Updated: November 2019
There are no affiliate links on PagePipe.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Changing a site for mere redecoration is absurd. Aesthetic design alterations rarely make a difference in profitability. Graphic complication is often whimsical, not strategic.
Change can cause problems. Before now, it was foolish to update themes to newer versions without a child theme for protection.
Using a child theme was a prerequisite to preserving custom CSS coding. When we recently upgraded a clients theme to “redecorate,” the updated theme disabled the One-click Child plugin completely. That’s not normal. We lost the customization CSS.
There’s more to this site conversion story:
Redecorating and speed improvements made no measurable improvements in web metrics. Those were measured by Google Analytics over a two-year period. That’s right. Bounce rate, dwell time, and traffic count didn’t change for the better. The site under test has 70 to 80 percent mobile traffic. These mobile-first changes made no difference over the short term or long term. The speed dropped below 2 seconds (goodness) from the old speed of 4 seconds (badness). The site was also enhanced to appeal to an all female audience. While this made the site feel much more credible, it didn’t change the traffic quality.
Why did speed and aesthetic changes fail to help this site? Simple. Content wasn’t valued enough by a larger audience. The pie didn’t get bigger or better. The content is written in a mix of formal and scientific writing. It’s boring medical jargon.
You can’t bore people and expect them to stay just because your site is fast and beautiful.
In the past, a child theme (plugin) was the best way to protect custom code during upgrades or updates. But that is no longer true.
Note: Using a child theme adds one request slowing down all pages.
Simple CSS plugin doesn’t add any requests. It’s a faster method.
Custom code is now placed in the Customizer. You’d do this in the “Additional CSS” section. But it is vulnerable, too. It’s better to use a plugin called “Simple CSS.” It appears right there in the Customizer ready to receive your custom code. And protects it during updates, upgrades, or theme changes.
We have an assortment of fast themes from the WordPress directory. We collect themes for evaluation. But those freebies don’t always meet the criteria of longevity and easy updates.
Using stock WordPress default themes for better speed.
Annual default themes are well designed. Annual generic default themes are usually conservative. No cutting-edge experimentation. Our recommendation is using a lightweight default theme. If your site has 70- to 80-percent mobile traffic, small screen users are a priority. Mobile-first ranking is number one for SEO. There are only six WordPress default themes working well as responsive designs and fast loading:
Twenty-twelve (200k installs)
Twenty-fourteen (200k installs)
Twenty-fifteen (300k installs)
Twenty-sixteen (500k installs)
Twenty-seventeen (1M installs)
There is no Twenty-eighteen theme.
Twenty-nineteen (1M installs)
Often people think free themes are low quality. It’s quite the contrary. … Free WordPress themes are actually held to a higher quality standard. All themes in the official WordPress theme directory go through a strict theme review process.
There are some very talented folks in the theme review team who examine and test these themes before they are included into the directory. – source
Swapping generic themes is a torture test. It’s unrealistic to expect themes to be interchangeable. Swapping to another theme is often the same as “nuking” a site by upgrading. Then restoring (reinstalling) the original theme choice and assessing the damage. That demonstrates how resilient a potential theme upgrade is. It may be destructive testing.
You can create a staging area on your server using WP Staging plugin. But you can’t “push back” to the live area without buying the pro version. We do the tests using the free version. Then duplicate the changes on the live site after we verify in staging. It’s not that painful and safer than working live with unknowns.
How long are stock WordPress themes supported?
WordPress core supplies the last three-years default themes with the latest core version. That means they’re fresh. They’re updated for most-recent WordPress version compatibility. That means these are getting special support treatment and attention. Top of the pile.
Is their speed excellent?
Yes. We’ve had good results. Strip themes of Google Fonts, Emojis, other WordPress baggage, etc. Do those modifications with plugins not affected by updates.
Are they designed and supported by WordPress.org?
Yes. They’re prime. They’re portfolio pieces for the chosen theme designers. Based on history, we expect active theme support for at least 7 years. And there’s no marketing upselling to pro versions. They’re updated with each new core release.
What if your web developer croaks? Who’s their successor? Will they know what to do? Do you have to scrap everything?
If you fire your web developer today, you’re left with a difficult task of reverse engineering their work. You don’t deserve that vulnerability. It’s great job security for the developer – but not a good practice for you.
The last web contractor is always the fall guy. New developers will definitely change the theme for easiest possible upgrades – for them – not you, the site owner. They charge you to do that. They’d swear at us for our past choices – and say derogatory insults about our skills or mindset.
Most web designers and developers have an odd need to complicate sites. They add whizzy features like animation, sliders, parallax background images, etc. This makes it look like they worked harder. They love gadgetry. But these are the things that bloat a site.
