Updated: November 2019
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Popular premium WordPress themes have a big commonality: They claim they do anything. In fact, the Divi theme’s motto is “The sky is the limit.”
You’ll pay $89 annual rental fees to use Divi Theme
Divi, the most popular paid theme is the slowest we’ve encountered. It loads in about 1 second. That’s only the theme? Yep. That doesn’t include WordPress core or images or plugins or anything else. With a 2-second performance budget, our speed is half-way evaporated.
Speed tests are performed with Pingdom. Hardly scientific. But results give relative comparisons of performance value. The candidate themes are hosted on the same cheap, shared GoDaddy server without CDN or caching.
The potential to “Doing anything and everything” is seductive to site owners. Imagine. No limitations. The promise of no limitations is saying, “Go ahead. Add all the heavy extras your heart desires. Fill all the slots and widgets our expensive theme provides. Gorge yourself.” Is it any wonder websites with these premium themes end up being the slowest?
It’s not the poor theme’s fault.
It’s a design self-disciple problem.
Creativity requires limitations. It’s when resources are scarce – like time, energy, or money – that creativity is most desirable. Scarcity forces value analysis on extra additions. It reduces the temptation to bloat.
- Theme X
And other top selling WordPress themes are full of extras.
They all have a hefty purchase license. That’s annual recurring $60 to $70 rental fees.
Every year. Cha-ching. You pay again. That premium theme adds to site overhead.
A paid/premium theme must be the best. Right? Surely, they’re better than free themes. Better for what? Not speed. That’s for sure.
Multi-function, multipurpose, feature-rich, do-everything themes do not guarantee fast page loads. These are the themes most abused by site owners. Stripped themes force prudence before adding features. All-you-can-eat themes don’t. They encourage gluttony.
Feature-itis or creeping featurism is the ongoing expansion of website features. These extra features go beyond basic needs. They result in bloat and over-complication – rather than simple design. This is also called gold plating or over-engineering. Trying to make something better than required is also called: wasteful.
A better method is building on a simple foundation using a stripped or bare-bones theme.
How do you add features and functionality to a stripped theme? Simple. With plugins. But plugins slow things down, don’t they? No. It’s the quality of plugins, not quantity that makes a difference.
How much do stripped themes cost? Well, they’re free. Is free bad? You know: shoddy and fragile? Nope.
Q. Automattic authored how many themes?
A. 117 themes in the WordPress directory.
Q. How many themes contain updated code?
A. Freshness? 34 themes. That’s it. Only 29 percent are garden-fresh.
We analyzed every one of the 117 themes written by Automatic. Inc. That’s WordPress’ parent company. 34 themes were recently updated. The rest are stale as dried toast. That’s right. Only 29 percent of Automattic-authored themes are fresh. Those good-fresh-ones are on 2.8 million websites.
|Last Year of Update||Automattic||Themes|
So what? Who cares?
Outdated and obsolete: that’s 71 percent of Automattic downloadable themes. Still hanging around in the WordPress Theme Directory. Without an update for over 1 year. Their shelf-life expired – molding – but still available for the unsuspecting. Why would WordPress keep old stuff laying around? Isn’t that unsanitary?
Well, it makes their big theme collection look BIGGER, doesn’t it? But finding a current theme that’s NOT stale is sheer gambling. And perhaps prohibited in some states and countries.
Let us save you some time and trouble. We’ll share some theme observations.
We deleted a few theme candidates failing to qualify for our test criteria. Those are:
Boutique and Deli are both child themes for Storefront theme. So we cross them off the list. Also, Twenty-eleven theme and Twenty-ten theme aren’t responsive. They never were. That’s no good for Google mobile-first page ranking. So they’re history, too, even though they are still available.
That culling left 30 responsive fresh themes.
Now, let’s reduce the remaining theme contenders another notch. We only consider theme’s with zip download files under 1 megabyte. That size has the potential for speed. 1MB is our cutoff. We don’t have time to mess around looking under the hood of every single theme. The theme author didn’t care enough to lighten the package! We won’t reward bad apathetic behavior with an active installation. No vote from us.
Most themes by other authors and companies in the Directory are not responsive. We tested that stuff. There are over 1,600 responsive themes out of 5,100 free themes. Anything authored before 2012 is most suspect. So watch out! Test to be sure.
That eliminated 10 more fluffy themes:
- Twenty-fourteen default
Are the 10 themes above our 1M-cutoff the slowest? Well, they’re on the high end. Storefront is the slowest Automattic-authored theme at 26.50 milliseconds load time. We admit. That’s pretty light. But it was the worst. It’s often used with the 280-millisecond WooCommerce plugin. Very heavy site drag. Much of our 2-second performance budget – Gone. Ouch!
We axed it. Cruelty.
What did Twenty-fourteen default theme ever do to offend PagePipe? Besides being over the 1MB weight limit? It activates 120k of Google fonts and enqueues Genericons. That’s all it took. Do we care that 300,000 sites are actively using it? Nope. We never even liked the look of that lame theme. Sorry.
So of the remaining candidates, who’s the fastest loading theme? Shocking. Twenty-twelve default loads in only 14.7 milliseconds. Dang. That’s fast.
Susty theme is the fastest loading theme on the planet – it also loads in 14.7 milliseconds. We use it for experiments.
