A Perfect WordPress Theme Part 1 – Bloated is Bad

If you have been reading our blog, you know how we feel about do-it-all premium WordPress themes. The ones that register shortcodes, custom post types, custom taxonomies, handle your SEO, Google Analytics code and who knows what else. A theme that does all that is not a perfect WordPress theme, it is a bloated one at best.

Before explaining it any further, here’s our perfect WordPress theme checklist that we plan to cover in upcoming posts:

  1. If there’s a chance users might want to keep a feature after switching to another theme (plugin teritory), do it as a free plugin instead
  2. Great support is the most important feature
  3. No branded theme options pages
  4. Make sure first rule isn’t broken
In this post, we’ll cover our first rule and take a look at why more is usually not better when it comes to WordPress themes.

If a Feature is Really Important to You Don’t Let a Theme Handle It

There’s a great reason why both themes and plugins exist in WordPress ecosystem, if they were supposed to be the same thing, they’d probably be merged and called thegins or plugemes.

A public WordPress theme, free or paid, is supposed to pull data from the database and display it. That is all.

Sure, it can and should give you options on how to display it, like color schemes, page layouts or background images, but it should never add extra functionality, especially not something you might want to use after switching to another theme. You know, like shortcodes or custom post types. Stuff you might use so much that your site depends on it, but have no idea you’d lose if you replaced the theme.

Why Bloated WordPress Themes Even Exist

B.S. MarketingMarketing bullshit, that’s why. Selling gimmicks as features and throwing in stuff that you either don’t need or can get for free elsewhere is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Just like products from those infomercials that make sure Idiocracy script is becoming reality, bloated WordPress themes try to make you ignore your needs and buy based on your wants. By making you want something you don’t need, of course.

What you actually end up with are option pages so long you’d have to kill a small tree to print them and so difficult to configure you’d probably have to hire a WordPress developer to set it up for you. I’ve been that developer more than a few times, and after helping two clients configure a top-selling ThemeForest theme, I can’t help but feel like we’re being Punk’d by ThemeForest crew showing us wrong sales numbers. No, I don’t REALLY think that’s happening.

Bloated WordPress themes keep bombarding you with features you’ll probably never need until you cave in and buy them simply because of their “bangforbuckness”.

A bloated theme is like steroids, while you’re on them it’s mostly WOW, once you’re off you start feeling the side effects. Like shortcodes scattered all across your posts, or none of your custom posts being visible in the dashboard.

Modularity is Probably the Best Thing About WordPress

Remember Legos? The coolest thing about them was everything working with everything. In its essence WordPress ecosystem (WordPress installation, themes, plugins) is similar to that. You install WordPress, pick a theme, several plugins and you’re good to go. If you want to change the look and feel of your website, replace the theme. Want to add or remove some functionality? Add or remove plugins.

Lego for WordPress, Modularity Perfection

Just glue it?

So how do bloated themes kill modularity? Back to Lego example, imagine supergluing two blocks because you think they should always be used together. If you ever change your mind and decide you’d like to use just one of those glued blocks, you can either try ungluing them, breaking them, or finding another block that does exactly what the one you glued did.

So, it doesn’t really make sense, does it? Think of it next time you want to buy a WordPress theme because of its “SEO features”. A perfect WordPress theme shouldn’t pretend to be a plugin.

How a WordPress Theme Can Be Both Simple and Powerful

We believe there is an alternative that’s both user friendly and noble. Instead of packing all the extra features into the themes, we’re releasing them as free WordPress plugins. The first one, Widget Pack by ThematoSoup, can already be downloaded from WordPress plugin repository. It wasn’t made to be used with ThematoSoup themes only, we fully tested it with Twenty Twelve and Twenty Eleven to make sure anyone can use it.

That way you can keep the extra functionality and we’re giving back to WordPress community without which none of this premium themes business model would be possible. It also allows you to only use the extra functionality you need and keeps theme options pages short and usable.

Instead of putting on your work clothes with all the tools attached to it, this allows you to open the toolbox and take only the ones you need. It also makes it possible for you to change your clothes and still be able to use the tools. Imagine not being able to use a hammer if you’re not wearing your hammering shirt, that’s exactly what WordPress themes trying to do plugins’ work are like.

Image credits (Lego): Alan Chia

Slobodan Manic
I love working with WordPress and doing it the right way. Themes and plugins I develop have a common #1 goal: Keeping it as simple as possible for users to publish their content.
Slobodan Manic

@slobodanmanic

WordPress, productivity, minimalism. Co-founder at @ThematoSoup, CTO at @AlphaBrandMedia
@NiklasHogefjord hahaha, still nothing, waiting for the decision, should be any day now, will let you know - 10 hours ago
Slobodan Manic
Slobodan Manic
Slobodan Manic

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39 thoughts on “A Perfect WordPress Theme Part 1 – Bloated is Bad

  1. Good post!

    In agreeing with your Lego analogy, bear in mind that it works so well because each piece has well-defined specs. For plugins to work properly – so many don’t – there should be a set of strict rules. let’s call them Lego Rules!

