WordPress Themes, Page Builders, and Plugins: Friend or Foe?

Pretty and Easy Doesn’t Make Your Website An Effective Tool

Let me start by pointing to one of the most effective websites in the world, Craigslist. It has to rank as one of the world’s least spoiled by design websites. Having said that, Craigslist is visited by millions, deploys fast on mobile devices and unless an individual poster mucks up an ad, very easy to read. Craigslist’s design is more than functional for visitors, it is also fast on mobile devices. Speedy, consistent deployment across most web browser devices and easy to navigate should be every website owners top priority. The simple framework also keeps management of the website fast and easy, thereby reducing overhead.

WordPress comes with a theme that is also pretty fast and deploys in a consistent way across both mobile and desktop browsers. Like Craigslist, it is pretty plain and some would say, just as ugly as Craigslist. Theoretically you could use the current version of the default WordPress theme, “Twenty Seventeen”, just making a few branding changes and adding good content with good results. No one really does that because the market place is focused on an obsolete idea that the container is more important than the content. In other words, if the internet was the desert, a pretty cup full of sand is better than paper cup full of water. Drink sand they say, as long as the cup is pretty you will proudly die of dehydration.

What I am trying to say here is the people come to websites for the content. It is the content that causes them to stick around and in many cases, it is the design that causes them to “bounce”. “Bounce Rate” is a term applied to single page website visitors or more accurately, a measure in percentage of people who land on a web pages and then leave without clicking to anywhere else. Great websites are “sticky”, that is visitors hang around, click pages, fill out forms, buy stuff etc. Content, not design, is the ultimate website “fly paper”.

The reality is that in 2017, most “ideal” or “high intent” website visitors will visit a website on a mobile device such as a smart phone. If it takes to long for those website visitors to find the answers or solutions, they will simply “bounce” away to another site. “To long” is measured in seconds. Then that content has to get to the point and be easy to read. Black text over a white background is universally easy to consume. Almost all everything beyond that actual content is in the way or out of the website visitors view. In other words, most design elements don’t matter.

Here is where WordPress developers sell far too much hype or fold under the egos of their clients, when it comes to design. Many WordPress website designers focus on what appear to be cool features such as sliders, fancy boxes, animations and parallax backgrounds. Many WordPress developers love these pre-designed themes because they come loaded up with all the fancy tools they need to visually impress their clients. Many of these themes also come with “page builders” that allow “drag and drop” web page design. Those “page builders” hype “easy” as their main benefit.

Well those fancy themes, full of sliders, light boxes, and parallax backgrounds are actually terrible for both website performance and visitor conversion. Sort of like the sand in the pretty mug mentioned earlier is really shards of glass. Those features suit egos that want their brand to be represented in impressive fashion, but in reality, the biggest impact a visitor in 2017 will see is a website that is slower than it should be. Even if the content hits a home run, a website that takes too long will simply cause visitors to leave which means it fails to deliver business to the site owner.

Then there are the technical reasons many of these components are just terrible for a website. Without proper tools such as caching and CDNs, (content delivery networks), a website on a shared hosting platform can exceed the resources available. Certain major hosts are notorious for “Resources Exceeded”. Guess what, when resources are exceeded, websites slow down. Case in point, while talking to a tech support person of major website hosting company about a resource issue, I watched the site limit those resources at the point he entered the website. Basically two visitors caused the website to stumble. That website was on that company’s basic designed for WordPress hosting plan that has built in caching and had a CDN enabled. The reason for that happening is hardware limitations that rule computer processes despite maximizing tools to accelerate the website page deployment.

That particular website was using a very popular theme that comes with a very popular page builder. Although the theme in question comes with a fancy menu builder, three sliders and a few other plugins, the only feature enabled was the parallax background and the slider. Yet despite all efforts, the site scored average on www.GTMetrix.com’s YSlow score for mobile performance. The quality of hosting can affect site performance, but this was all about the theme. By simply choosing another theme, the site’s score dramatically increased.

Fast page performance is one reason my new year started off with gutting the last “fancy” theme with all those previously mentioned features. Because mobile devices are the primary web browsing tools of the customers I want, my experiment with various themes and page builders are over. I don’t want to be “Craigslist Ugly”, but the costs associated with most page builders, animation, parallax backgrounds and sliders exceeds the “impress value” and distracts from the content, especially on mobile devices.

There is a middle ground, but that includes buying premium hosting, using CNDs and fine tuning cache. Then you have to have a brilliant and diligent webmaster. Add your content as well as a call to action up top and you are on your way even if your website is as ugly as Craigslist!