WordPress "Hot Topics" Series
The WordPress community is continually bubbling with creativity, innovations, news, and updates, from the latest and greatest theme to a fabulous new plugin that is revolutionizing SEO. In 2016 alone so far, we’ve seen the release of WordPress 4.5 "Coleman" and learned from WordPress is used by 59.4% of all the websites whose content management system we know. This is 26.4% of all websites.
Over the next several weeks, we're going to examine some of these current WordPress "hot topics" more closely and answer some of your burning questions. We'll also include some of our own WordPress experts' opinions and advice.
Drag and drop WordPress page builders
What better topic than this one could we start with, uh? Page builders, also known as Drag and Drop theme builders, are an interesting topic within the WordPress community (as well as in others) because you either love them or hate them. There's no room left in between; users and professionals, like web developers or web designers, don't even agree whether these tools are more useful or a threat to them.
So let's start diving in and look at what's good in these page builders that makes them appealing.
WordPress page builders: The Pros
- Great for people without programming knowledge
- Easy to use
- Simplify running and managing a website
- Lots of different options and choices
They're useful to non-Programming website owners
For the average website owner who has little to no programming knowledge, drag and drop website building plugins are a godsend. It's that straightforward, but you'll see in a while it's not gold all that glitters.
They're easy to use
In the image below of the Visual composer menu, you can see how easy it is to drag or drop any row or page element in order to rearrange them. You can also duplicate any row or element. When you’ve finally created a great design, you can save it as a template.
There's plenty of elements you can choose to add to your page, just click on "add element" and, right from here, you can add a multitude of different page features, such as text boxes, headings, social sharing, images and galleries, toggles and tabs, and more.
Themes are also coming with drag and drop functionality. With many drag and drop WordPress theme (see the image as an example) you can simply drag and drop components into your page and rearrange everything to create a terrific completely customizable landing page.
They simplify running a website
With customizable plugins and themes, the average website owner can modify and edit almost all of their website elements with just a few clicks. Not only does this simplify the task of running and maintaining a website, but it makes the entire process more enjoyable. There are plenty of options for website owners today, with plugins like Visual Composer, Beaver Builder, MotoPress Content Editor, etc. just to name a few of the most famous.
Lots of options and choices
You can find multi-functional drag and drop website builders incorporated in premium WordPress themes as well as a more simplified version in free themes. They have been growing in popularity since their introduction these past few years. For instance, Visual composer, which was the first ever WordPress plugin for building pages that supports extensions / plugins, was introduced in 2011 and currently is used on more than 500,000+ websites today. It is #1 best selling frontend and backend drag and drop builder.
There are also continue newer plugins and themes to consider. Valley Forge Page Builder was released in November 2015, but has already racked up over 1000 installs and has a nearly perfect 4.9 star rating.
Now that we've looked at all the "good stuff", it's time for what goes against this type of plugins and themes.
WordPress page builder: The Cons
- Create the potential for inexperienced users to mess up their website
- Slower to work with than programming
- SEO could be hindered
- Sluggish loading
- Create a "locked-in" feeling for users/developers
They target inexperienced users
Page builders are powerful tools, and when you give inexperienced website builders these tools, things can go wrong. Website novices can mistakenly make their website overly complex, require users of the site to do much clicking, or most often they might accidentally create a site that is attractive and lacking in design aesthetics.
Controversial & slower to work with than programming
Page builders are particularly controversial within the WordPress developer community. By their very nature, page builders introduce constraints for developers, so it can be frustrating for them to try to work with and around these limits. They can also slow developers down, and are often slower to work with than programming code because of all the required clicking. Finally, as a matter of pride, some developers feel that it's not as "pure" as traditional development and website building, where everything and anything is possible.
Some people feel that SEO will be hindered if the plugin or theme generates heavy markup or non-semantic code. And some of these plugins do generate exactly this kind of overly complex code that would be near impossible for a beginner-intermediate WordPress user to debug or simplify.
