How To Tell If You Really Received a “Custom” WordPress Website

I like talking about positive things, cool stuff and gushing about WordPress on this website. Unfortunately our responsibility as ethical web developers also includes safeguarding people against unethical behavior that rips people off. Even more unfortunately, there’s a lot of it in this industry.

If you’re a small business that’s gone the traditional website route – hire someone, pay them a $2000-ish all-in fee, call it a day – it’s likely that you were told you received a “custom” WordPress design.

But did you?

Way back in 2011 when I was first learning to use WordPress I was doing some work for a local frozen yogurt store. The owner showed me his website, which looked suspiciously familiar. Sure enough, I plugged the name of a prebuilt WordPress template into Google and it immediately popped up in search results. The prebuilt template was virtually identical to the frozen yogurt store’s website, with virtually nothing changed except some copy and the logo. The owner was aghast, saying that this was a family friend whom he’d paid $2,000 for the website.

Needless to say this soured the owner’s opinion on websites generally, and even as of this writing he hasn’t bothered to put up a new website. Which he may not even need, in fairness, but he has admitted that his negative experience played a role in the decision to not bother.

Welcome to the world of fake custom websites, folks.

The way WordPress and many modern CMS platforms work is that they use “themes” – essentially prebuilt templates – as the foundation for the website. These themes number in the countless thousands and are either freely available or distributed through paid markets like ThemeForest.

Some of these themes – like my preferred Divi – can best be described as theme foundations where they require extensive customization to provide the look and feel you’re going for. Many other themes – especially paid ones – are built from the ground up to replicate a live website as long as you change the verbiage, and these are the themes where things can become problematic.

On its own, of course, using prebuilt themes heavily customized out of the gate is not a bad thing. Many of these themes have drag and drop builders and easy update tools for internal staff who want to update the website and they’re often more stable and reliable long term than putting together an actual custom theme that lacks the ease of use or built-in community support as many established ones.

The problem is twofold. The first is that on paper these themes should be a foundation upon which to do your own styling, scripting or modification. Simply buying a theme and setting it up will often mean the website lacks any identity of its own – or worse – looks identical to other businesses who had similar ideas and found the same themes  you did. I’ve seen it happen many times, right down to prebuilt competitors’ websites having the exact same stock imagery.

Additionally, prebuilt themes often come with security vulnerabilities that need to be addressed, optimization issues that need to be fixed and scripting and styling problems that need to be corrected such as incompatibilities with major plugins. In many cases the code bloat associated with prebuilt themes or the lack of compression on media files can make them load at a glacially slow pace, which hurts the user experience and makes Google less likely to favor.

The bigger problem is that many people – calling them developers or designers is giving them entirely too much credit – are simply presenting existing websites as their own custom work and charging “custom” WordPress prices for it.

One recent example involved a barbershop I’m now working with. The previous company they were with charged custom web design rates but put up Barber Pro Professional without even changing the stock video on the homepage. The company didn’t even bother fixing the default broken contact form!

What’s worse is that too many potential customers risk falling for this simply because they understandably don’t know any better.

While not illegal, this is certainly not an ethical practice and it can result in grossly overcharging for what is a fairly minimal amount of work. Fortunately there’s a simple solution: What WP Theme Is That is exactly what it says on the tin: A very convenient way to quickly identify the theme of a WordPress website without having to parse through the page source.

Using myself a guinea pig, if you put into that URL you’ll see a Theme Hall Child Theme – which I’m using out of the box for the sake of convenience and because I like the design. What you should never be doing is paying $1,000 or more for something out of the box.

This is also far from limited to WordPress. Cookie cutter website templates, generators and “one-click” website auto-builders are everywhere in this field. Again, while this is not a problem on its own some of these companies have the habit of making liberal use of the term “custom” to describe what they do and using that as an excuse to charge premium subscription markups. Except if it can be replicated in a matter of seconds by dozens or hundreds of other people with your type of business, where’s the customization?

In short: If you put in the website of a “custom” WordPress website, Google it, and then view a demo that looks identical to your own website there’s much not much customization going on. Always make sure you get what you pay for. No, your website needn’t be in the vanguard of innovative design; if anything I’ve stressed the importance of simplistic design that favors content over style.

You’re still entitled to what you pay for, and if you’re paying for custom design, make sure you receive it!