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Which of the 3 Best Ways to Build a WordPress Website is Right For You?

May 28, 2020

Find out which of the most popular WordPress development approaches is right for your project.

“Should our company purchase a Premium WordPress theme, or have an agency create a custom theme specific to our business?”

This is a question our sales team answers on every call. Agencies – and their customers – often want to know this before talking about any other specifics of their WordPress development project.

It’s a reasonable question to ask. The decision between choosing a readymade premium theme and creating a completely customized WordPress website from scratch can cost (or save) thousands of dollars. It will also impact website maintenance, scalability, and the ability to implement additional features later on. It helps to have a plan in place from the very beginning.

We’re going to cover both of these options, as well as the popular hybrid approach: a lightweight, customization-friendly premium theme supported by page builder templates or custom development.

A Disclaimer About Our Approach

Every single agency has its own way of doing things. In fact, even individual developers working in the same agency will disagree about the best way to build a WordPress website.

As white label WordPress agency partners, we offer help with WordPress development to agencies according to their clients’ specifications and needs. There are plenty of WordPress developers out there who will disagree with some of the points we make, or offer different solutions for the challenges we describe.

This to be expected. We are talking about the approaches that have historically produced the best outcomes among the 50+ agency partners we work with on a weekly basis. From freelancers to teams of 15 people, we have seen the approaches described below consistently produce satisfying results.

Are there better, more efficient methods out there? Probably. Do you want to experiment on your customer’s dime, pioneering a brand-new path through the jungle of WordPress development? Probably not.

The following three methods make up the vast majority of successful, value-generating   WordPress development projects that we have contributed towards. Read on to find out which one is right for you.

Option One: Buying a Template Theme (No Custom Design)

Most new agencies and developers get into the world of WordPress with this option. It is the least demanding in terms of experience, time, and budget, making it an attractive option for a wide variety of projects.

There are tens of thousands of readymade premium themes available for WordPress. ThemeForest alone has nearly 50,000 available – it’s virtually guaranteed that a theme developer somewhere has already created something close to what you’re looking for.

However, there are drawbacks to using a readymade theme. The most significant disadvantage is bloated code. 

The best premium themes are multi-purpose in nature, meaning that they support a great deal of options, extra features, and demo page capabilities. All of these capabilities add weight to the finished product and force you to manage code when the original third-party developers release updates, stop support, or simply lose interest in the project altogether.

The major problem here is that you will almost certainly find yourself responsible for maintaining and managing code for features you don’t even use. In the long term, using a premium theme without any customization can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Easy to create and deploy
  • Inexpensive
  • Fast development time

Cons:

  • Code bloat can create problems
  • Developers can stop support at anytime
  • Maintenance and upkeep are complex
  • Maintaining multiple sites becomes unmanageable

When Are Premium Themes the Best Option?

Although we generally do not recommend sticking to a premium theme without investing in customization, there are situations when it is a viable option. In fact, if time and budgetary constraints are tight, it may be the only viable option.

With such a wide variety of readymade premium themes available, choosing the right one is one of the most important choices you can make when pursuing this path. Use this checklist when considering a premium theme package:

  • Does the Developer Have a Good Reputation? It is vitally important that you choose themes created by trusted developers. People with a long track record of building valuable themes are likely to offer continuing support.
  • Are Users Satisfied With the Theme? Check user reviews and comments before making any theme purchase. Remember that review quantity matters. 1000 four-star reviews are more trustworthy than 50 five-star reviews, statistically speaking.
  • How Many Times Has the Theme Been Updated in the Last Year? Review the changelog to see how the theme has evolved over time. Look for evidence of an involved developer who listens to users’ problems and addresses them.
  • What Page Builder Does the Theme Use? The type of page builder a theme uses can greatly impact its overall utility. In our opinion, Elementor is the best page builder available in 2020.
  • How Fast Can the Theme Complete Page Loads and Server Requests? Web page loading times are critically important to SEO performance. Run a demo website with a tool like Pingdom or GT Matrix to find out how quickly the theme processes requests.
  • Does This Theme Meet 70% Of Your Design Needs Out of the Box? If you have to edit more than 30% of the theme to meet your project specifications, choosing that theme might defeat the purpose of going this route.

