The Difference Between Custom Websites and Theme Websites


What’s the difference between a custom and a theme website and which is right for you?

There’s nothing more ex-site-ing than building a WordPress website. (See what we did there?) But a lot of clients don’t realize that there are two approaches to creating a website: custom-built websites (aka custom websites) and theme websites.

A key part of our website projects is educating clients on these two approaches. Custom-built and theme websites are both great options, but they differ in terms of timeline, budget, and functionality.

The goal of this blog is to teach you about these two web development options so you can choose the one that makes the most sense for you. After reading this blog, you still may not know which is best. That’s OK! Your agency partner will help you figure that out. But at least you’ll have a better idea of what to expect with a custom-built and theme website.


Custom-Built vs. Theme: What’s the difference?

Every website is made up of code: html, css, php, javascript, etc. Think of these as the ingredients needed to make chocolate chip cookies.


Sorry! We got sidetracked thinking about cookies.

Anyways, the ingredients, or code, impact what the final product looks like. How those ingredients come together is the main difference between a custom-built and theme website.

Custom-built websites are like making cookies from scratch. All of the code is custom built (as the name implies). Theme websites, on the other hand, are like making cookies from a Betty Crocker Mix (or Ghirardelli if you’re fancy). Themes are packages of website code that someone has already built for you.

Both are great options to build a mobile-optimized, easy-to-navigate site! And you can use WordPress, our preferred CMS tool. To figure out which is best for your website needs, let’s look more closely at both options.


Custom-Built Websites

To recap, custom-built sites are websites that are built from the ground up. You (or your coder) develop the design and backend code of your website from start to finish.


What are the pros of a custom-built website?

  • Create the exact website you want and need
    • There are virtually no limits to what kind of website you create since you’re the one creating it! You control the design, layout, and functionality.
    • Create custom graphics, animation, buttons, and icons.
    • Custom-code specific functionalities. You don’t need to rely on third-party software (i.e. plugins), but you have the option to use them.
  • Create a one-of-a-kind website
    • With total control over design and functionality, you can create a completely unique design.
  • Greater control over search engine optimization
    • When building a website from scratch, you have more control over the layout and source code which ultimately gives you more control to optimize your site for search engines.
  • Easily make big changes down the road (if needed)
    • In the future, if you want to make really big design or functionality changes, it’s easier to make those big changes within a custom-built site.
  • Create a customized user experience
    • Complete control over the design means you also have complete control over the website experience and can align it seamlessly with your business goals.
  • More personalized support
    • When you work with a web developer, there’s a name behind the builder. They know your business, goals, and website.


The process of building a custom website:

  1. Our team will spend some time asking you about what you need from a website and what websites you like. This helps guide the design process.
  2. Since we are building your website from scratch, we will also spend time planning the layout and navigation. We want to ensure the user experience aligns with your company goals.
  3. Once the sitemap is finalized, we identify the unique page designs needed and create wireframes for each of those pages.
  4. Our team starts designing the layout of your website using photoshop. We custom design everything from user flow, page layouts, to hover effects.
  5. We also provide the copywriting for custom-built websites. Some clients will provide their own copy, but those clients typically have the bandwidth and experience to map out a strategic website plan. For clients with less of this experience who still want a strategic website, we recommend letting our team plan the content so it seamlessly aligns with the layout.
  6. Once the design is approved, it’s sent over to our web developer. The developer will begin writing the code to build the website.
  7. When we build WordPress custom-built sites, it usually takes 4-6 months, which includes time for planning, reviewing designs with clients, and rounds of editing.
  8. Once the website is approved, it gets published! We walk clients through the process of maintaining and adding new content to the site.
  9. Our team is available for additional support or to modify the website.


What are the cons of a custom-built website?

  • Longer timeframe
    • Custom-built websites take significantly more time upfront. You are spending time to both design the website and then code it. This timeframe doesn’t always work for businesses looking to launch their website soon.
  • More expensive
    • Due to the longer timeframe, custom-built sites are much more expensive. How much more? That varies from website to website, but the upfront cost can be twice as much as a theme website.
  • You may not need a custom-built site to get the website of your dreams
    • This level of customization is great if you need it. You can still build a great website with a theme, which happens to cost less. (More on that soon!)


Who can benefit from a custom-built website?

  • Companies that want complete control over every aspect of their website, from images to icons to layout
  • Companies that also want complete control over the functionality of their website
    • You can tailor build a website with all the functions you need. As you’ll learn later, you can modify a theme website. However, you have less control over those functionalities. And you can waste a lot of time trying to build code around a theme.
  • Companies that have very specific and robust functionality requirements
    • We’re talking about requirements that go above and beyond having a contact form. Things like integrating data feeds to manage product inventory or customer management systems.



Theme Websites

To jog your memory, themes are existing code someone else has written that you can use to build your website. WPbeginner describes a theme as “a collection of templates and stylesheets used to define the appearance and display of a WordPress powered website.”

There are hundreds of thousands of themes out there, some free, some with a purchase price. Every theme is different, many customized for specific industries. But they all define the structure, page layouts, capabilities, and functions of a website.


What are the pros of a theme website?

