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WP-Tonic: Page Speed, Theme Marketplaces, Frameworks

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

WP-Tonic is a somewhat new panel discussion show in the WordPress space. They have been producing monthly shows since September 2014, and hosts Bill Conrad and Jonathan Denwood have been publishing a weekly WordPress podcast since July 2014. Jonathan is an organizer of the Reno WordPress Meetup and runs the web agency Digital Delirium. Bill is a veteran, former city councilman, podcaster and entrepreneur running Timelines of Success and New Media Gold.

I’ve had the pleasure of being a panel member on the WP-Tonic monthly discussion since October 2014. Here’s some of the other amazing panelists on this show.

These are some smart and talented people, and there is a lot to learn from these discussions, especially for folks working in the WordPress ecosystem.

With the recent new that Google is testing a warning label in mobile search results for slow loading sites, I thought it timely to go back to a discussion we had in October 2014 about how to improve page speed in WordPress. Enjoy the video. Show notes are below.

WP-Tonic Live: "The Meaning of Speed!"

My Own Show Notes

0:30 Introductions (Adam, David, Jonathan, Bill, and myself).

4:15 News Stories in WordPress.

4:30 Adam Silver talks about his recent troubles with Host Gator. Also his experiences with Mojo Marketplace overriding free theme selection to push paid themes in a bit of a UX dark pattern.

6:15 David Laietta talking about the debut of Loop Conf in May 2015.

8:02 I discuss Envato tightening their code quality requirements.

9:16 Staying on the subject of Envato and ThemeForest, I discuss the vulnerabilities in the Slider Revolution plugin that affected hundreds of thousands of sites, highlighting another reason WordPress developers should never bundle plugins into commercial themes.

9:56 Jonathan Denwood draws a comparison to the Tom Thumb vulnerability that some themes still have. Jonathan makes a great point — that plugins that are no longer being updated shouldn’t be used in production (live) sites.

<strong11:32 David discusses how plugin authors can notify users if they are no longer supporting and updating a particular piece of code. This is something that would be extremely useful, as tons of code gets used in themes and forgotten about. Perhaps a notification system.

12:05 “It’s difficult to control how everyone’s going to use it”.

12:37 Adam relates how difficult it is for clients to maintain updates on WordPress core and plugins. Sometimes clients turn off notifications without realizing it, and things never get updated. This is a common issue, and probably why WordPress.org has been working with some of the major hosting companies in 2015 (like WP Engine) to do automatic updates of WordPress core when they roll out. This ensures at least part of the security and update chain gets taken care of.

14:20 Is WordPress inherently slower than other CMS’ like Drupal, Expression Engine or Joomla, or is that completely inaccurate?

15:00 Adam remarks that the base install of WordPress has gone from 11MB in v2.9 to 33MB in 4.0. Twenty-five plugins will cause slowness. So will substandard hosting.

16:01 David says speed has been a search engine ranking signal for a while. He focuses on a minimal design, removing extraneous elements. “You’re not in the bling world?” “No.” David questions the inclusion of everything. Smart man.

17:35 I state WordPress is not inherently slow, and suffers from a perception that it is not “real programming” by some developers. WordPress is harder than it looks, and more complicated than people realize. 23% of the web would not be powered by WordPress if it were garbage code.

18:23 Many factors can slow down a website. Shared hosting will bog down any code base. Some themes are being designed to be a “Swiss army knife” and are laden with features that are unnecessary. The future of themes is moving towards specialization, and away from bloated code.

19:18 Web pages as an industry average are getting larger and larger. But mobile is the default user view. So we need to consider building for mobile first and loading images and code as the viewport goes up towards desktop. Web developers tend to not realize how large their sites are, because we work with fast broadband connections, and our equipment doesn’t always reflect how sites will be viewed by average users.

20:20 Bill has been focused on speed for over a year. He uses the Genesis framework with the Dynamik Builder and a limited number of plugins. Speed is how you get business and revenue. He is working on a podcasting system for regular users who may not be acclimated to WordPress.

21:33 Adam brings up the stat that users expect your site to load in three seconds or they bounce. He tells a story about one plugin that was responsible for 12 seconds of load time, so he took it off his site until he could rewrite it.

