I’ve been hearing a lot recently about custom WordPress themes and how great they are. I don’t use them, and I don’t recommend them to my clients, either. Here’s why.
First, let’s define what I mean by a “custom” theme here, because different people mean different things.
I’m talking about a scratch-built theme. That’s a theme built from the ground up. You don’t start out with any existing theme or theme framework, you (or a developer you hire) just jump in and start putting code on a blank page. You can do anything you want to make it specific for your business.
Sounds like a great idea, right? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.
Bill needs a website for his professional speaking business. He’s heard that WordPress is a good place to start since he’ll be able to add articles to the site himself. He’s not a very technical guy, and he wants to focus on making contacts, networking, and selling his services as a speaker.
He heads over to Elance.com and hires a developer to create a WordPress site for him. He’s all excited because he gets to choose the exact colors he wants, the layout he wants, and Bill works with the developer to gussy it up until it perfectly reflects his vision.
It doesn’t even cost that much, because his developer is in Romania and charges much less than a US-based developer.
So Bill coasts along for a while. He adds new content regularly, he’s getting opt-ins for his email newsletter, and he’s even picking up a few gigs from event planners who’ve found his website.
Then the team at WordPress releases a major update, say, WordPress 5.0. Bill upgrades to the new version.
But wait — something’s wrong. The site is a mess. Part of the header is mashed down into the sidebar, big chunks of the layout are missing entirely, and all the fancy touches he was so proud of have turned ugly.
Bill tries to contact the original developer, but the guy is nowhere to be found.
What does he do now?
Nancy has a quilting business. She also wants a custom theme because she wants her WordPress site to look like a patchwork quilt.
Everything’s working well until one day when she logs into the dashboard and notices a couple of plugins that need updating.
She hits the update now link, and all of a sudden her computer screen turns white. She tries to look at the site, but guess what — it’s a blank page as well.
Marybeth also decides to go the “custom” route for her website. One day she types in her URL, but instead of seeing her website, she sees a notice from Google that the site is infected with a virus. Does she really want to continue?
What Happened to the Custom WordPress Theme Behind the Scenes?
In Bill’s scenario, his fancy custom theme was incompatible with the new version of WordPress.
Reputable theme designers will release an updated theme whenever WordPress updates. They’ll usually participate in beta releases, and will follow the changes to WordPress, figure out how that impacts their themes, and do everything they can to keep their theme compatible with WordPress. They’ll also improve the theme to take advantage of any new capabilities that WordPress updates offer.
You don’t have to go searching for these theme updates, because the developer will place a notice in your WordPress dashboard to tell you there’s an update.
Nancy also had an incompatibility problem, this time between the theme and one of the plugins she updated. Although seeing the “white screen of death” is pretty scary, it’s not hard to fix if you know what you’re doing, although you’ll likely have to stop using that particular plugin.
Marybeth experienced something a little different. In her case, the developer included a plugin, but actually incorporated it into the theme instead of keeping it separate. It was a plugin that hackers exploited, and thousands of users found their sites infected. But while most users of that plugin saw an update notice in their Dashboard, Marybeth did not because of the way the developer baked it into the theme. Even if she had seen publicity about this particular plugin, she had no idea that it was part of her WordPress installation.
Alternatives to a Scratch-Built Custom Theme
Unless you’re building a site for a large company and you can afford to keep a developer on staff or on retainer, you don’t need or want a scratch-built custom theme. It’s too time consuming to stay on top of updates to WordPress and plugins and to keep the theme compatible and secure.
Here are two better, safer alternatives.
Use a Child Theme
David Risley, who teaches the business of blogging over at Blog Marketing Academy, comes from a tech background. When he started his blog marketing business, he used his skills to develop his own WordPress theme. After a while, though, he switched to a premium theme from a reputable developer, that he customized with a child theme. It allowed him to spend a lot more time building his business and a lot less time fussing with the technology.
A Child Theme starts with a well built theme or theme framework. Then you change some of the prewritten code and upload it to WordPress. Changes and variations go into a special file, and you change a line of code in the “parent” theme so that it knows to look in that file for instructions.
When your theme gets updates, they don’t interfere with your child theme at all. It’s easy to keep everything running smoothly.
Tweak the CSS
This type of customization affects only the look and feel of your theme, it doesn’t change any of the underlying programming. Maybe you want a different color than the choices the theme provides out of the box, or a different font.
These changes are easy to make with a few changes to the CSS code in a document known as the stylesheet. Some themes come with an area where you can add custom CSS — all of Elegant Themes’ [aff] themes offer this feature. Or you can add a plugin that lets you add custom CSS without changing the stylesheet directly.
With a Child Theme or CSS tweaks, you get a site that looks the way you want it, without the downsides of a scratch-built custom theme.