Bloated WordPress Themes Come Back To Bite
Promises of “Pretty” & “Easy” Compromise Website Performance
If you have logged into my site over the last few days, you have probably seen the design jumping around quite a bit. The reason is for the last few days, I have been rotating through previous themes and testing performance with GTmetrix. GTmetrix is one of many tools a website owner can use to get a general idea of how their website performs. Sort of like an EPA mileage test, GTmetrix gives you an overall performance test of a website and what might be impacting that negatively.
In Pursuit Of “Lighter & Faster” without Sacrificing The Message
As we push deeper into a web development world where the powers that be such as Google, create the rules we have to either think ahead of or respond quickly to. This response to a third-party, is also on top of keeping a website’s content current to protect search engine ranking and marketing inertia. With Google clearly focused on only the mobile web, that also means as we maintain a website, we have to “think light” and resist all the fancy and trendy additions that many themes promise for WordPress website owners. Unfortunately, many WordPress developers, depend on bloated themes, packed with bandwidth-heavy features designed to make developing a WordPress website easier!
All The Difference A Framework Makes
In the case of this website, I have narrowed my testing down to two theme/frameworks. Currently this site uses a combination of a StudioPress parent theme, “Genesis” and a child theme, “Dynamik Web Builder” by Cobalt Apps. “Genesis” is the “parent” theme or “framework” and Dynamik is the “child” theme that manages all customizations. This style of “parent-child” development, isolates design changes from modifications that the framework (Genesis) may need due to WordPress updates. Unlike many themes that sell you based on a “look”, Genesis/Dynamik launch devoid of any design elements, much like the included WordPress themes such as “Twenty Sixteen”.
About a year ago, I installed a packaged theme available from a major reseller of WordPress and other web platform components. The theme, named after a famous person, was the installed theme on a client’s site, so I acquired and installed it as the framework for this site. This theme, like many themes, offers a bundled set of components along with a “page builder” that promises fast page development through a combination of front end “WYSIWYG”, as well as “Drag and Drop” functionality. As with most bundled themes, you still have to do quite a bit of work to get a website to look anything like what you were sold. Sort of like that burger you see in the ads, but never get over the counter. (Eventually you can get that “look” for your website, but give up on the burger in the ad).
Eventually I pulled the theme in question, partially because it requires eight plugins and loads an optional slider. (If you don’t load all the plugins, the theme pesters you at every refresh). Eight additional plugins is at the minimum, a doubling of what I consider my “plugin comfort zone”, especially when these plugins are all related to one theme!
Currently without the bundled theme, this site loads a personal high of 13 active plugins, including a short term test of “JetPack”. Removing JetPack from the accounting, the plugin load for this site includes only one plugin that assists in design, one that manages security, two that are SEO related, a third-party site backup tool, two related to contact/form management, and several related improving the UI. Currently there is also a plugin testing Accelerated Mobile Pages and one to assist visitors whose browsers are set to “Do Not Track”.
Implications of Bloated WordPress Frameworks And Themes
First of all, content that your ideal client or customer wants is key to your website reaching the metrics you need. All that content is generally contained within what the “inner wrap”. In almost all cases, elements outside the “outer wrap” are not visible on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. This is almost always the case regardless if your website is mobile responsive. Hence, “Content is King” especially since that is what website visitors focus on whether they access a website via a desktop, tablet or cell phone. Google is absolutely clear about where they are taking the Internet, and that is to a place where all that matters is the “mobile web experience”. In Google’s world, that means if a website wants to be relevant to their search engine it has to be mobile responsive, fast and have content relative to the purpose of the website.
The desktop experience has been on the path to obsolescence since 2008. Unfortunately, many website developers and owners choose bloated, “responsive” themes, that seem to offer a quick path to a “pretty” and highly functional website. Well the problem is “pretty” demands additional scripts as does the extra functionality. At least on this site, that theme junked my page speed without improving the user experience. That actually adds up to three failures.
1. The “prettier” bundled theme did not improve the user experience on mobile devices.
2. The “higher functionality” added trendy features that ended up reducing the overall website speed.
3. Eventually the speed penalty could cost the website Search Engine Page Ranking.
Reality is there are more failures possible with these plugin-dependent, bundled theme. There is one particularly nasty side effect that is an absolute deal killer that many site owners are not alerted to when they either buy or a developer uses one of these bundled themes. That deal killer is the “page builder” or “composer” that many of these themes use. The most popular “page composer” that you can either buy as a stand-alone product or that is built into many themes, adds a mess of code that you have to manually edit out page, by page, post by post, if you decide to change design direction or change the framework. Worse, website theme and component developers are learning how to work “product life cycles”. In other words, you may not have a choice if either the framework developer or in this case, one of the eight INDIVIDUAL plugin developers necessary for the theme in question, decides to stop supporting future development. This happens all the time.
Yes, there are more issues…
4. Critical plugin updates depend on the bundled theme developer to update.
5. No license to use or upgrade bundled components outside developer’s update.
6. Increase exposure to plugin conflicts and security flaws due increased plugin load.
For example, this site started with the Catalyst parent theme and Dynamik, a Catalyst child theme, both developed by a highly responsive developer. After three years, Catalyst decided to focus on a product that would support developing the mature theme “Genesis” by StudioPress. The owner of Catalyst already had tools to convert the now deprecated “Dynamik” to work with “Genesis”. After folding Catalyst, he created Colbalt Apps which provided tools to convert Catalyst-based sites to Genesis. This is behavior that exceeds expectations. In most cases I have experienced, developers just walk away, leaving site owners holding broken websites with either obsolete or severely flawed code in place.
Imagine the hours to edit every single page and post in a website or the cost of a complete “re-skinning” of a WordPress website, just to maintain existing SERP? Thirty of forty hours of “redesign” versus “new content” is a crushing budget destroyer, sitting under the surface like an old WW2 mine.
What is even sadder is that so-called professional web development firms are increasingly dependent on these bundled theme packages and do not advise their clients on the long or short term consequences. Fortunately you don’t have to be a web developer to use resources like GTmetrix to check out how a website is performing. Simply visit GTmetrix.com and insert your website address for a quick test. If your grades suggest you need help, then call me to discuss how we can speed your site up!
Finally, beyond Google’s demand for a fast and mobile capable website, there is an important metric all site owners should be concerned with. Call it the “Three Second Rule”. If your page hasn’t deployed in three seconds, a site visitor tends to “bounce”, that is leave and seek a solution, service or product elsewhere. With the other framework, it took almost 3 seconds for the main page to deploy which rates a “fail”.