Pre-built Template vs Custom Build – Which website foundation is best?

Thursday, 27 August 2015  |  Posted in: Articles  |  7min read

There are a lot of decisions to be made once the need for a new business website has been established. While improving things like styling, content, functionality and lead generation are all sighted as common reasons for change, the decision on how best to go about building your new website is often left unchecked or factored only based on immediate budget.

Understanding how your website will be built ultimately arms you with the knowledge of what can be created, changed and what risks are associated with the design and functionality of your website. The short term gain of initial price for a template site may be negated if wholesale changes to existing templates result in breaking the site and incur further costs to fix vs designing from scratch to achieve your goals from the outset. The choice must weigh up price benefits of using templates vs how much you may want to change them to suit your brand or business objectives via functionality. One size almost never fits all.


Can templates still be unique?

Most ready-made template options support a limited amount of ‘easy to apply’ customization – such as being able to apply your company’s style guide to the interface (logos, colours, brand images and text). Most of these templates will also allow you to select from an option list of pre-configured layout formats to give your website a more unique and changeable appearance.

Despite the ability to customize the appearance of your website to a point, a pre-built website template will never be totally unique – nor will it be exclusive in any way. There could be thousands of other businesses who are using the same ‘cookie cutter’ template. While for some, there may be the option to pay an “exclusivity” price, anyone who has already bought the template retains the right to use it.


Are templates time (and therefore cost) effective?

Using a pre-built website template can work out to be quite cost effective when compared to the cost of embarking on a custom built version. Pre-built templates typically require less, or in some cases absolutely no web coding effort at all. Provided you require no changes to the pre-built features and have your content correctly prepared, you can have your online business up and running quickly and with minimal fuss.


But not ALL pre-built template applications are time and cost effective.

In fact, in some situations a template site can actually cost more than a custom built solution – in the long term.

Why? There can be many reasons for this, however the most common reasons exist in how the templates have been designed and built. Many pre-built templates are created by multiple developers, and do not adhere to any particular build or compliance standard. This can result in issues being experienced relating to poor testing and development practices both during development and after deployment has taken place.

Debugging and modifying pre-built templates to solve these issues can prove to be quite problematic and result in extra time to resolve than if you had custom built your website from scratch.

While a custom built website can take longer to develop and test initially, at the end of the process you achieve a website that looks (and functions) as expected.


Scaling website templates

Pre-built website templates contain features which are limited to the original parameters for which they were intended. Trying to do things such as significantly increase the site map or information architecture of the website, alter how functions are performed or try to retro fit text or images which are too big into the template skin may often cause undesirable results such as image distortion, web browser incompatibilities or even cause elements of the website to break entirely.

Depending on where the pre-built website template was originally sourced, the developer may not be aware of all the code limitations which that particular template will have. This can lead to a lengthy (and sometimes expensive) process of identifying errors, fixing and retesting.

In extreme cases the need for major additional development can be required to scale or modify the pre-built template to accommodate any desired changes which exceed original build constraints and add further time and costs to your new website project.

As a general rule, here at The Digital Embassy we typically do not recommend major customization be carried out on third party sourced, pre-built website templates unless the template itself was designed in house by our own team of qualified experts.  By having a better understanding of how and under what development practices the original pre-built template was created, we can accurately assess how best to introduce website changes if needed.


Content & Accessibility

Most pre-built templates make it easy for you to add your own content as long as you work within the pre-defined fields allocated. When it comes to image optimisation, most templates do not have the ability to automatically optimise your images for online use. Poor optimisation of images can have a significant impact on the speed and load time of your website. Therefore, you will need to allow more time to prepare and optimise your images for website use.

If you intend to make your website accessible to the majority of readers you may be better off choosing a custom template as most pre-built third party website templates do not meet WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards and may require significant edits to bring them up to speed.

Are pre-built templates optimised for search engines?
Most pre-built website templates are not search engine friendly ‘out of the box’. This will require you, or your developer, to make changes to your website by incorporating title tags, meta descriptions and setting up 301 redirects.


Ongoing maintenance

Whether going template or custom, consideration needs to be made as to what the ongoing maintenance requirements will be when planning a new website.

All websites require ongoing adjustments to remain compatible with the latest internet browsers. Assuming a new site is using the most current version of the CMS platform it resides on, initial maintenance costs to support the software should be kept to a minimum. As time goes on however, security patches and software updates will need be applied to maintain operational integrity.

Pre-built templates are not designed to account for future versions of the CMS platforms. By making the necessary updates when the time comes, this can turn what appears to be a simple procedure into a harrowing, anxiety filled process for website administrators. While some platform compatibility issues can be resolved easily and without fuss, others may require significant work to rectify – not the mention the disruption and embarrassment caused when your website is offline.

While a custom built website can also suffer the same fate, here at The Digital Embassy, software maintenance issues tend to happen less frequently due to our more robust development practices being used to create them initially. Choosing to build a custom designed website also makes for greater ongoing support and maintenance services because the developer would have intimate knowledge of the entire site.


Make the right choice for your business

Pre-built website templates can be an ideal, low cost solution for small businesses or community based organizations who require a relatively basic website presence and do not anticipate the requirement to scale their site in both size and features in the short and medium term.

Custom designed and built websites are suited to companies and organizations who require a highly functional website which accurately reflects their brand in the form of a very specific user experience which aligns directly to business objectives and conversion requirements.

Regardless of whether you choose a pre-built template or a custom solution for your website, it is important to ensure that the final product is capable of meeting your business objectives and the needs of your consumers now and in the foreseeable future. Always remember that your website is often going to be someone’s first impression of your brand – it’s essential that it’s a good one.

To discuss templates vs custom builds and get your website project underway, contact The Digital Embassy on +61 8 8365 6577 or start a conversation here.

Image source, username: Rebecca Siegel
Used under the Creative Commons licence

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