If you’ve ever purchased a WordPress theme, you know the feeling.1 It’s that exciting moment when you start customizing your site with theme options. Theme options change the look of your site by tweaking fonts, colors, and images. Generally, they’re meant for taking a theme used on many websites and making it your site.
But themes can get a little cocky. A lot of themes come with options and features that cause more trouble than they’re worth. Through my experience with themes, I’ve come to learn which pieces of a theme are best left untouched. I’ll explain why and then give you an list of workarounds.
The Lock In Effect
“The Lock in effect” gained prominence last year from one particular blog post, but it’s not a new problem. It occurs when a theme or plugin requires so much work to change that you’re trapped with it. Here’s how that plays out:
- You buy a new theme.
- You spend hours customizing it.
- You decide you want to use a different theme.
- You lose all the customizations you made on the previous one.
Now, some loss of labor is inevitable. You can’t change the background of one theme and transfer that color to a different one, but other features—that take longer to setup—can be moved to a plugin and kept through the life of your site.
Plugins Solve Theme Lock In
If you know much about WordPress, you know that Themes and Plugins are independent of each other. Changing your theme doesn’t require changing any plugins. Changing a plugin usually won’t affect any other plugins, either. So when possible, avoid theme features that plugins can replace. Plugins can have the lock-in effect as well, so be careful before investing a lot of time in a plugin, but they’re significantly more flexible than themes.
So Why Do Themes Do This?
If theme-bundled functionality is so bad, why do theme authors add them? The sad fact is that in the current highly competitive theme-selling environment, bundling extra features helps to differentiate a theme from the competition–never mind that those features are counterproductive to the buyer. I don’t think a lot of theme authors think much beyond the moment of purchase.
When buying a theme, I can’t encourage people enough to select a theme based on how it looks! Most additional features are “eye candy” or “shiny objects.”
Show Me. Don’t Tell Me.
Here’s a list of theme features I avoid and the plugins I use instead:
- Search engine optimization (SEO): WordPress SEO by Yoast
- Google Analytics: Google Analytics for WordPress
- Social Media Links: Social Media Widget
- Social Media Sharing: The “Sharing” module of Jetpack ((They’re the same plugin.))
- Testimonials: Jetpack
- Contact Forms: Gravity Forms (unbeatable but paid) or the “Contact Form” module of Jetpack (free)
- Google Maps: Comprehensive Google Maps Plugin
- E-commerce, donation processing, portfolios, and shortcodes should be avoided too, but the most appropriate replacement plugin varies depending on your site’s needs.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor are these plugins the only ones that do these functions. What I hope you take away from this list is that:
- A lot of themes offer features that lock you in.
- Replacing these theme-based features with plugins frees you to change your theme.
Better yet, I’ve never seen a theme that does a better job than these plugins. At best they’re equal, but when you download a plugin, you’re using a product designed to do one thing and do it well. A theme with 10 extra functions in addition to a beautiful design just can’t compete with that.2
A Matter of Degrees
It’s not the end of the world if you use one of the features I’ve listed, just don’t use all of them. When evaluating which features to use, consider how long it will take to redo your work. If you’re entering a few Social media accounts, that’s not bad, but if you’re spending an hour entering testimonials into your theme, go find a plugin.
What theme options do you always look for or always avoid? What plugins should I add to my list?