  • Faster timeframe
    • Because the bulk of website code has already been created, you can set up a theme website relatively quickly.
  • Cheaper upfront cost
    • The shortened time means less up-front costs. Theme websites can cost about half the price of a custom site.
  • Tons of customization
    • Themes have a lot of options when it comes to colors, fonts, and functionality. So although many people can use the same theme, their websites can still all look unique. You also have the option to add some minimal amounts of custom code to expand the theme’s functionality.
  • Themes can be very sophisticated and robust
    • Many have advanced capabilities, like email marketing and eCommerce integration. When it comes to building a professional or personal website, theme websites are just as reliable and capable as custom ones.
  • Incorporate strategy
    • While you have less control over the functionality as you would with a custom website, you can still be strategic with your copy and layout and create a user experience that supports your business goals.


To show you how customizable themes are, take a look at the website we built for Wagner Murray using the Bateau theme. Compare it to the original Bateau theme presentation. Very different, right?



Wagner Murray Homepage
Wagner Murray Homepage
Bateaux Theme
Original Theme

Let’s go one step further. Look at this website we built for Myers & Chapman—it also uses the Bateau theme. While the two websites use the same theme, they couldn’t look more different!

Myers and Chapman about page
Myers and Chapman About Page
Wagner Murray About Page
Wagner Murray About Page



The process of building a theme website:

  1. Our team will ask you about what you need in a website and what kinds of websites you like. This helps us streamline our theme search.
  2. Based on a list of theme criteria, we search for 3-4 of the best options. We review themes with the client, walking them through each.
  3. Once the client chooses their favorite theme, we can begin customizing it. This means changing fonts and colors and adding content. We also search for plugins, if needed, to extend the functionality of the theme.
  4. Since design and copy go hand-in-hand, we also provide copywriting for websites. Our team will meet and plan out the best user experience and the content to support that experience. Some clients will provide their own copy and this works fine. But for clients who want a more strategic website, we recommend letting our team plan the content and design simultaneously so the two align totally.
  5. When we build WordPress theme sites, it usually takes 2-3 months, which includes time for reviewing themes with clients and rounds of editing.
  6. We walk clients through the process of maintaining and adding new content to the site
  7. After the website launched, our team is available for additional support to fix or modify the website.


What are the cons of a theme website?

  • Customization limitations
    • There are limits to just how much you can customize a theme. It’s hard to change the overall navigation, text and image parameters, icon selection, and page layouts. Images and copy must fit within the predetermined spaces defined by the theme.
    • You have to rely on a theme’s built-in functionalities or plugins. This means finding plugins that play nice with the theme. You also don’t want more than 5-7 plugins, otherwise, you risk slowing your website down. Plugins need to be monitored and updated to keep websites secure.
  • Other companies can use the same theme
    • Themes are available to anyone. While other sites using the same theme as you will have different images, colors, and copy, the framework may look similar to yours.
  • Less personalized support
    • Support from the theme developer may not be as fast. They can have thousands of people emailing them each day with questions. They don’t have the same intimate knowledge of your website as a coder would.


Who can benefit from a theme website?

  • Companies with “standard” website needs
    • By “standard” we mean things that every website needs, like contact forms, eCommerce capabilities, a blog, or portfolio. Themes can also accommodate some additional functionality that go beyond what’s “standard.”
  • Companies that are flexible and open to customizing a theme
    • Thanks to the variety of themes and plugins, there are many different ways to solve one problem. If you’re open to exploring options and finding the right one, themes are a go! (If you have very narrow tunnel vision and want to control everything down to the icon shadow coloring, custom sites will satisfy your inner control-freak.)
  • Companies working with budgets and timelines
    • Budgets and timelines are real, and theme websites play nicely with both, making them a popular choice for many of our clients.

While custom-sites have greater customization, you may not need it (or want to pay for it!).  Especially if you can accomplish all of your website needs with a theme website.



Curveball: Updating an Existing Site

We’ve talked a lot about the two ways to build a website. But some clients come to us with a website wanting to make “updates.” Updating a website is a great way to make minor improvements without having to build a new site altogether.

However “updates,” can have different meanings. We define it as light changes or modifications to the website. To know if updates are really what you want, ask yourself:

  • Do you like your current page layouts?
  • Are you happy with the functionality?
  • Do you just want to refresh content?
  • Maybe you want to add 1 or 2 new functions, but keep the overall website as is?

If you mostly answered “No,” this should signal that you probably want more than “updates.” If you feel like every page needs a new layout and there are at least 4-5 new capabilities you want, you’re leaving the “updates” zone and entering “new website” territory. It’s more cost-effective to build a new website instead of trying to force your existing one into something it’s not.

But if you answered “Yes,” to these questions, then an update is a great way to refresh your website. Examples include updating images, re-writing or editing existing website copy, or rearranging pages within the main menu. There are also times when we can add 1-2 new functionalities, either with plugins or some custom coding.

Sometimes we build a custom page template to support new content. For example, we created a new page layout (that was now mobile responsive) for the Flynn Heath Leadership website. Comparing the former and current homepage, you can see what the new page template looks like.



Old Homepage
Old Homepage
New Homepage
New Homepage


Custom-Build, Theme, Updates… Which do you pick?

Drawing the line between updating and creating a new site can be tricky. This is why we work with clients on a case-by-case basis to determine if that functionality can be easily added, or if it’s more cost-effective to build a new website.

Our job, or the job of your creative partner, is to help you figure out which option is best for your timeline, budget, and brand. The bottom line is that it’s important for the client to know what they are getting with each option.

Want to talk more about your website needs? Drop us a line to continue the conversation.






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