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Commercial WordPress Themes: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

If you have ever needed a new website, chances are you have considered using a commercial WordPress theme. The concept is super simple: you go online and look for WordPress themes. When you see one you like, you buy it ($30-$100 USD), install it on your hosting account, and then just fill in your details. Voila! You have a classy new site, and you didn’t have to hire anyone. You killed it! And now, on the the next success.

The Good

You know there’s a “but” coming. Still, let’s first present the best possible argument for using a commercial WP template.

It’s super cheap compared to the alternatives,¬†which are:

  1. Hire someone through Craigslist, or your nephew who is good at computers, to install and configure a free theme for you for $200 – $300. Cross your fingers.
  2. Hire a solo developer who knows what he or she is doing, and have them create a custom WordPress site for $750 – $5000.
  3. Hire an agency that has all the right experts on staff (Designer, Developer, SEO, Marketing, Copywriter) for $5000 – $25000.

If you know your way around technical things, it’s really not so hard to end up with a very lice looking site for under $100.00 USD and four to five hours of work.

Many commercial WP templates are legitimately classy. They are up to date in style, they are responsive, they use jQuery for subtle roll-over effects, etc. It’s good stuff and nothing to complain about.

And, let’s see… I think that’s about it.

The Bad

But¬†Commercial WP templates don’t very often deliver on the promise (or panacea?) of a great website that is easy to set up. Let’s go step by step here:

  • Commercial templates are advertised with wonderful and inspiring photography. Unfortunately, you are typically not allowed to use those photos. Oh oh. You just lost half the visual impact of the beautiful site you purchased. Now you have to go hunting for similarly awesome pictures yourself. Where do you turn? Will you have to spend money on them? Probably. Will you have the expertise to choose well?
  • Commercial templates can also be super challenging to configure. This might sound odd, given that WordPress is supposed to be the easiest CMS on the planet. But commercial templates need to have a lot of features in order to sell to many customers in many fields. And the more features you add to any software, the more complex it is to manage. In fact, considerable work needs to go into crafting an easy to use yet also complex website, and that considerable work is not always done on commercial themes. I know this problem first hand, because I have been hired to configure commercial WordPress themes by clients who became overwhelmed by all the options. And I admit to scratching my head over them as well.
  • Many people who purchase commercial themes are also frustrated that they still don’t do exactly that one thing. They wanted a widget that shows a calendar of events. But the styling doesn’t match and some text is unreadable! They wanted to use the slideshow at the bottom of the page, instead of at the top! They wanted to include star ratings on their posts, but they can’t get the stars to show up on the bottom of the post content! It’s just never as simple as it seems when you hit the “purchase” button on a nice looking theme.

The Ugly

For me, the bigger problem is that commercial templates are not unique. Many people purchase them, and many websites use them. The better they are, unfortunately, the more they are purchased. Once a particularly popular one is out there in use, you start getting used to it. Next thing you know everyone is using it and the wow factor has faded. The biggest challenge online is how to communicate your message in a unique and compelling way. And obviously (it’s implied in the task itself), that requires a custom approach to your website.

The fill-in-the-blank factor can also affect how you generate content and copy about your company or project. The theme calls for three columns, so you must fill them out! The theme calls for numbers, featured in full width row, so you figure out some numbers to fill in. The theme calls for latest news, so you include latest news. And maybe this is all just fine. But realize that you just handed over you messaging and presentation to a graphic designer, who made a one-size-fits-all layout. Is that really a good idea?

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