23:20 David talks about developers needing to test in real world conditions — on wi-fi, on mobile devices, with JavaScript disabled, etc.

24:40 Jonathan posits that ThemeForest may be responsible for some of these expectations. Not because they are a marketplace, but because they have been lenient with what they allow to be sold. Code bloat may even be encouraged, and not discouraged. He ponders whether Automattic should get into the premium theme marketplace business. What does the panel think?

26:35 Adam asks what are the most popular themes on ThemeForest. David says Theme X and Avada. Adam says he has two clients using Avada. One is considering moving to Squarespace. The other is going crazy with trying to customize the options on Avada. He says supporting 2600 themes from a marketplace is difficult.

27:38 If you can find a theme that gets you close, great. Otherwise, it’s better to go with a custom theme. Adam says he uses Genesis with Headway and that works for his client base.

28:20 David wonders if Automattic owns Mojo Marketplace, and that may be why hosts that offer themes surface Mojo prominently. At Orange Blossom, they use Genesis with Underscores for most everything, and they have two main code bases they can work with quickly and efficiently.

29:14 David says ThemeForest is not, in itself, a bad place. But there are at least 8,000 developers, each with different code bases, ideologies, and best practices. That is too many for anyone to keep up with. Some are not so bad, but he cannot lump everyone together.

30:00 I agree ThemeForest is not bad by itself. The problem lies in the process. Clients (and some agencies) see the web design process as going to ThemeForest, picking a theme, and making decisions based on how something compares against our imagination of the project. But unless you’ve already worked with a theme, it’s impossible to know how easy or difficult it will be to work with.

31:10 I suggest it might be easier to work with known quantities, then expand outwards. Find trusted theme shops whose code base we know, and that we know will be supported by the theme authors down the line.

31:40 Adam brings up Bill Erickson, who exclusively uses Genesis as his base, and works directly with designers. This allows him to work quickly and efficiently. Clients do no get hung up on the particular technology used, they want the agreed upon work, in a certain timeline, for a certain budget. As long as it gets done, that is the important part.

32:50 Adam gets a message from friends at Automattic, who are watching this broadcast. They say Automattic does not own Mojo Marketplace, but Mojo does freemium themes exclusive for the WordPress.com service.

33:30 We get a new panelist, Chad Bush of Raven’s Eye Design, joining us, but his sound is choppy.

34:00 Jonathan wonders why Theme X is so popular.

34:40 Adam says he is not familiar with Theme X. He is busy dealing with custom themes that were written in 2009.

34:49 David says Theme X is popular because everyone wants the intersection of price and flexibility. Many people want something custom, but do not want to pay for custom development. He is not personally familiar with the code base, but reinforces the soundness of the WordPress way, which is “Decisions, not options”.

36:13 I have only vaguely heard of Theme X. I theorize that it is popular because clients want to jump to making decisions about what themes to use. But as developers, we need to go through the discovery process and help them make that decision about theme selection, as it affects everything after that.

37:45 Jonathan why theme frameworks are necessary. Why do developers choose to enter a ecosystem like that of StudioPress when they can stay with WordPress core?

39:03 Adam chose Genesis because of the way his brain works. Many years ago, he needed to update his photography site. He originally went with Thesis, but their retargeting marketing was incessant. He happened upon Headway, and it worked great for him. It made his life easier. He made one choice, and kind of stuck with it, learning it inside and out.

40:40 Chad is still having audio technical difficulties, but the visual signal is perfect.

41:22 David chose Genesis after they spent lots of time configuring ThemeForest themes. He saw it was a duplication of effort to continually be learning how certain pages and widgets worked on every single theme. Genesis uses hooks elegantly, and deprecated code is dealt with gracefully. He uses a framework to save time in custom development.

42:58 I state I know many people that use Genesis, and I see why it is an advantage for them. I myself develop themes based on WordPress core. For custom themes, I use a starter theme like Underscores or Starkers. For other clients, I will do a child theme for an existing theme from a theme shop I trust. I suppose I see being locked into a specific framework as a limitation of what is possible, but I see why other developers choose to work with frameworks like Genesis.