Remember that since every client has different needs, you will find yourself editing and maintaining different themes for different clients. The sheer amount of code you will end up responsible for is far larger than what it would be with a lean, customized alternative.

Nevertheless, UnlimitedWP does support premium theme management for its WordPress agency partners. We use an easy six-step process to streamline this approach:

  1. You find and purchase the appropriate template.
  2. You fill out our coding brief template, describing each page and its respective function.
  3. We give you access to our project management tool. Our team creates project tasks using the coding brief.
  4. We install the theme you purchased and start working on it.
  5. Our team prioritizes each task and sends you daily updates on the progress of each one.
  6. We take the project all the way to launch and migrate it to a live server.

Although this approach comes with quality control concerns, it can be the only option available for your clients with a budget that does not exceed $2000.

Option Two: Custom Design with Boilerplate Theme and ACFPro

This is the most flexible and responsive option. Custom design means making mockups of every page on Figma, XD, Photoshop, or another UI Design application. Every design is approved by the client, and production begins as soon as the project design is signed off.

Then, a responsive front-end is built using HTML and CSS or SASS. Development typically takes place in a WordPress default theme, or a boilerplate theme like underscores (which is our favorite).

This option excludes page builders and results in a fully featured website with no superfluous code or unnecessary features. Clean, standardized front-end code is loaded without any delay. The finished website is optimized entirely for fast page performance and easy maintenance.

In our experience, ACFPro is one of the most useful solutions for adding custom fields to custom-built WordPress sites. It allows developers to create page templates with editable fields while adhering precisely to the unique mockup design. The only thing missing is a block editor for creating new pages without developer input, but Flexible Content Fields make this possible, which can be circumvented with Gutenberg blocks using ACFPro.

This option offers superior performance in multiple areas. Page load times are faster, maintenance is simpler to perform, and there tend to be a lower number of SEO errors compared to premium theme templated websites.

The main reason agencies avoid this option is because of the custom design process. Cost-conscious agencies don’t want to spend hours putting something together only to have the customer reject it, and then start again from scratch. What clients call “simple” change requests can unexpectedly turn into huge, expensive revisions.

This is where having a comprehensive, well-established process timeline comes in handy. Getting the client to sign off on design decisions well before they’re made ensures that scope creep doesn’t end up costing the agency more than the project is worth.

In some cases, creating a complete mockup design is not viable or cost-efficient. In this case, many agencies will turn to premium themes, giving clients a feel for the end product without committing them to the bloated code the actual theme would include.

However, with design agencies increasingly offering unlimited design subscription models, this is becoming less of a problem. You can use a service like Penji to get unlimited designs for a fixed monthly price, streamlining the all-important first steps of the custom WordPress development route.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Website speed is second-to-none
  • Finished site is optimized for performance
  • Better SEO results than most premium themes
  • Simpler upkeep and maintenance

Cons:

  • Can be expensive
  • Might require skills your agency doesn’t have in-house

When Is Custom Design the Best Option?

Custom WordPress design is ideally suited for the biggest projects. This is the approach of choice for large enterprises with long lists of requirements that must be met. With each new project requirement, the likelihood of finding a Premium Theme that does the job well shrinks.

Because these projects are expensive and demand a great deal of communication between agency and client, they are typically 2-4 months long even for small websites. However, the existence of white label developers like UnlimitedWP and unlimited design vendors like Penji significantly reduces the barrier to entry for these kinds of projects.

