on all platforms; including desktops, mobiles, tablets and laptops. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the different browsers to think about.
- Fix any issues you have or pay someone to fix any issues you have. And trust me, there will be issues.
That’s what’s involved if you use a theme straight out of the box. Can you imagine doing all that with the added time of configuring a premium theme’s design? All of this time has a cost. If you think about it in terms of how much YOUR time is worth then you may find that a bespoke design works out a far more cost-effective solution than using a theme.
Web design and web development are time-consuming and complex tasks; even for web designers and web developers! Giving these jobs to professionals will not only get you a better website, but also frees up your time for doing what you do best. In may cases your site will also be completed quicker.
As with anything in business, you should also be considering the future. Is your theme (either free or premium) going to be supported in six months time? Is it even supported now? Will the website builder that took just ten minutes to use allow you to make a site that has what Google looks for? What about in a year’s time? Getting a bespoke design means you have a point of contact for anything you need. Also, more than likely your site will be designed in a way that is as future proof as possible. You should also always ask about ongoing maintenance to ensure that your site is kept secure. We always use the most up-to-date information about what’s happening in the world of web design to make sure that our sites are built to last. Moreover, we have shops on the high street where you can walk in and chat to us about any questions you might have, but then that’s what makes us different!
A bespoke design will nearly always give you a better website than using a prefabricated CMS theme or using a website builder. WordPress themes and website builders do have their place, and not everyone needs a site that has outstanding web design. Small, local clubs or groups that only need a couple of pages to keep people up to date don’t need to splash out thousands of pounds for their site. Anyone who tries to sell them one would be doing them a great disservice. A good web design firm will know when their services suit and when clients don’t need them.
However, if you have a business that you are serious about, a bespoke design is best. If you need to advertise to the general public, a bespoke design will get you more conversions. If how you present yourself or your business to the public matters, then a bespoke design will give you the best chance of making an impact.