Theme Websites vs. Custom-Coded Websites

theme sites just say no

Most of the web design work we do is in WordPress and a common question that comes up from clients who are shopping for a new or re-designed site is, “What is the difference between a theme-based website and a custom-coded website?

Of course, this question is usually based around the cost of a theme-based site compared to the cost of custom-coded site. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to compare the two and share why we always recommend custom-coded WordPress sites as opposed to pre-coded theme-based sites.

What Is A Theme-Based Website?

A theme-based website is a website whose layout and coding is already done. If you’re using WordPress, there are thousands of different themes to choose from. Theme-based sites are mass marketed on sites such as ThemeForest; the goal of the developer of a theme site is to sell as many copies as he/she can.

Theme sites are popular choices among web designers because if you’re not too picky about what your site looks like, you can have a nice looking site up and running pretty quickly. Most of the coding is already written for you. All you have to do is drop in your images and content, make some tweaks and you’re ready to go.

Based on this quick setup, new WordPress websites created using a pre-coded theme usually cost less than sites which are custom-coded to your specifications. But that’s about the only advantage to buying a theme-based website. The disadvantages are numerous which you’ll see below.

What Is A Custom-Coded Website?

A custom-coded website is coded to look the way you want. We start out with a fresh installation of WordPress’s latest default theme (like twenty fourteen, for example) and then customize the design, layout, and functionality to meet your specific needs. WordPress default themes are free.

Custom coded websites are our preferred choice because we do both web design AND internet marketing (including SEO). Since we are coding from the ground up, a custom-coded site can take a little bit longer to complete, depending on the design and functionality you require. It’s pretty common for us to have a custom-coded site launched within 2-3 weeks after you approve the site mock-ups.

Custom-coded sites cost more up front based on the amount of extra coding time needed, but that’s the only disadvantage. The long-term advantages of a custom-coded site are many – the biggest being it will usually perform better for SEO. That means you’ll get found more often in Google, which means more business will be coming your way.

Advantages Of Custom-Coded Sites vs. Theme-Based Sites

Here are the advantages of investing in a custom-coded site, as opposed to a themed site.

  1. Who you work with. I mentioned above that many web designers like theme-based sites because they can sell them cheaper; most of the time-intensive coding is already done. The problem is that most web designers DONT KNOW SEO. Web designers are usually not internet marketers – they don’t know what it’s going to take to optimize your site, promote it, or get it to rank well in Google. So, you have to ask yourself, why do I have a website in the first place? If you’re running a business, you probably want to generate leads and that’s why you choose to work with a firm like ours that offers all internet marketing services – from web design to email marketing – all under the same roof. Your website isn’t the END of your internet marketing, it’s the BEGINNING.
  2. Design styling. With a custom-coded website, you get the exact look and feel you want to reflect in your brand. You’re free to have the site you want and not limited by the structure of the theme.
  3. You only get the code you need. When you buy XYZ theme site, you get all the bells and whistles, whether you need them or not. Extra, unneeded code can bog down your site, causing it to not perform as well in search results.
  4. Plugins. Since plugins are also coded by 3rd party developers, they can cause WordPress issues, conflicts, and need updates in order to continue working properly. When we build a custom site, we try to minimize the use of plugins.  That doesn’t mean we don’t use them because we certainly do, but by minimizing the use of plugins and using as much custom coding as possible, we can reduce the chance of any problems in the future with WordPress updates.
  5. Developer support. With a theme-based site, there is no accountability from the theme developer. Getting quality support is unpredictable and can also be untimely as many theme-based developers reside overseas. Your web designer will often be on their own to fix whatever issue you are having. When you invest in a custom-coded website from us, WE’RE the developer. We’ll be the one supporting and fixing your issue. And since our name is behind the work we do, you can bet we’ll be providing you with top notch support.
  6. Every back end to a theme site is different. When we used to work on theme sites, we saw changes we thought would be easy take hours because we’ve got to search around for the file that has the code to make the change we want to make. Hunting down raw theme files is a hassle and very time consuming. Since custom-coded sites are built on a default WordPress theme, we know exactly where to find the code we need, so changes can be made quicker. This saves us time and therefore saves you money. Plus, we don’t nickel and dime you for every little change that comes up.
  7. Theme sites can crash. WordPress engineers update the content management system frequently; these technical upgrades benefit everyone with the latest, modern coding. In some cases, we’ve seen a WordPress update crash a theme-based site. This means your site is down and getting it back up again is a nightmare. Meanwhile, you lose money. Now, this is rare, but we’ve seen it happen. You won’t have this risk with a custom-coded site.
  8. Security concerns. Having outdated theme files can be a huge security concern in a WordPress site. We’ve never had a client get hacked on a custom site we’ve built but have seen clients get hacked in theme sites due to security holes in outdated files. And the problem with hacks is that they can go undetected, depending on where they are. I once had a client’s “About” page get hacked and it took a month before anyone noticed it was hacked. Depending on the extent of the hack, it could take time to detect and more time to fix. All the while, your site is shut down. You’re out of business online. Period.
  9. Responsive on all devices. Most responsive website themes are written with fixed height and width code, so they look good on the size of today’s mobile devices. But what happens when tomorrow’s smartphone is slightly larger than this year’s model? What if tablets get smaller or larger? I’ll tell you what happens – your site won’t look right on the device because it won’t scale properly. With all our custom-coded sites, our responsive coding is written using percentages, so your site will scale to any device, no matter what it’s size is.

Cost Comparison Of Theme And Custom-Coded Websites

In a recent quote we gave a general contractor who wants a brand new website, we quoted him $2,200 for a custom-coded website. The quote he received for a theme-site installation is $1,700.

The custom-coded site costs $500 more in this case, but consider this: A single client is worth thousands of dollars in income to the general contractor. So, if the custom-coded site outperforms the theme site (and we believe it will), the ROI on the extra $500 investment is off the charts. Simply generating one more new lead a year would produce a huge return.


A custom-coded WordPress site costs more up front, but it will usually perform better and cost less to maintain over the long run than a theme-based site. Plus, you’ll likely do more business.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about websites and internet marketing. Many business owners don’t understand why it’s important to spend a little more up front for a custom-coded site. I hope you can see that investing a bit more up front will benefit you down the road. If I haven’t written enough to convince you, here’s another expert who makes her argument on why you should not install a theme website.

In our field of internet marketing, we have a lot of educating to do. We don’t see your website as a one and done proposition. We seek long term relationships with our clients with the goal of continuing to increase the amount of traffic and leads your website produces.

In order to get an edge up on the competition, we recommend you strongly consider investing in a custom-coded site, rather than a theme-based site. I hope you’ve found this post helpful in your shopping and welcome any questions you may have.

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