44:40 David says people seek Orange Blossom Media out because they are looking for WordPress, but stops short of marketing his company as a Genesis shop. He does say that certain clients have found them because they were looking specifically for a studio that could do WordPress with Genesis. He says it has helped people find them, even though they don’t broadcast it explicitly.

45:40 Jonathan believes StudioPress is a great company, but they are a private company. He believes WordPress was built on open-source, and feels leery about getting locked into a private company framework when that could mean that development data is locked into their system.

47:10 David values open-source. He sees WordPress as the easiest to export data from, unlike other platforms.

48:28 Chad is able to introduce himself, as his audio signal is resolved.

49:50 Chad has been developing for 16 years, and says WordPress has been a full-fledged CMS for a while now, but in its very earliest days, it was not equipped to be.

50:00 Chad has dabbled with some of the theme frameworks, and he says he doesn’t like them. He can get around easier in code than he can in a framework. He has a starter theme which he will probably open-source shortly. He doesn’t even use child themes. He does use Genesis or Canvas for wireframes and mockups only. He says it is tedious to get what he wants in a framework. Every once in a while, WordPress core will update and he will have to fix an older theme, because it breaks, but that is rare.

52:50 Chad uses the built-in Gallery and just re-styles it on the front-end.

53:48 Jonathan says StudioPress is a balanced company, but Thesis went too far. He asks David about this.

54:25 David admits he wrote a theme framework a few years ago that used Tim Thumb. He was never big into Thesis. He focuses more on making things look great and less on SEO. He says Thesis was marketed as a high converting, SEO focused framework. David elaborates that Genesis markets itself as having beautiful code and beautiful design. But clients only care about results, not what technology that gets them there.

56:40 Jonathan brings up a question about price. Commercial themes are good for clients on a budget. Custom design and development on larger budgets means he works with a designer, and works out the code framework beforehand. He requires the site content and assets up front. What does the panel think about this?

58:41 Adam goes over his process. He patterns himself after Bill Erickson. Bill develops on a staging server, and lets the client upload assets as long as they need, then pushes the site to a production host when ready. Adam brings up non-profits as being notorious for delaying the process of getting final site content ready. Adam cautions developers against waiting for site content before developing, as many clients won’t have this ready when the process starts.

1:01:49 Jonathan mentions Andrew Clarke as another well-known designer who requires the content up front, so the structure of the site can be determined.

1:02:00 Chad uses content for wireframes. This reduces the overall risk of the project, as the client can take that wireframe anywhere and get the job finished if they so choose. He gets to know the client better, and can get a better sense of the project. Chad says it would be awesome if designers could get all the content before the project begins, but in his experience, that is a fantasy. He has never had all the content for a project before it begins. If he did have all the content, he thinks it likely it would be changed mid-way through the process, either by the client, or by him seeing what would work and what wouldn’t.

1:03:20 Jonathan clarifies that he wants to see that some work has been done and some thought has been put into the content. If the content is all left to the last-minute, that can cause some major problems.

1:03:42 Jonathan asks David if you can create an effective design without content.

1:03:56 David reports that Orange Blossom Media does content first web design. If the client does not give them access to content early, they do not want to do too much work. This is stated clearly in their agreements. If the content doesn’t fit the design later on, that is the client’s responsibility. He says they have been burned in the past (clients wanted landscape photos, then changed their mind and wanted portrait photos), and this made the design look horrendous, as everything was built for the other format. Another example was making space for three paragraphs and receiving one sentence. For this reason, OBM makes each stage be approved and signed off. If they have to go all the way back to the wireframe stage, then the client is charged for stepping through the stages again. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and there are no last-second changes.

1:05:26 I agree that content first web development is the way to go. I assert that many folks in the web industry imagine design as making things look good, and then throwing stuff into a pre-built container.

1:06:20 Our clients have to connect with their customers. Getting content ahead of time has been a real issue, but the industry is shifting towards that stance. The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to get final content created and approved. The smaller the organization, the more firm you can be about getting content ahead of time. But developers can’t wait around forever. We need to keep our machines running, so we cave in. I think this is a mistake — designing in the absence of content.

1:07:55 Jonathan says as long as he feels the client is trying to work with him, he is a bit flexible.

