According to WordPress, themes are “files that work together to create the design and functionality of a WordPress site. Each theme may be different, offering many choices for site owners to instantly change their website look.” WordPress themes (along with plugins) are one of the greatest drivers of WordPress’ success in that they have made owning a website approachable to millions of people with no website development experience.
The majority of the time, themes are the less-ideal way to go for law firm websites. The only real immediate benefit of a theme is that it is cheaper to design, develop and launch. The reality is that a law firm will have their website design for two to five years (sometimes longer). If you break it down to the ROI lost by going with a theme, the immediate savings from using a theme is not nearly as attractive. The reason is because of the average site speed with themes. One of the things that most themes do is — well — everything. By everything, we mean that they try to cover every possible business and user type because the more ways the theme can be used, the more money for the developer. Take a look at the Themeforest HUGE theme. From a development standpoint, each of those additional features requires code.
Code is the set of instructions that tell the server how to provide the functionality. For each feature, that means more code, and more instructions the server has to follow to produce the site. The more code that the server and your browser has to load, the longer it takes to produce the pages, and the slower your site is. Many themes come with Woocommerce support, which is fine for firms that want to sell T-shirts and mugs on their site, but for the majority of law firms, it is extra weight that is potentially slowing down the load time of your pages.
But What About Performance Improvement (Caching) Plugins?
There are a bazillion performance-improvement plugins for WordPress. Probably the most popular is W3 Total Cache. The majority of caching programs work by storing an html version of each page so that the server doesn’t have to rebuild the page from code (see above) each time it is requested by someone’s web browser. This reduces the page’s load time because the server does not have to process the code for every request. These programs also perform several other functions, but it is beyond the scope of this discussion.
The major issue is that there is a reason there is a Mobile First strategy in almost all avenues of professional app and website development today. The largest consideration (other than screen size) for mobile should be speed. Not every city and town has blazing 4G speeds, and in some places speed is degraded based on the number of people using the nearest tower at one time (that is why it is sometimes hard to make calls at sporting events). Since in some cases 60 percent of law firm website traffic comes from mobile, mobile (and mobile speed) should be top-of-mind. Speed should be considered by the designer, the developer, and then lastly the server admin – not as an afterthought.
What Does This Mean For My Bottom Line?
At Consultwebs, the vast majority of our sites are designed and hand-coded from scratch. The biggest reason for this is that we control what goes into a site – and more importantly, what doesn’t. Our clients don’t need Woocommerce and Portfolio functionality, so we don’t include it.
Let’s do an ROI exercise. There is a popular statistic shared by Google a few years ago and more recently by Kissmetrics: A 1-second delay in page response can result in a 7 percent reduction in conversions.
The above is the best case in some respects. For example, a 5 percent total traffic conversion rate is pretty good, and also a 15 percent lead conversion rate is at the high end. Most firms fall somewhere in the 5-15 percent range, and the ones with a locked-down intake flow are toward the 15 percent. The numbers are staggering and they should give you a healthy dislike for bloated themes and slowness.
Why Do Many Agencies Use Themes?
The reality is that not all themes are bad. Many agencies like themes because it saves them time in design and development. It also means that less-skilled developers can create sites because the majority of themes cater to non-developers. The theme developers will add things like a visual page builder, options panel, drag-and-drop functionality that allow non-developers to change colors, images, and layout to suit the project needs. The themes are also usually nice-looking and a bit flashy.
Using themes also gives some agencies the ability to send their clients many different options for their site’s look without having to think about design. For example, Themeforest has 6,302 WordPress themes, and they are just one of the theme marketplaces. This is not ideal from our perspective, because your brand is being dictated by a theme created for others and your site has to carry the baggage of all the functionality that makes the theme ideal to a large base of businesses. We employ full-time designers and developers who care intensely about brand and speed. We like to produce sites tailored to your needs, and not tweak a theme created for everyone.
Are Their Any Other Problems With Themes?
The only other major objection to themes, besides speed, is they can potentially pose security and future development nightmares. Because of all the added complexity that the theme has to use to make it approachable by non-developers and wide-ranging use cases, it also makes it more difficult for developers to understand and makes it more likely that poorly written code could be hidden in the jungle of code. There have been several famous exploits for WordPress over the last few years that have used code commonly found in many themes. The bottom line is the more bloated a theme is, the more costly it is for you to have someone fix an issue, and the more likely you are to be susceptible to hacking.
Plugins are modules that can be added to a site that offer specific functionality. Some of the most popular plugins are contact forms, event plugins, SEO plugins, etc. At the time this was written, there were 43,610 plugins registered on WordPress.org. We love plugins. Plugins are one of the reasons that we chose to go with WordPress in the first place. Plugins to us mean cost savings for our clients. If a client wants specific functionality, and there is a plugin that provides 95 percent of it, then there are substantial savings in development cost by going that way. But, plugins are scary things for us as well. Some of the major reasons are:
- The gross majority of plugins are developed by random developers and companies, not the core WordPress team.