Feature gaps are the things the theme of your dreams is missing.
The feature gap can be closed completely with the use of plugins. … The selection of the right plugins can make all the difference in turning a site that is almost what you want into one that meets or exceeds the needs of your business and your audience. – source
Free WordPress themes tend to be compatible with a lot more plugins than premium themes. This is because all the free WordPress themes in the official repository all have to meet certain standards to be approved. – source
Simplicity is our goal.
If we had a crystal ball, we’d predict theme difficulties or fragility. You can step into a trap. “Who is the guilty party?” That answer to future brokenness varies. Is it the developer’s judgment? The theme creator? The plugins selected? Or WordPress making big changes? WordPress is a dynamic landscape full of potential risks.
The goal is preserving the look and speed while hardening the site for future changes. Then you’re improving website “shelf-life.” Return on investment!
We document site specifications and upgrading procedure as a deliverable PDF. This is a style guide or brand manual. The goal is making it as easy as possible for another web technician to pick up the reigns and keep going. We charge $900 for style guides. That’s because once we hand it over, we’re out of the picture. No more income. Obsolete. The site owner can approach any developer and hand them our blueprint.
Speed websites are not canned or off-the-shelf. It requires a brain. You’re smart enough to figure it out. But how much of your life would you burn up? For us, we’re motivated and curious to learn new things. We enjoy theme experiments to increase our knowledge of future successful projects.
Theme changes have unknowable risks. All projects do. We fail many times in testing before there’s a success. You have to check the grief factor.
We do important tweaking of site speed using the Plugin Logic plugin. It’s a secret weapon allowing us to activate or deactivate plugins using page or post URLs. The URLs are static instead of dynamic. Also known as Absolute versus Relative links. This means if the site moves to staging areas or is migrated, the URLs listed will not change to the new domain URLs. Plugin Logic settings are then pointing to the wrong addresses. Page and posts may appear broken because other plugin functions are not activated.
It makes WordPress look bad when a theme change causes big disruption.
You need a future-proof theme strategy. It needs to support long-term and be fast loading. Claims that a paid or free theme is fast loading doesn’t mean it’s true. We’ve done tests and written about this terrible marketing deception. It’s false advertising. Authors use exaggeration of better speed as a marketing differentiator.
We have investigated thousands of paid and free themes. They both share the same vulnerabilities. We wish paid (premium) themes would have better support and performance. Paid-themes are usually more complicated and have longer learning curves. There are no guarantees you’ll get what you hope or what’s in the demo. Theming companies and authors sellout or go bankrupt overnight. They are under no obligation to support a theme. They can stop at any time.
We don’t like this vaporous aspect of the WordPress world. It’s inherent in open-source volunteer communities. It plagues plugins, too. Even some of the biggest and most popular plugins can go sour.
Technical volatility is a motivating factor to not sell WordPress web services.
So what is the safest and fastest theme strategy? We examined a new website to see if we could speed it up. We asked, “What theme is this? We’ve never seen it before.” He replied, “It’s stock WordPress’ Twenty-sixteen – customized.”
We were stunned.
We never realized you could build on top of one of those generic themes and still have it look great. It requires stripping the theme and then building up features with well-selected plugins. He was using our “speed strategy.”
WordPress is proud of long-term support for their annual themes. It’s a matter of professionalism for them. That works to our advantage. WordPress is not going away. Neither are those annual, pre-packaged themes. From our tests, those featured-and-endorsed themes are fastest.
Don’t throw money at a premium theme. Give Twenty-thirteen through Twenty-nineteen themes preferential consideration as long-term theme solutions. We recommend that direction.
Any theme, paid or free, can be abandoned or even banned. That’s the risk of the WordPress world.
For example, WordPress suspended Zerif Lite, a theme with 300,000 installs for 5 months. Why? Because they didn’t keep widget content active after upgrades. That non-compliance cost that author (ThemeIsle) $35,000 per month in revenue. Today they only have 100,000 installs. Ouch. Big hit.
So we place our bet based upon reading the signs of theme credibility and longevity.
Accelerate theme uses a widgetized front page for homepage customization. It’s a common theme-developer workaround. In times past, its only flaw was when making upgrades. All widgets “retired” to the Inactive Widgets section. They then were installed again one-by-one (drag and drop) to the right locations. It was a confusing puzzle.
Accelerate theme is not the Lone Ranger. All themes dependent on “widgetized” front pages potentially have this same not-so-well-known bugaboo. It’s not advertised – that’s for certain. To fix the errant Zerif Lite theme, the author’s add a stopgap plugin to maintain widgetized page content.
Be wise in your theme selection. Look at free WordPress authored themes first.