So what’s the slowest theme we’ve ever encountered? Without question: Divi by Elegant Themes (480,000 customers). Go figure. About 1-second of site drag – just the Divi theme. It’s a dog. Isn’t it popular? You bet. Don’t follow the herd.
Do we like the speedy Twenty-twelve default theme? We’ve seen worse. Customize it. Fix it. At least, it has an optional and popular one-column design. No sidebar if you desire. But in the end, it gets the ax, too. Read on:
So here’s the top speed winners:
|Theme||ms||active||zip size||load ms||requests||pgwt k|
Theme speed doesn’t translate into the fastest load time when combined with core.
The fastest theme under those conditions is Pictorico with 632 milliseconds. Twenty-twelve and AltoFocus are over 1 second. We’d ax those two from our list.
Is this a fair test? No. Of course not. Some themes come loaded with an image. The Twenty-seventeen theme is one of those. It has a large sample image header. Yet, it’s number 5. Twenty-twelve theme which was the fastest loading theme when installed is now a loser.
It’s a quick selection process when you have no time – and tons of prospects to test. The goal is building a fast site. There’s no perfect speed theme. Never will be.
Our point? If a theme has a zip package weight under 1 megabyte, it increases your chances of being fast loading. It’s a filter reducing theme-selection waste. The rule of thumb is free WordPress-authored themes load in under 20 milliseconds.
But they’re often snubbed by techno-geeks.
20 milliseconds – that’s fast. But it doesn’t translate into real speed once running on a real website with WordPress core. Why? Too many nuances to list here but they include things like Google Fonts and jQuery. Some even have sliders. Gads!
We strip all that junk with removal plugins.
Our biggest point: Free themes get a bad rap for speed. We see so many blogs telling how important it is choosing a fast premium theme. It’s implied only paid themes achieve long product life cycles. That produces a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
Can you say: Affiliate?
The main thing is avoiding extreme slow 1-second themes. Divi theme is almost 2 seconds with core added. Avoid using a paid theme. Never trust a vendor’s demo. They’ll be slower in the real world because they’re “feature rich”- aka heavy. Choose a stripped-down free theme. Then add as many plugins as needed for the functions and features you need. It’ll be faster loading than a prepackaged, off-the-shelf, paid theme. Avoid the most popular plugins. They’re the slowest.
That’s our speed formula – and it works.
More Theme Strategy
The twenty-ten default theme is now retired from WordPress.com. Themes retire on that host when they are no longer compatible with WordPress.com. Twenty Ten is still available for sites hosted elsewhere using WordPress core. Twenty-ten isn’t responsive for mobile devices.
Gutenberg won’t force change on any site theme. (Promises. Promises.) There are still sites on WordPress.com using classic original themes. WordPress no longer supports retired themes, but they don’t force anyone to change it.
Why stick with a trusty default theme?
Support and upgrades keep arriving for a long, long time. Twenty-thirteen got a refresh in 2018. That’s 5 years of free upgrades. But so did Twenty-ten theme. That’s seven or eight years!
That means Twenty-seventeen default theme will be thriving from 2022 to 2025. Think about it. Future-proof your site. Twenty-seventeen is still our go-to theme for building speed sites.
NOTE: The typical site shelf-life is 3 years. Then the owner or audience gets bored and the theme changes.
We admit we use themes like GeneratePress. Tom Usborne is the theme author and has a two-man company. If Tom gets run over by a bus, it won’t go well for the future of GeneratePress theme. But will a bus run over WordPress? They’d have to throw a hundred web developers under the same bus. Big bus.
WordPress claims a valuation of over 1 billion dollars. It’s not going away soon. Of course, Google could always buy WordPress with pocket change – and ruin every single theme. Stranger things happen.
Meanwhile, until Google Armageddon, default themes are the winning ponies to bet on. Customize with free plugins.
Is my site slow because of my theme selection? It’s the theme you should NOT pick that’s important. Don’t choose a paid, multi-functional theme especially Divi or The7. Chose a free, current, Automattic theme.
Be the fastest.
What we’ve described here is site origin optimization strategy.
1Start with a free theme authored by Automattic preferably a default theme with a download zip file size under 1 megabyte.
Why an Automattic theme?
- It’s free. No annual renewal fees.
- It has longevity of at least 5 years of free updates – maybe longer. A team of hundreds and a billion-dollar company support it. Not a few. Hundreds.
- It’s faster than feature-rich paid themes. Always under 50 milliseconds load time.
2Add plugins that aren’t multipurpose. Avoid popular plugins. Use instead discrete plugins. Best case, discrete plugins only have one function and no settings. It takes several plugins to match the features of a multifunction integrated plugin. But many discrete plugins still load much faster than a single heavy plugin. How much faster? At least, 10 times faster.
Why use discrete plugins?
- They’re free.
- They’re not complex and simple to set up.
- They’re faster than paid or popular plugins.
- They’re prone to very same problems as paid plugins.
One feature can be selectively deactivated. Individual selection is rarely possible with a multifunction plugin.
3Finally, use selective deactivation and activation of features only where they are needed. The easiest plugin to use for selective activation is Plugin Logic. Remember most plugins cause site drag. That’s global loading on all pages and post whether the functions are used or not.