- Malicious and/or undesirable code can be included in plugins.
- Plugin developers are rarely security experts.
- Plugins can become outdated and break your site if not updated along with WordPress updates.
- Plugins can slow your site down by employing functionality that taxes the server.
- Because of the number of plugins, there is no developer who is familiar with the majority of them.
Many agencies use plugins for the same reason they use themes. It is very easy to add any kind of functionality your client is asking for without really much development experience at all. This is great for the agency, but not so great for the law firm. We have a shortlist of about twenty plugins that we commonly use across our sites. Each of these plugins have been reviewed by Certified PHP Developers for speed, bloat, and security. We actually do not allow any plugin to be used on our sites without going through this process. The reason is that plugins are a common cause of website speed issues, as well as security vulnerabilities.
Over the last year, in reviewing sites from other vendors, we almost always find plugins that have had known security exploits, are from developers with suspect reputations, or that add bloatware / advertising to the backend of the site. As with all things in the technology space, if you are getting something for free, you most likely are the product. Most plugins that are of merit will offer a developer / individual license where you can buy the plugin. Buying the plugin means you are paying for future development (i.e. updates, security patches, etc.), and you are using a plugin that fulfills only its purpose and isn’t going to try to sell you anything else. Whether paid or free though, it is a good idea to make sure that all plugins are reviewed by a competent developer.
Speed And Google
If the potential loss of a million dollars in revenue over four years didn’t convince you to pay attention to your website’s speed, lets try another way. Below is a chart of an analysis we performed across nearly 130,000 service industry ranking URLs.
There is a relatively strong correlation between your website’s load speed and rank in Google. It actually gets even more pronounced when you get to the number one spot. Not only that, but if you take a look in Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) at this chart:
We will commonly see a direct hit on your Google crawl budget as the amount of time it takes Google to crawl your page increases. This is the view that shows pages Google crawls per day:
Reducing your download time to 250 milliseconds (down from over a thousand) will significantly impact the frequency with which Google crawls your site (in most cases).
So, not only does speed have an impact on conversions, but it also may keep you from even showing up for the searches that you want to show up for. That is why it is imperative that you know your page load speed and you run screaming from anything that has potential of harming it. Not only do we focus on designing and developing sites from scratch so that your site only has what it absolutely needs, but we also partnered with Pagely a couple years ago to make our hosting industry-leading as well.
Pagely offered us the ability to use some industry-leading technologies that are tailored for WordPress sites. We migrated all clients to their infrastructure at no additional cost to our clients. A few of the important items listed below will help you to qualify your own host.
- Real-time Malware Scanning
- DDoS + Brute Force prevention
- NGINX (fast)
- Memcached Object Caching
- Built-in page caching
- CDN (Content Delivery Network)
A few great tools to review your site from a speed standpoint are:
This is a sore spot for me. Often when we take over a new client, we run into restrictions with using a client’s existing website because the previous vendor has them in a proprietary software. Even more dastardly, we will find out that the previous vendor owns all the content on the site, as well as the design. Perhaps we are a bit foolish, but if for some reason we are not a good fit for a particular law firm, we want that firm to be able to keep what they paid for. Having your site in proprietary software or having a contract that says you own nothing seems crazy to me. Here are a few other items to consider when an agency is defending their proprietary software or their practice of owning your site:
- The cost of content development for a new site to replace all content held hostage by the agency.
- Your lost revenue from cases you will not get until your rankings recover after the removal of past content
- The cost of purchasing existing content and site design from the agency (if that is an option).
- The inability to add future functionality that may not be compatible with their software (with WordPress almost everything is possible).
Portability is one of the biggest reasons that we chose to go with WordPress years ago. There is no lack of agencies and developers that are versed in using WordPress, meaning that you can leave one vendor and go to another without having to start from scratch with your website. Or you can host the site yourself. Developing a new website is no small expense. In most cases, a new website can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000, depending on how it is developed and how much new content it needs to perform. This is in addition to the fact that your website is your identity on the web and a primary driver of new business. Why would you pay a agency to develop one, just to have to start from scratch if you leave that agency?
We pride ourselves on developing great sites. The fact is, we really care about doing it the right way, and in many cases it pains us to see law firms led in a direction that we know is incorrectly costing them money and costing them cases. Themes are a lucrative way to go for many agencies because it means a good margin on website creation without the cost of hiring great designers and developers. We think that great designers and developers are the only way that a law firm is going to get a website that is fast, brand / UVP (unique value proposition) focused, and tailored for all devices.
The last thing we wanted to add is a short cheat sheet for law firms to reference when qualifying agencies for their new website. This is at least a starting point to make sure that you are asking the right questions. You can download this resource here.