Everyone has their opinion about WordPress Themes. We started with good ol’ themes, then moved to frameworks, and child themes. At that point, page builders were introduced ie: Elementor. Then site builders like Divi, Oxygen and Beaver Builder. Now we’re moving into Block Based themes.

I’m sure you’ve seen the evangelists for Divi / Elementor / Oxygen, etc. Just before them was Genesis by Studiopress. The latest darlings are Astra Theme & KadenceWP.

So.

How to choose?

My friend – this is a hot topic; nothing I like better – so let’s dig in!

First – Don’t UNDO WordPress

First we don’t want to UNDO anything that WordPress comes with. You’d think this is obvious, but alas…  every few months, we have a new client who needs help rebuilding their site because some developer REMOVED and rewrote a bunch of WP stuff. Why?!?

We love WordPress because it lasts a long time in internet years – we have clients on year 7 of the same theme – we do not recommend that! Lol

WordPress is well supported, you have your choice of developer. If one developer doesn’t work out – get another! This is a great environment and keeps us all on our toes. If you have a developer that can’t work with others, or is secretive about things – that’s a huge red flag! 

You have complete ownership and control – even down to the code. Nothing behind a firewall here! (No thank you, Microsoft!)

Now – assuming we KEEP all the good stuff with WordPress – let’s evaluate the major theme types by these criteria.

Cost of Divi V Elementor V KadenceWP V Astra

We have used free themes and they are not any worse than paid ones. In our experience some free ones are in the directory so that the developer can make a name for him/herself. And they are excellent.

We have traditionally used companies that have proven track record (like Genesis, StudioPress). And more recently, we’re using Kadence and they were offering a lifetime license for agencies. Yay me! 

  • Divi $89/year
  • Elementor $59/year
  • KadenceWP $0 – $129/yr

Site Speed aka Core Web Vitals

The biggest impact on speed is usually the media on your site. If you have that optimized(use WEBP!), and you’re on a good host(ahem, US!), using a CDN and caching plugin – then what is left is your site CODE. the technical stuff. Anything that adds code to your site adds time. So every plugin, every theme, template and copy/paste snippet you use – adds time to the page load.

We review Core Web vitals several times a day – every day. (We use GTMetrix for the fastest results that are a hybrid of real life and lab). When we’re reviewing Core Web Vitals scores, it is the DOM size that is most impacted by themes. 

Unless you’ve used Elementor, Divi or another page builder – then all bets are off. The emphasis on those themes and plugins are ease of use – not speed. To get the best speed, use the leanest theme you can find. 

  • Divi 3.1s (source)
  • Elementor 3.8s (source)
  • KadenceWP 1.8 s (my tests)

Are they SO easy to use that it is worth the speed cost? Let’s see.

Ease of Use

Nowadays, there should be very few widget areas. Everything should be in blocks. And the blocks should be based on WP blocks – so not reinventing the wheel. In 2023, we’ve had to undo two Elementor themes already(it’s June at time of writing). The users weren’t even using Elementor – it was the designer that used Elementor on their behalf! Shame on them! Elementor wrecks the pages when it is deactivated.

Easy to use? For designers, I hear it is.

How about Genesis by StudioPress?

Installation was hard to do and developing any new functions required developers. (the php-writing kind of developers to be specific). But the pages and posts were based on the classic editor.

The homepage was based on widgets. So in most cases, power users wouldn’t have trouble.

Example Widgets

But my friend!! It is 2023 and we have blocks now! 

Ease of Canceling 

Yeah, I made that up. But last week we were creating a new theme for an established blog. And we had to redo the pages – not just the design. We had to remake every single page and some posts… they had used Divi page builder to create some templates and added those templates into the pages. Elementor plugin and Divi theme both add shortcodes to the pages, which, when you switch themes, means your content disappears. 

Example Divi Page

So its important that you can cancel your chosen theme or plugin without loss of content!

Designs

Every time we get a new theme order and when we discuss pricing, the most important thing is the look of the site. But please please PLEASE hear me – as long as it is professional looking, you can go cheap on your theme. What you cannot succeed without is SEO-friendly code, security and the best user experience possible. If you have a choice, spend money on the user experience. And the design is a small piece of the ux. 

UX includes the responsiveness, the ease of finding things, congruency between the sending page and the landing page. Include enough contrast and white space to pass accessibility testing. (Try WCAG) 

A beautiful design, does not a fast, easy-to-use, secure site make. There are a million sites on Elementor – and they are NOT WordPress-friendly, Fast, or Long Lasting.

Divi has lots of templates that are beautiful – but they do not keep your site clean and lean. It will definitely impact the site loading time. 

Astra, Beaver Builder and Oxygen are also page builders, but from my research they have little impact on speed – yay! 

Can you handle some tough love for a moment? Designs should be the after thought when choosing a theme. Designs are the easy part. Please use these other criteria to pick a good company or developer, THEN pick a design you like.

Customizer:

This is the fun part! Review the customizer without any add-ons and additional plugins. This is about the theme itself (or page builder plugin)- the customizer is programmed by the theme. When reviewing a page builder or theme – ask these questions:

  1. How many options are in the customizer?
  2. Can you add custom colors and fonts with little levers and on/off buttons?
  3. Can you modify the placement of header elements – like the nav bars, logo and description placement?
  4. Can you use text or image logo? 
  5. Can you add sidebars? or site width? 
  6. Can you add popups or email signup boxes, programmatically? (verses having to add to each page or post manually).
  7. Can you add a couple columns with ads, menus or other options in the footer? Without any code or plugins? 

