The following table compares the main differences between Pre-Built Themes (such as those purchased from ThemeForest, etc), and Custom Themes (typically produced by experienced developers & agencies).

 

 

You may be creating your first website.

You may be wondering if you should go with a pre-built theme, which seems easier and faster but also distinctly generic; or if you should be ambitious and have a custom theme built, which will allow you to completely personalize your site, but will take decidedly more work.

You may be completely at a loss of which path to take. We’ve got you covered. Here’s the lowdown:

 Criteria Pre-Built Theme Custom Theme Explanation
Website Speed (Load Time) Slow Fast Pre-Built Themes have an excess of features not used in the actual final implementation – this creates unnecessary overhead, which slows down the website speed.

This also has a negative effect on the user’s experience (faster websites equal higher percentage of interaction and lower abandonment rates), as well as search engine rankings (i.e. Google, etc), because those favor fast websites.

Website Overall Quality Poor High Pre-Built Themes do not have code optimized for a certain website; they contain code which is typically bloated, and not “clean”.

This means that “under the hood” the website’s code is poor quality, and since these themes are not usually used by “real” developers, the users typically don’t care – at least not in the beginning.

But just like a car with a non-optimized engine, the maintenance end up being more expensive and problems arise later in the lifetime of the website.

Initial Development Time Fast
(1-2 months)
Slower
(2-3 months)
Typically the reason that beginner developers and small companies use Pre-Built Themes.

Since the code is already written, the time to develop is faster, although this has long-term repercussions.

Coding Necessary Minimal to None Complete Most of the work for building a Pre-Built theme is done by “drag and drop”, and by beginner developers.

This means a less expensive website, but also less stability and less control of details.

Personalization Very Basic
(Limited to Theme Features)
Complete
(Any Design and/or Features are Possible)
Pre-Built Themes are “One size fits all” – it is very hard, and sometimes impossible, to make a Pre-Built theme your own.

A Pre-Built Theme has specific requirements as to the placement of items like menu, pages, sections within pages, etc. In many cases the answer to “can we place this image here”, or “can we make this box a bit wider” is “the Theme does not support this”.

This means you are getting a more rigid structure that may not fit the brand or may not be optimized for your website visitor’s experience.

Support for Marketing
(SEO, etc)
Very Basic Complete
(Will support any marketing requirement)
Pre-Built Themes are not optimized for marketing and SEO (Search engine Optimization) since they do not employ best practices and are built for quick launch, as opposed to long-term usage.

These themes are also hard to customize for advanced marketing tools which are needed for optimizing the website’s ROI (return on investment).

Initial Cost Lower Higher Initial cost for a Pre-Built Theme is lower, since these themes typically only cost $50 – $100, plus the time of a beginner developer.

No graphic design (or very minimal) is necessary (because the theme dictates that), and no expert programming is necessary.

Long-Term
Maintenance Cost
Higher Lower Ongoing cost, over a timespan of 1-2 years is typically higher for a Pre-Built Theme, since many times there is a need for some special function that the theme simply doesn’t support.

When that case comes up, it can take 3 to 4 times as much effort to make a simple change to a Pre-Built Theme vs. a Custom Theme.

Many times the Pre-Built Themes have issues with updated versions of WordPress, and these issues are beyond the control of the website developer; he/she would need to wait for the Pre-Built Theme developer to address them, which can take months, or not at all, if the Pre-Built Theme developer has abandoned support for that Theme (happens quite often).

Total Lifespan of Website Short Long Most Pre-Built Theme sites do not last for many years. Either support for the theme has stopped (by the original theme developer), or too many maintenance issues create the need for a complete replacement, which is costly.

If the client desires to switch the company maintaining the website, they will likely encounter issues finding a company willing to take on a website with the specific chosen theme that they are probably not familiar with.

It is much easier for a different company to take on a custom theme, since the code is lean, clean and much easier to follow.

* The above is written under the assumption that the custom theme is built by able developers.

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