Why you don’t want a canned theme for your website


May 5, 2017 / Updated: August 18, 2023 / Lena Shore
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I almost didn’t write this article. I didn’t want to introduce the idea of canned template themes. The last thing I want to do is advertise them to people and potential clients who didn’t know they exist — and it sounds self serving for me to tell you NOT to use them. But, it dawned on me today that keeping information and education away from people is always a bad idea. Ignorance is the enemy.

So, here it goes. This is one of those dirty little secrets that web designers don’t want to you know. But, if you still want a canned theme after you read this article — (with no offense intended) you probably weren’t going to be my customer anyway.

What is a template?

Lots of websites are built with a CMS (Content Management System). This means as a web developer I design a website for you, and set it up so you can log in and make changes to the content, add pages, etc. without having to work with the code. It’s great for the client because you can make changes to your website without having to hire a programmer or web developer. You’ve most likely heard of some of these content management frameworks. The most popular one is WordPress, taking 37% of the pie and for good reason… but that’s another article.

When you develop with a CMS like WordPress, you create a template. A template is a framework or theme that makes your website look the way it looks, across as many pages as you need. It goes even deeper than that because some websites have several templates that are used, for different types of pages.

Templates can be custom (unique to your website and built from scratch) or they can be canned. We are going to discuss the canned ones.

What is a canned theme?

A canned theme is one your purchase pre-made — an off-the-shelf solution that you can purchase inexpensively (compared to hiring a professional to create a custom website) and install on your installation of WordPress, or whatever CMS you choose. They come pre-packaged and ready to go, and (theoretically) easy to use.

Wow! That sounds fantastic! I’d much rather spend pennies than dollars with a web developer!

This is the part where I beg you to keep reading. You know that saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is?” This most likely fits the bill.

Why canned template themes suck.

Once people got wind of these pre-templated themes, I started getting a decent amount of work by building websites with themes the clients purchased. They were all nightmares.

Not a few of them.

Not some of them.

Not even most of them.

ALL of them. Every one of them was a disaster.

When the problems became a pattern, I realized it wasn’t going to change based on the client, and I stopped doing that work. Let me say that again because that bit bears repeating: It sucked so bad I turned down the work.

Here’s why…

They don’t look like you think they do.

Oh sure, you look at the demo and think, “this is FABULOUS — it’s just what I wanted!” There are places for your images and your text and you think, “Screw paying a developer for a custom template! I’ll just buy this theme and do it all myself!” But, what you don’t realize is that all those photos and all that copy in the demo are PERFECT. The colors are perfect, the length of the copy is perfect. The photographs are the right ratio and colors to match the rest of the site. The way that bright white copy looks on that beautiful slider is gorgeous. It’s all been crafted to look perfect and beautiful.

It’s like the fashion model with the perfect hair and the perfect teeth and perfect skin in that gorgeous outfit. If you aren’t a fashion model with the same proportions it’s not going to look the same. I’m going to get that outfit home and squeeze my fat lumpy butt in it and flip on the fluorescent lighting and be sorely disappointed.

They aren’t unique.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of people have purchased that canned theme. Will you be embarrassed if you find out your theme looks like someone else’s or worse, a competitor’s?

They don’t save time (money).

Let’s say you ARE the supermodel website with supermodel copy and photographs. Do you know how to install WordPress? Do you know how to install the theme? Do you understand how to add your copy? Are you willing to learn? Do you know how much time that is going to take? I do. And, I can promise you, it won’t happen in an afternoon. Plan for about 40-80 hours of work, assuming you don’t hit any significant bumps. (And there are always bumps.)

If you decide that maybe you are NOT a supermodel website (which is statistically more likely… like, all of the percents) — you are going to find that you need to buy photos, develop new content and the site is going to need to be adjusted. Every canned theme site I have done has needed adjustment that required CSS, php, or HTML. Not to mention learning the template system (they are all different). That 40-80 hours above just became “go back to school”.

There is a significant structural difference between a quality website and one that has been slapped together. There are issues of security, optimizing the server, preventing hackers and unwanted crawlers. There are industry standards for best practices in building a website. These are all things should happen when you work with a professional and things that are not baked into a canned template.

In the end, the canned theme sites I worked on took the same amount of time for me to finish as they would have if I’d built it from scratch. Except not only were they a much bigger pain in the ass…

…they are a HUGE security risk.

Can you vouch for your canned theme’s quality of programming?

Because your theme is not unique, and lots and lots of people will buy them, leaving you wide open to major security risks. Hackers are a standard fare on the internet. Every few minutes (literally) a hacker tries to get into your website with automated scripts and robots. It’s frightening if you think about it too much. One of the ways that hackers get into your site is through your theme. They love finding popular themes that lots of people have purchased because they can find a copy of that theme and figure out how to crack it. Furthermore, if you get a theme from a company that makes lots themes, the coding is probably similar on all of them – so now the hacker can figure out how to crack one theme and can hack all the themes that the company is selling. Talk about more bang for your buck!

Hackers don’t want to crack ONE website. They want to crack hundreds.

I get calls all the time to clean up someone’s hacked website. I’d say 95% of them have had canned template themes.

Custom themes don’t have this problem.

They are bloated and dicey.

Theme makers want you to think that THEIR theme has all the bells and whistles. They want as many features as possible. So they install free third party plugins as part of the theme they turn around and sell to you. Who wouldn’t want a theme that has sliders in 1,200 colors, newsletters, social media buttons, and will make you a grilled cheese sandwich? Oh, my!

But, (you knew this part was coming…) there are three problems with this:

  • Bloated software. Having items you don’t need will slow down your site. Many times you can’t uninstall the extra plugins or you will break the theme. (That calendar plugin you aren’t using has slowed your site to a crawl? Too bad. Turn it off and all your pretty pictures of your spotless inventory turn to error messages.)
  • Security risk. Do you know where those 3rd party plugins have been? Do they get updated? Is the programmer any good? You can’t even research this before you purchase the theme. (Free plugins are notorious for being abandoned by their developers. That means no more security updates, and that means your website just became an advertisement for black market Viagra.)
  • Free plugins can be problematic. I have worked on a few sites with canned themes with required free plugins. Because the plugins were owned by someone else, the company the theme was purchased from had no control of that plugin. So, when the plugin stopped being updated it broke the site. The entire theme was useless. Free plugins are nice – but unless the plugin developer has a paid version somewhere, they aren’t making any money and will most likely stop supporting it eventually. Your favorite free plugin today stops working when the developer gets out of college or has a baby and can’t afford to work on it anymore.

They are not customized easily.

Remember back when we were talking about no one liking the theme the way it is after they get it home? Well, trying to change that theme to fit your copy or your pictures can break it, or cost you lots of money to change it. You better like it the way it is.

With a custom theme (not a “canned theme”) designed for your business and your needs, this isn’t a problem. You make the box to fit your business instead of the other way around.

Final words — finally.

Yes. Custom themed websites are not cheap. They are an investment in your business.

Your business needs are your own. Not anyone else’s. Your website should reflect your business’ personality and be unique to you. It is your chance to show your target audience what makes you unique and build a business with good customers that fit with your services. The design should reflect that and it should be built with integrity. You can’t get that out of a can.

Think about it this way: How much would you pay a salesperson to work 24 hours a day for 7 days a week to sell your services?

Maybe it’s not that expensive after all.