As of 2016, about 28% of the internet was running on websites using WordPress (source). That’s a lot of websites! While there are countless ways to make a WordPress site unique, page builders have emerged as an up-and-coming force in the WordPress scene. Many page builders promise the ability to design a website without needing any code at all (hint: big promises are difficult to keep). Most page builders are drag-and-drop tools built on top of WordPress that allow users to place elements on pages. In this post, I will break down page builders into categories and cover their ups, downs, ins, outs, and everything in between to allow you to decide if using one is the right move for you.
At the end of the day, the most common question you’ll get asked when building a website for a client, your company or yourself is “how much will this cost?” That leaves you with essentially four options:
- Learn code and design skills and build it all yourself (Free)
- Hiring a developer to custom-build the site for you ($$$$$)
- Find a pre-built WordPress theme (Free/Paid)
- Use a WordPress page builder (Free/Paid)
Bottomline, unless you’re paying for custom development, WordPress is going to be cost-effective. Most themes and page builders have a relatively small, one-time costs, and those that don’t use affordable annual rates.
When deciding between these options, remember that most websites change their design every 2-3 years. Having a page builder allows you to change the design without paying for any other content, whereas with a premade theme, you may have to purchase another to match your new design.
Elements are the custom pieces of the website like social media icons, newsletter signup forms, and images. Most page builders have every kind of element you could possibly need on your website. Additionally, page builders come with an immense collection of options for you to customize. Usually, this includes most typical CSS options as well as some custom sizing and animation options.
Customization is where page builders both shine and suffer; while a number of options provided is often enough, sometimes it simply isn’t. In the cases where more customization is required, you may need to add custom CSS or even a child theme to arrive at the intended style/behavior. Depending on your skill level, this may be out of your wheelhouse and will require you to look for external help even though you may have tried to avoid it by using a page builder in the first place.
So, should I use one or not?
As usual, it depends. Here are some quick descriptions of each type of development to determine whether doing it yourself, finding a pre-made theme or building the site using a page builder is the best option for you.
The monetary and time cost of doing it all yourself depends entirely on your background. If you’re a web designer and developer by trade, maybe this option suits you best. You’re only limited by the speed at which you can develop and design all that you need. This route gives you the utmost customization, as you can determine from the ground-up every piece of the site. In order to create your own WordPress theme, you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of PHP, CSS, HTML, and JS.
Using a premade WordPress theme is incredibly common practice. Why design your own when you can find a theme that does everything you want and looks great? If you don’t have a design in mind, or you find a theme that fills all your needs, purchasing a theme someone else made is often the most cost and time-effective option. There are thousands of themes already made out there. This list only scratches the surface. Some themes are free, some themes are paid. As you would expect, you get what you pay for with free themes.
Let’s say you have an idea for a website but you can’t find an existing theme that meets your requirements. Or, maybe you have to build a website with a specific design, but don’t have the coding know-how to complete that task. Maybe you have the ability to custom build a website, but you want your less development-savvy team members to also be able to customize the look and feel of the site. In all three of these cases, using a page builder may be the best option for you. The combination of customization, low cost and saved time makes page builders an appealing and expanding, option for creating websites.
Some things to keep in mind
WordPress is WordPress. What you get out of the box is what WordPress is intrinsically built to do. Anything beyond the base feature set puts you at risk of falling victim to the various idiosyncrasies that come with going beyond intended behavior. The following are some issues people talk about when discussing page builders:
The “Lock In” Effect
WordPress evangelist Chris Lema wrote a blog post titled “If you use the Divi theme with WordPress, it better be forever.” Divi is a popular page builder (and also a theme that comes with the page builder). Divi makes use of a WordPress feature called shortcodes that, while useful in customizing a site, are specific to that theme. If you ever want to move away from that theme, those shortcodes will no longer work. While his blog post is a bit dramatic and not entirely true (there are ways to get around the shortcode issue), it is a good read for getting a grasp on one of the major pitfalls of using a page builder.
If you’re an experienced WordPress user, you understand this well. While speedy at first, every plugin and theme you add to your WordPress site adds up, and if you’re not careful, can have drastic negative effects on the load time of the website.
Most WordPress plugins are built in conjunction with the base, unmodified version of WordPress. By using a theme or a page builder, you risk incompatibility with certain plugins. For instance, maybe your blog page doesn’t conform to the design WordPress uses, and an infinite scroll plugin that works for the usual WordPress design wouldn’t work for your blog. Luckily, many themes and page builders come with a set of plugins made by the same developers for use with those programs specifically.
When deciding whether to use a page builder or not, remember to keep the following in mind:
- What kind of SEO tools does the page builder allow for?
- Is SEO built-in or will you need a custom plugin?
- Is the built-in SEO sufficient?
- Are all elements you need available?
- What kind of plugins are compatible?
- Are you building according to a design or designing as you go?
- How much customization will you need from the features the page builder provides?
- Do you need to add custom HTML? (Remember: if you do, use a child theme)
- Does the page builder have a frontend or backend view, or both? (This allows you to preview/change how the site looks from the WordPress viewpoint as well as a user viewpoint)