A few things to know about your WordPress website

This post provides an overview of the three main options agencies and freelancers offer to clients when creating a new WordPress website.

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Jakub Wawszczyk
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Jakub is a full-stack developer with nearly a decade of experience in designing and building web assets. With a good understanding of the marketing landscape in addition to his development skills, Jakub helps our clients grow their businesses online.

Introduction

There are a wide variety of options available to businesses when it comes to web design and development. It can be tricky to figure out whom to work with, how much to spend, and what to focus on when designing a new website. 

In this series, we shine a light on WordPress web design and development of business websites and explore the good, the bad and the ugly. We will follow up with a more detailed guide for each option discussed here. Join our mailing list to be notified when they are published.

Yeah, okay, but what makes you an expert on this?

I’m a full-stack web developer with over ten years of experience building websites and applications. Nowadays, you’ll find me leading the design and development arm of Cabana, an independent marketing agency I co-founded in 2020. 

Cabana specialises in web design and development for businesses that utilise their online presence to generate enquiries and leads. Find out more about us here.

It’s safe to say we’re WordPress nerds with a passion for our craft and transparency.

Join Cabana Box, a not-so-regular newsletter about websites, SEO, marketing and the planet.

Okay, so why WordPress?

We’ve worked with WordPress for a very long time. We think it’s proven to be the best option for any business using their website to generate leads, especially those that depend on content and organic traffic for a portion of their enquiries. 

WordPress offers many great features out of the box, meaning that more time can go towards designing and developing a genuinely tremendous and bespoke website.

We have built an in-house framework to extend this further, setting what we’ve named “Cabana Web Standards”, and offering one of the best client experiences when it comes to content managed websites, but that’s just our biased opinion 😉

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“We see more and more off-the-shelf themes rebranded or covered up as a bespoke website.”

What do you mean by a ‘bespoke theme’ and an ‘off-the-shelf theme’?

Themes dictate the design, colours, layouts and functionality of any website built on WordPress.

A bespoke theme is custom-built from scratch for your business. It considers your objectives, content and brand to create a brand new theme just for you. 

Alternatively, you can buy off-the-shelf themes from marketplaces such as Themeforest. They are aimed at new businesses and provide a cheap and quick way to get an online presence.

Off-the-shelf themes are often re-packaged by agencies to reduce the time it takes to build a website and thus reduce costs. There is nothing wrong with this approach when it is done transparently, with the savings passed onto the client.

However, we’ve observed more and more off-the-shelf themes rebranded or covered up as a bespoke website. Naturally, this poses a problem for the relationship between the agency and its client. But in addition, it can also lead to misinformed decisions on how the website is updated and changed over time, leading to higher costs and time investment due to incompatible approaches to how the website is changed.

Furthermore, both types of themes can sometimes use a “page builder plugin” at their core. These websites combine custom code with the features of the plugin to create the website. For example, a custom theme would style elements like a header of a text panel to suit your brand. Still, the pages would be created using a plugin like Elementor, a drag & drop page builder, rather than written in custom code by the developer. Essentially, the theme sets the… theme, while the plugin adds content and layout to each page.

Page builder plugins

Here’s how they work if you are new to page builder plugins such as Elementor, Divi, WP Bakery, Visual Composer.

Your website comprises different elements, from simple ones such as a button or an image to more complex headers or content panels. The plugin allows you to drag & drop these elements onto a page, adjust their look and feel and compose a layout.

You can even create new custom elements by coding them to become available within the Drag & Drop interface.

These plugins can be powerful and enable non-technical users and designers to create entire websites without coding skills. However, this can lead to issues with the website’s consistency and performance. Usually, it’s faster and cheaper to design and build a bespoke WordPress website due to the longevity, lower maintenance costs and less admin needed to work with it.

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“Often, it’s better to invest more in your website initially, reducing your maintenance and admin costs and increasing its longevity.”

How most agencies build WordPress websites

When engaging with an agency or a freelancer to create a new website, they’ll generally use one of these three methods to design and build the site:

  1. Off-the-shelf themes bought on a marketplace, with basic brand customisations
  2. WordPress page builder plugins (Elementor, WPBakery, Divi, Visual Composer or other), with either a bespoke or an off-the-shelf theme
  3. Bespoke WordPress theme designed and custom-built for your business

Here’s how the options compare across some key points:

Customised off-the-shelf theme Page builder plugin Bespoke theme
Cost £1k-£5k £2k-£8k £5k-£40k
Time to create 1-3 weeks 2-4 weeks 3-12 weeks
Bespoke design No Sometimes Always
Performance & speed 4/10 3/10 8/10
Technical SEO 5/10 4/10 8/10
Conversions 5/10 6/10 8/10
Maintenance costs High High Low-Medium
Cost to update Extremely high Very high Low-Medium

The right option for your business depends on where you are in your journey. For new companies with modest budgets, an off-the-shelf theme may be the correct answer. Keep in mind that you can do this yourself without any coding knowledge. There are WordPress alternatives available, too, such as Squarespace, Wix or Shopify.