At UnlimitedWP, we offer support to WordPress agencies who need access to custom development expertise at affordable rates. Here is how the process works:

  1. You create or obtain website designs and get client approval for them.
  2. You fill out our project coding brief, describing each page and what functions it should offer users.
  3. We create an account for you in our project management tool, and divide the project into easily manageable tasks for our team to complete.
  4. We start working on the highest-priority tasks first, sending you daily updates on the project’s progress.
  5. Our team takes the project all the way to launch, and migrates the finished result to a live server.

In our experience, your client with a budget that exceeds $7000 can expect excellent results from this approach.

Option Three: Lightweight Themes Plus Templates or Custom Design

The “hybrid” option that many WordPress developers are turning to combines the power and flexibility of custom coding with the process efficiencies that themes offer. In this case, the theme is a readymade, page builder-friendly solution with very few plugin dependencies.

These themes are designed to accommodate customization. This makes them different from most Premium Themes, which are largely marketed as plug-and-play products. Examples include WP ASTRA, OceanWP, Neve, and GeneratePress.

There are two broad ways to approach this kind of development method:

  1. Light Theme with Readymade Templates. WP ASTRA Pro offers users an excellent collection of ready-to-use templates. Most of these can be imported with Elementor, Beaver, Brizy, or Gutenberg. The innovative part is that the theme will only download the pre-selected WordPress templates you need, along with the few plug-ins required to build those templates. This significantly reduces code bloat and results in a robust, dependable WordPress website.
  2. Light Theme with Custom Design. Some light themes simply offer an efficient starting point for highly customized work. In these cases, you may have the header, footer, and default templates already placed in, and easy options for setting site-wide color schemes and typography. This approach is compatible with nearly all page builders, making it an easy way to get custom-level results without starting from scratch.

The major advantage here is the fact that you can leverage the work of other developers at low cost. Your project may not need you to create all-new page designs, layouts, headers, footers, and typography elements. Since other developers have already done these things for you, you can focus on more strategically valuable parts of the website development process.

In just the last three months, we have done 30+ projects using the most popular light theme Astra with either Beaver Builder or Elementor as page builder.

Agencies that wish to scale their operations will need to pay attention to keep their development stack consistent across multiple client websites. Having an WP Care Plan in place or a monthly retainer agreement is critical for these kinds of projects.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Excellent website performance and speed
  • Easy maintenance and upgradability
  • Streamlined workflow for developers
  • Reduced development time, faster time-to-value

Cons:

  • Working with reputable light theme developers is still key
  • Cannot accommodate all change requests
  • Scope creep may still be an issue

When Is Hybrid Design the Best Option?

As a hybrid site development option in WordPress, this approach capitalizes on the strengths of the two previous approaches to compensate for their weaknesses, it is an incredibly flexible option. The ability to leverage the work of other developers while having the time and resources to create custom projects offers significant value for small businesses and large enterprises alike.

At UnlimitedWP, we offer support with this option to our white label WordPress agency partners. Here is how it works,

  1. You create or obtain website designs or give references and get client approval for them.
  2. You fill out our project coding brief, describing each page and what functions it should offer users.
  3. We create an account for you in our project management tool, and divide the project into easily manageable tasks for our team to complete.
  4. We start working on the highest-priority tasks first, sending you daily updates on the project’s progress.
  5. Our team takes the project all the way to launch, and migrates the finished result to a live server.

In general, we recommend this approach for all but the smallest or largest websites. It is ideal for clients with budgets between $2000 and $7000, which makes up a significant majority of new WordPress website projects.

Unlimited WordPress Tasks One Simple Flat Rate

Have questions? Leave us a comment, we’re here to help.

ronik patel

After building my web agency JD Softtech in both Boston and Ahmedabad, India, I wanted to find a way to help other agencies.

So we took our team of highly qualified website developers and web designers and launched UnlimitedWP, a white-label WordPress partner for growing agencies.

If you’re frustrated by how much time working in WordPress takes, consider UnlimitedWP.com.

For one low monthly fee, you can create and assign an unlimited number of tasks to our team of WordPress experts—with a typical turnaround time of 24–48 hours.

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