1:08:51 People want custom design, but usually don’t want to pay a ton. The price of themes will probably go up soon, because the current business model is hard to sustain. There is a friction between the markets (theme marketplaces and custom development). How will this resolve in the next couple of years?

1:09:50 Adam believes theme marketplaces will continue to exist. WordPress is only at 23% market saturation. There are tons of people who dabble and don’t need to hire a custom developer yet. Some people just need quick customizations. Adam talks about value, experience and knowledge. Experienced developers bring a lot more to the table, but for a certain segment of the web development market, they cannot compete with a college student living in their parent’s basement.

1:11:40 Adam does not think the prices of themes on Envato or Template Monster will go up. The price of premium themes will definitely go up, because you are paying for support and updates. For freemium themes or ThemeForest, you don’t pay for support, so the price will stay the same. Adam brings up app stores, and how most people see apps as being worth $1, but premium apps are worth $20–30. If it is a tool, invest in it.

1:12:17 Chad doesn’t see ThemeForest as a competitor to what he does. For family members that can’t afford what he does, he sends to WordPress.com. People who have a budget to buy what he does — they don’t even look at ThemeForest, because they know the difference. It’s a whole different economy.

1:13:25 I also don’t see ThemeForest as a competitor to what I do, but I think it won’t disappear. There will be businesses that believe that they should only invest $50 in their most important marketing tool, and if that is how they value their business, they are unlikely to get anywhere. Only 2% of regular people who attempt to build their own site are able to launch a site without help. People who try to do it themselves with a ThemeForest theme get stuck 98% of the time and have to reach out for help from a developer.

1:15:50 Final Comments. Adam says it’s about bringing value to the client.

1:16:09 Chad says whatever fits the client’s needs and budget is the right answer. Our job is to help them find the best fit.

1:16:35 I say a simple theme is good if you are just starting and need to get something online. It is very odd for an established company to go with a $50 theme as an answer. That is not such a good fit. Our value is being a partner and adviser, not just a set of hands.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

2 comments on “WP-Tonic: Page Speed, Theme Marketplaces, Frameworks

  1. Thanks for this post, John.

    I like how your show notes have outlined the salient points of the discussion.

    Strangely, the notes make me want to go back and watch the actual recorded show.

    Your points raised at 1:13:25 are very well put, thank you.

    I completely agree that in this day and age, a website is probably one of, if not *the* most important marketing agents that a business has. To imagine that a $50 investment in such an agent will result in high yield for the business is..well.. difficult to take seriously.

    Unfortunately, there are businesses who think they can spend $50 and earn thousands in sales. To some of them, a theme is the business.

    Unsurprisingly, most of such businesses end up spinning wheels, and never getting their site off the ground.

    Instead, they’re stuck in the constant “theme-changing” hamster wheel, as though a WordPress theme is their business: as you mentioned in 1:05:26, some site owners imagine they can just throw content into a container with a nice looking design.

    Part of the problem might be the expectations that have been set by online media and theme marketplaces. “some” site owners expect to be able to put up enterprise level web solutions in minutes, for less than $100. They are always sorely disappointed.

    I like this post, and the show notes format, thanks for laying it out in this way.

    I’m off to watch the recording.

  2. Thanks for reading, CJ. The expectations of what a website should cost, and the process of building a website have been affected by theme marketplaces. Mario Peshev has suggested that if all WordPress themes suddenly had a entry price of $250 dollars, the lowest price websites would disappear, as expectations would change.

    A theme is just a container. By itself, it is not capable of gathering and converting leads.

    But the business that wants to DIY or pay as little as possible for a website is only viewing a website as a checkmark that has to be ticked off a list. I don’t feel that this particular segment of the market realizes that the digital age is upon us.

    Form what I’ve seen, this market segment is more willing to spend $500 and six months to a year trying to DIY than to spend a reasonable amount hiring a developer or small team to hone a message, pick a theme, design, build and launch a site in a matter of weeks.

    You are correct, in stating that this segment spins their wheels and never launches anything at all.

    I’ll be catching up these videos eventually, but the show notes take a while to do like this — I can’t bust them out quickly.

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