    Looking forwards to reading Part 2…

    1. Touraj, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

      I think the situation is a little bit more complicated, only because of how diverse plugins can be in their functionality. But I do agree, it would be good to be able to tell which plugins are well coded and which ones are not.

      Luckily, a lot of respected WordPress developers do plugin reviews, so that can help.

  2. I like summarizing things as I remember them better that way.

    So…

    1. A perfect WordPress theme would have all its functionality via plugins and they should retain their function even when switching to a different theme.

    This theme would be created by following WordPress.org codex and best practices ensuring usability and speed, because it wouldn’t have features and lines of code (600 lines of every Google font available) you wouldn’t actually need.

    No content loss, because a perfect WordPress theme handles only style representation and has nothing to do with content.

    2. A bloated WordPress theme would be, well, bloated like a balloon, waiting to pop on first plugin-theme incompatibility. Full of unnecessary lines of code, which could’ve easily been used for creating a free plugin, for everyone to use.

    A bloated WordPress theme is also less usable and makes customization a chore.

    Have I missed anything?

  3. Fantastic article. This message is always worth repeating.

    The ones that register shortcodes, custom post types, custom taxonomies, handle your SEO, Google Analytics code and who knows what else.

    I think one reason theme developers are not getting this message very quickly is that themes still sell very well while doing all these things. Let’s say an author has a theme on ThemeForest that has these things built-in, sells 1,000+ copies in a few months, has a 5 star rating and doesn’t get a single complaint from a customer about separating presentation and functionality. Where is the motivation to change?

    This is the story of my last theme. I can’t say I made the theme that way because I was thinking about marketing. I made it that way because I was looking at what others were doing and figured that’s just how it’s to be done. They were successful and their customers were happy, so I emulated them. It wasn’t really until Justin Tadlock and others started stressing the correctness of placing functionality in a plugin that I decided to take a different direction.

    My view is that it’s going to take some education in the form of example to solve this “industry” problem. It’s going to take some successful authors rocking their own boat in order to show other authors that you can do things the right way and be successful. When customers start seeing big names on ThemeForest and among the shops doing it the right way, then they’ll know what the right way is and look for it in the future.

    1. Steven,

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, glad you like the post :)

      It’s a huge issue at ThemeForest, and one that could make WordPress less popular than it rightfully is. A novice WordPress user will buy a bloated theme, get into trouble because his content gets locked in, blame it on WordPress and even badmouth it where ever possible.

      A year ago, we wanted to start selling themes at ThemeForest, and they probably would’ve been bloated as hell. I’m very confident we could’ve made a lot of money over last twelve months, but in a way I’m glad we didn’t, because we’d be doing it wrong.

      It’s up to ThemeForest to rectify this issue. They can motivate top developers to publish themes there (why not let them keep 100% of their sales?) and have a stricter review process.

      I’ve reviewed a few themes at WordPress.org theme repository and a whole bunch of ThemeForest theme would never be accepted as free themes. So yeah, something you have to pay for is no match to something that’s free. So damn wrong.

      1. I don’t expect ThemeForest to do anything that could have a drastic effect on their profits like immediately rejecting all themes that include shortcodes or custom post types. It would be nice though to see them making some significant efforts to encourage best practices. Like you say, some incentive for authors to do better.

        I’d like to see something where an author can request (even pay) for a more rigorous review, something that would make wordpress.org proud. If passed, the author would get an extra amount of commission on that theme and a special designation that ensures potential buyers that the theme is a step above the rest in terms of code quality.

        Money talks.

  4. This is a really great post man. I completely agree about bloated themes. I’ve been trying really hard lately to make un-bloated and higher quality themes but it’s really hard when it seems most buyers are demanding stupid features built-into themes that can be easily added via plugins.

    ps: you know I love your author box! Been working lately on customizing it for my re-design. Since I’ve added it to my site I think i’ve been asked at least 1x a day where to get it!

    pss: Would you ever consider writing for the WPExplorer.com blog? We’d love to have you! We do paid and un-paid guest posts. You can contact me via my TF profile page.

    -AJ Clarke

    1. AJ,

      Thanks! I mean for everything, reading, commenting and liking Fanciest Author Box :)

      It’s great to see many posts like this one emerging, seems like more and more people are starting to “get it”, either that, or more and more frustrated WordPress developers being vocal about this issue.

      Some people will always prefer cheap junk food to an organic meal, that translates really well to WordPress themes.