These need to be in the CUSTOMIZER – not in an ‘options page’ or theme page. Options pages are a relic from the old way of building themes. Options are now in the Customizer. And some theme-specific options – especially for overriding global options might be on a page-by-page basis. 

But in 2023, we do not use Custom Fields any longer. We do not need to use complicated plugins to gather the information to place the content on the page. We use blocks! 

We love blocks! 🙂 

WordPress Friendly Themes?

To be honest, this is THE big one for me. This is how I know that our themes are worth every penny we charge.

Now – I know you’re not a developer, but you need to evaluate whether the new theme you love is going to undo the very reasons why you chose WordPress. Stick with me for a sec, I’ll explain.

We’ve found over the years that a lot of developers from gig sites do this. They are true developers – they can write code in their sleep – but they don’t work with WordPress. The developer will overwrite the homepage, for example, with his own code – and ignore the built-in features created by WordPress – like blocks.

This presents a huge problem on the next upgrade. Right now we have a site that we have to copy, test and re-test before we can deploy ANY upgrades at all… the theme is breaking things left right and center. But after putting down $8-9K last year, our new client doesn’t want to part with it, just yet. So she ends up paying a ton in maintenance so that we can redo bits her theme every time she needs to update a plugin or function.

WP-Friendly Divi v Elementor v KadenceWP

  • Divi: no
  • Elementor: no
  • KadenceWP: yes

Want to avoid the paying-a-tonne-for-a-developer theme? Then get a WordPress-friendly developer.

Years ago, when WordPress was coming into popularity among universities and enterprise level companies – this was a popular topic for consultations. Developers that code with all the alphabets still need to stay on top of the latest trends – including WordPress.

Customer Support Divi v Elementor v KadenceWP

You know this one – we want support when we want it, how we want it! Easy peasy.

  • Divi: paying members only, 24/7 email and chat
  • Elementor: Account holder 24/7 email and chat
  • KadenceWP: Paying Members, 24/7 via email. Takes up to 24 hrs to get reply. But replies are always helpful and thorough, IMO.

Security

The same themes that are rewritten (see WordPress-Friendly) also eventually become less secure. One of the big benefits of WordPress is that it is constantly being upgraded and updated. It’s true that there are constantly people trying to hack WP (they need a productive hobby) but its also true that there are excellent security companies that find and fix those security issues, faster than you can read about them.

So will your non-WP-friendly theme from a gig site be insecure? Possibly. But it could be written brilliantly with all of today’s best standards of security. But what about next week and the month after that?

Security for Divi | Elementor | Kadencewp:

That is where WordPress shines – it pushes security updates all the time – and you need to USE them! But this is where those gig site themes run into issues. A theme that overwrites WP features will not be able to take advantage of security upgrades. And when you come to me to do a simple upgrade for you – it will require hours and hours to fix the theme just so we can do the ‘simple’ upgrade.

There is one thing I’ve noticed about the developers that do this. They have a god complex. You know what I mean? They are the expert, and they (usually) will not have the time or energy to explain themselves. You must just trust them. If there’s an attitude like that – run!

How long do Page Builders Last?

With a big investment, we want to get the most out of it. I get it. But with the speed of change on the internet this is one of the most difficult things to manage. Try to keep your expectations in check. We aim for 3 years. But that is a stretch – that means you keep it lean, always updated and upgraded and have solid WordPress hosting.

We do our best to keep sites up to date and code with the latest best practices in the hopes that it will last 3 years…. and that is ancient in internet years!! Page builders usually sell annual licenses and that is the length of time that they will support the theme. Support includes fixing bugs that conflict with common plugins. It would be impossible to make your page builder – or any theme – compatible with every plugin available.

But honestly, we can’t predict what things will change and how fast they will change – we just will be on the forefront of it so that we help you stay ahead of the curve. The older the site – the greater the chance of breaking.

Extensibility / Compatibility

Any theme, developed properly with WordPress best practices will be extensible. I mean you should be able to add a directory or a shop or 30 other functions – all at the same time. I’m not saying that is a good idea – I’m saying it should be possible. 

The leanest site is the best site so don’t go overboard! 

If a developer is telling you that you ‘can’t’ add this or that to the site, that is a problem. It means they have overwritten or undone some of the benefits of WordPress!

Remember – WordPress is inherently extensible. As long as you maintain the integrity of WordPress you shouldn’t have a problem.

Final Recommendations

If it isn’t obvious already we recommend the leanest theme that will get the job done. Of the ones we’ve discussed today – that would be KadenceWP. It is the leanest, fastest, extensible, supported, and compatible with WordPress.

Have a look at the beautiful sites we’ve built with KadenceWP and let me know if you’d like to discuss some options for your website!

Beginner Checklist

If you’re starting out, you’ll love our comprehensive 52 point checklist for your website! Read through once, and then work on items one at a time as it comes up!

52 Edits Checklist – beginners categories

Cathy Mitchell

Single Mom, Lifelong Learner, Jesus Follower, Founder and CEO at WPBarista.