Option 1: Off the shelf themes

The advantage of an off-the-shelf theme is that should you decide to buy and set one up yourself, the costs are minimal – you’re likely to spend no more than a hundred pounds. However, with the additional time to set everything up and undoubtedly start customising colours and logos, the opportunity cost of spending your time on the website instead of other business activities could be damaging.

But I just need an online presence…

If you’re strapped for cash and your business doesn’t need a bespoke website, we recommend just buying a theme, sticking to it, and only changing the logo and content. The rest can come later, and it’s unlikely that stressing over the right shade of blue or the spacing between elements will impact your bottom line in any meaningful way. Trust the creators of the themes and stick with them until there is an excellent reason to go with a bespoke theme.

We’ve noticed many freelancers and web design agencies simply reselling off-the-shelf themes with a massive premium for what is likely a few hours of work. You can avoid this by asking any provider you’re considering working with whether they are customising ready-made themes. Unless you really need specific customisations you can’t do yourself, we recommend you buy a theme and set it up without going beyond the logo and content changes. The money plus time saved is better spent on your marketing and sales.

Option 2: Page builder plugins

In recent years, we’ve seen multiple drag & drop page builder plugins emerge, allowing anyone to create their website without any coding skills. Plugins such as Elementor are powerful, enabling you to create all sorts of unique and beautiful websites. However, this comes at the cost of both performance and time.

Okay, so how is this not good?

Firstly, the granular level of control means that these plugins are better suited for a designer or developer. That is fine unless you plan on managing and editing the website yourself. In which case, you’ll run into hours of work as you get lost in the tiny details of how the website looks and feels and where you made changes.

Another problem with page builders is the performance hit on your website. We’ve found websites created with page builder plugins perform much worse and load slower than their bespoke counterparts. It is partly due to the many styles and scripts these plugins employ, which slow the site down and increase the amount of data sent to visitors. A slow-loading website can affect your SEO performance and your conversion rate, meaning your website may see lower rankings and conversions simply because it uses a website builder plugin.

Can’t you fix that?

You can put a plaster on the wound by adding a robust caching option to your website. This will solve some of the performance issues to an extent. However, it’s not a good long term solution, and the maintenance time can increase as a result. You may need to include extra steps in any content changes or updates to ensure these are populated correctly. More notably, you may see unexpected issues around user experience and how the website loads in for visitors.

How about adjusting the code to improve quality and performance?

In our experience, as your business grows and with it the requirement of a website with solid technical foundations, you may need to rebuild your website from scratch. As the plugin generates the code, investing in working with it can prove pricier and more demanding than simply starting with a bespoke theme.

We’ve observed websites built with options one (off-the-shelf themes) and two (page builder plugins) relying on more and more plugins to ‘fix’ the highlighted issues. That introduces even more complexity which slows down the site and makes it very difficult to maintain over the long term.

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Option 3: Bespoke WordPress theme

One thing to keep in mind with bespoke themes is that there is a wide range of quality. Every designer and developer will have their methods and expertise, so it helps to figure out your priorities and ensure that your brief is solid. Not knowing what’s right is okay too, but make sure the person you work with conducts a strategy session before diving into the design or development phase. “This is exactly what you need” without an in-depth discussion with you first is a big red flag.

How do I start?

Two of the most important things to consider when choosing a web design agency are 1) the areas that are most important to your business and 2) the agency’s areas of expertise. For example, Cabana specialises in brand, conversion and data-driven design with a key focus on ensuring your website has solid technical SEO foundations. Other agencies have their specialities, and as long as these match your needs and you’re working with a reputable provider, there’s no need to worry.

We believe in consistency and the ‘Don’t Make The Visitor Think’ approach when it comes to web design. That led us to create our own Cabana Web Standards, using behavioural patterns of website visitors to build foundations free of obstacles and distractions. 

Design with the visitor in mind

When designing a bespoke website, there is a big temptation to reinvent the wheel and go in a unique direction. That is fine for some businesses, but it can do more harm than good for most.

Think about your own browsing experience. You likely have a goal in mind, and anything that gets in the way of getting there can cause you to leave the site and click on the following listing in the search results. You may even open multiple tabs when searching in the expectation that you’ll close some after a second or two due to things getting in your way.

For example, you may expect the menu to be at the top, find key services quickly, or find out how they compare to their competitors. Still, the site makes all of these somewhat difficult or different. Whatever it is, you’re on to the next site already.

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To recap

When working on a new website, keep in mind your core objectives, your audience and how the website fits into your marketing and sales strategy. It’s essential to present your brand in a great light, be unique and creative. Remember to use existing visitor behaviour and stick to standards that make their life easier. It’s one of the most effective weapons in your website arsenal.

 

We’re working on a practical guide to help you with your new website project. It will help you pick the right option and come equipped with a checklist to ensure you stay aligned to your objectives and produce a great website. Fill out the form below, and we’ll make sure to send it over when it’s ready.

 

Is there anything we’ve not covered or had a follow-up question? Let me know by email or book a consultation to chat about all things digital.

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