      I’ll hit you up on Twitter, really not a fan of TF social features, hopefully we can work something out. Btw. I love what you’re doing with WPExplorer, keep it up!

      1. haha, I love your analogy to food. Yes, please email me. I’d love to work together with you have you share your knowledge with my readers!

        note: You can use the email in this comment – i wrote the wrong one last time I think.;)

  5. Completely agree I hate seeing premium themes with 100s of options on a theme options page.

    Now I don’t think we even need theme option pages can just use the theme customiser and plugins.

      1. I’m just in the middle of writing a tutorial on the theme customizer and it is very good. I realise it’s still quite new but the concept is very similar to so of the popular theme options frameworks out there. The only problem is the about of default setting types available, but it doesn’t take long to create one.

        It’s quite annoying actually, before this was released in version 3.4 I spent some time creating a options page framework which now I don’t need to use.

        1. Same here, and I’m now in the process of getting rid of Theme Options page and switching to Customizer.

          Well, at least learning about Settings API comes in handy for plugin development.

  6. Just want to report I tested the optimization of this plugin with WPDB profiling, and I noticed a big improvement in the number of queries.. very nice. My clients prefer themeforest, and what they point me to (usually) gives me a headache. They love the “eye candy-ish user customization panels (bloat)” even though I try to explain that trading optimization for ease of customization is always a plus. Anyway, thanks for the plugin :)

  7. I think it’s not just about educating theme authors. There is so much misinformation floating around. For example, some customers are worried about installing too many plugins, so they buy a theme with more features than they need! They just don’t understand that this doesn’t help.

    1. That’s true. But as long as there are authors out there who abuse the fact that many buyers don’t know what to look for in a theme, things will be bad.

      Or, perhaps Envato should check WordPress.org Theme Review process and apply it to ThemeForest themes. I know that would disqualify some current bestsellers.

  8. Well said. The size of many of these so-called premium themes is outrageous…it’s appalling. Most of these features they are adding are in plugin territory. What the hell are you gonna do with all those ridiculous in-content shortcodes when you move to a new theme?

    I think folks are offering layman end-users things they have no business having control over. If they want control over it, they need to hire a professional or learn how to do it the right way.

    1. “What the hell are you gonna do with all those ridiculous in-content shortcodes when you move to a new theme?”

      Exactly! But sadly, people buying those themes have no idea of what’s about to hit them.

  9. Thanks for this. There’s also the issue of what these bloated themes do to a database. It’s insane. I’m moving one right now that uses a theme by a well-known “premium developer.” The site doesn’t have that much content (probably 100 posts/pages) and the DB is over 100MB!

    Not good.

  10. Any chance that you can start up a website that takes popular themes and strips out all the redundant functionality, sticks to best practices & standards, and leaves just the core design elements.

    1. Chris,

      I would LOVE to be able to do something like that, but currently simply have no time. Although I do love the idea, and it would be perfectly legal to do it with themes that are released under GPL licence.

      Definitely something I’m putting into my “Someday” folder.

  11. Excellent post and a good read.

    After 2 years of creating custom templates for my clients, I’ve started to take my first steps into creating templates of my own for example Themeforest. Most of the newer themes being sold there force people to enter their content against WordPress’ basic functionalities. I personally hate shortcodes and try to avoid them as much as possible.

    I’ve also bought a few themes myself for various projects and have mixed experiences. One theme was too difficult to set up so I gave up on it immediately. Another one had so much stuff in there that it was too slow for tablets and older PCs. A third one stopped it’s support one year after it’s publishing.

    I completely agree the points made in this post. Let widgets do the work, just make sure your theme makes them look good as well. When I’m building a theme for myself I always keep it as simple as possible. But for a couple of clients… well, that’s another story.

    1. Tuomas,

      Glad you agree and I’d love to hear more about your experiences as a ThemeForest seller. While quality of newly published themes at TF has probably increased, due to improved review process, implementation of WordPress best practices is still not being reviewed and huge majority of themes wouldn’t pass wordpress.org review. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, but in the end, buyers are the ones that can potentially get screwed, usually with no warning at all.

  12. This is a very useful and overdue discussion.

    As an agency owner I would give up my first born for a place to browse and buy lean yet athletic themes.

    We build sites for lawyers, NGOs, dentists and doctors – would really appreciate any pointers on good places to find non bloat themes.

    Cheers – John

    1. John,

      Thanks for your comment. Here are some places worth taking a look:

      You might want to keep an eye on us as well, since we’re currently testing our first commercial theme and hope to release it soon, with more to follow. Best way to do it is by subscribing to our mailing list.

      If you need any other WordPress related tip, feel free to ask, and it’s best to contact me on Twitter – @slobodanmanic

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