WordPress Development: More Than Picking A Theme & Plugins

I was recently asked by an industry colleague about the hyper-focus many folks in the WordPress ecosystem place on themes and plugins.

What my peer was talking about was something different than the drive to keep up with industry knowledge.

They had noticed that some people believe WordPress development is something similar to magic. If you need functionality for a site, there must be a plugin and/or theme that takes care of that need, and it appears from thin air.

This is a dangerous fallacy that exists in the world of WordPress. Yes, plugins and themes are great tools, but someone had to actually develop those tools before anyone could use them.

The more you know about development within a platform, the more you can achieve with that platform. WordPress is no different.

Behind The Curtain

No doubt about it, plugins can be useful, and can usually help you get most of the functionality you want.

But somewhere, someone has to develop those plugins and keep them up to date.

Where problems arise is when folks install all manner of plugins, without keeping track of what plugins are still being maintained, or researching which plugins have security issues.

WordPress core has about 3 to 4 major releases per year. A large percentage of these updates involve hardening security, though most people focus on the improvements in functionality.

Because the WordPress platform is continually moving forward, it’s imperative that the plugins and themes on your site are continually keeping pace with these updates. On a long enough time frame, free plugins have a greater chance of not being maintained. Premium (paid) plugins and themes cost money, because in some cases, those companies are trying to cover the cost of ongoing support and maintenance.

What terrifies me is the reliance on marketplace themes, found on sites like ThemeForest, and the lack of knowledge of independent theme shops that produce and support a generally superior products.

Some of you are now wondering: What do I mean by lack of knowledge? And what do I mean by superior products?

Educating The Market

If you’re a do-it-yourself-er, I can understand why you’ve never heard of anything besides ThemeForest, or perhaps TemplateMonster. Their theme selection dominates the Google rankings, and this is how most people find themes.

What’s less forgivable to me is the large percentage of web studios who have never heard of The Theme Foundry, Press75, Elegant Themes, UpThemes, or Slocum Themes.

It takes more work to research independent theme shops, who aren’t present on ThemeForest. But these independent shops are usually following best practices in WordPress development much better than the marketplace theme sites.

“All-in-one” themes like the ones found on marketplaces are designed to look appealing to consumers looking for a quick solution, but are often lacking in performance, security, adaptability, or ease of use.

Marketplace themes generally come bundled with multiple plugins “baked in”. What this means is when plugins need to be updated, you won’t be alerted in your admin Dashboard, because plugins weren’t meant to be baked into themes.

Essentially, you are relying on the theme authors to update the plugin in their themes, and then let you know that you need a theme update.

There have been numerous cases where plugins bundled into marketplace themes had security holes and millions of sites had serious vulnerabilities for months without the plugin authors notifying anyone. But many DIY-ers are likely to skip updates, for fear of breaking their site.

Plugins, even when they aren’t bundled in a theme, can still have vulnerabilities, if not regularly updated. So choose wisely when it comes to what foundation you’re building your site on. Make sure the company behind each component will be here a year or two from now.

There’s a huge opportunity in the web development industry, especially at the small and mid level end. This opportunity is gaining knowledge of which themes are performance driven and which are not.

Unfortunately, most the top-selling themes are performance nightmares, filled with bloated code. The result is sites that load slower than they should, which causes increased bounce rates, decreased conversions, and even lower search engine rankings. And I still see tons of web firms perfectly okay with using these themes, because it is the path of least resistance.

There are a million ways to solve a problem, but not all of them are good for achieving business goals.

Simply having good working knowledge of which WordPress themes, plugins, and hosting can boost a web design shop into the top half of firms with actual knowledge of WordPress. Being able to create custom templates, themes, and plugins will boost a web studio even higher.

Some Plugins I Use

That said, using certain plugins are a great way to cut development time down. I rely on Gravity Forms for integrating form functionality with other moving parts, WooCommerce for e-commerce, and Types and Advanced Custom Forms Pro for custom post types and fields.

This allows me more flexibility in custom coded themes. (Most of the work I do is either custom WordPress theme development or child theme development).

Picking a theme and plugins isn’t really web development by itself — but it can be the right solution, in certain cases. WordPress developer Tom McFarlin calls this implementation, to distinguish it from web development.

Web implementation can be a good fit for smaller businesses, but is unthinkable for large or enterprise level businesses. The larger an organization gets, the more complex and custom their web development needs become.

Do Your Research

It pays to do your research when choosing themes and plugins. Sometimes that means enlisting someone to help you do just that.

My advice is use premium plugins to do important jobs, stay away from ThemeForest themes in general (10-20% of the themes are okay, but it’s hard to tell what you have until you buy it). Also, update everything, and don’t install anything that isn’t compatible with the current version of WordPress.