Slow site speed
Although you may think that installing just one plug-in wouldn't affect your site speed, it actually could negatively impact your site speed. These "short" codes are also shortcuts for longer, more complex strings of code. More code translates to a greater demand on your web server, resulting in slow website speed, which is bad news for SEO as well.
The "locked-in" feeling
A final downside is that some people can feel "locked in" with page builder plugins and themes. By their nature, they create lots of shortcodes (code shortcuts). Even when you deactivate these plugins, the shortcodes remain behind for you to clean up on each and every single page. No wonder some people feel stuck with the page builder plugins and themes - the required changes seem simply overwhelming!
WordPress pros weigh in
Matt Medeiros, from the Matt report Podcast, likes web page builders because they allow WordPress to be used for many kinds of different customers. He cautions that of course there can be bad experiences with page builders (like page builders that create excessive code), but then there can also be great experiences. Matt thinks that
Page builders can be a great solution for a consultant or client that need to build something affordably and efficiently.
To hear of Matt's interview with Kim Doyal, the WordPress Chick, and how he came to create Conductor plugin, be sure to tune in here!
Chris Lema, WordPress evangelist and famous blogger, has written extensively about WordPress page builders. He thinks that
we'll be seeing more website builders and not less. The solutions that they propose non-coding clients is priceless. They give clients, a chance to have a great look, and a chance to make it their own.
As for page builder plugins, he recommends Beaver Builder for freelancers because of its flexibility. Besides that, there's a "recent" player gathering attention with more than 800k active installs worth checking: Elementor Page Builder.
What our WordPress experts say
Raleigh Leslie explains it thoroughly:
Many developers aim to build the leanest and fastest performing websites and attribute these 'advanced layout builders' as hindering that effort. Truth be told these site built this way can still be tremendously fast and enable the engagement with the developer to not be a lifetime sentence but instead enables a website owner to better self-manage a website without constantly hiring an expert developer for everything. New platforms, like Squarespace for example, lean heavily on this benefit of how easy their sites are to build/manage and are still fast and beautiful. In reality, WordPress has this same capability if you learn to embrace these premium themes with quality builders.
Technically yes, a WordPress theme built from scratch for performance will be faster than a premium theme that uses a visual composer or advanced layout editor. But most often site speed and performance are determined by other factors such as hosting and image optimization for example. To show this better I ran a speedtest on the Enfold WordPress theme demo site which shows some metrics that are impressive enough to make me not concerned about performance with the theme that utilizes a backend builder.
That's a 1.1 second loading time.
When deciding to build your theme from scratch or to use a premium builder or theme you need to think about the end user of the site and who will be maintaining it. Often, developers think purely from a developer's point of view and see no need for a layout builder because they can code cleaner without it. But the developer needs to remember it's not always in the client's best interest to always have to request/pay for a developer for making little changes to their new website. For me as a developer, I don't think any client relationship should have to be a lifetime engagement and I like to set my clients free with their new site and come back to me for when I can be used at the highest value for them. This is client centric thinking.
Would you still need a WordPress Developer, then?
While some of you might be excited to test all of these new and exciting page builders, don't forget that these are powerful, yet limited tools. There can certainly be a place and time to use page builders, but there's very valid reasons that they haven't become completely ubiquitous and put WordPress developers and designers out of work.
Page builders can work as a stand-in for the "real deal" (WordPress developers) and, depending on the website and client needs, sometimes they can do an admirable job at this. However, when you need a professional that can customize your website, create professional designs, provide website maintenance & support, or add new features, you'd want a WordPress developer by your side.
For example, in many page builders, frequently requested page elements are missing or not supported. Creating responsive tables (or even just tables), CRM integration, and integrating Google Calendars are all common requests that are not supported on most page builders. These are common requests, so you can write-off less conventional features.
Page builders will also not turn you into a designer. While your pages may look great, you won't be able to recreate the same level of the page builder demo pages (unless you invest in a designer or a photographer, like the demo creators most likely did!). There is a reason that WordPress developers and designers are professionals, and do WordPress work for a living.
While page builders can provide an easy, quick DIY solution for clients, it would be misguided to think that people can achieve the exact same quality work as working with a professional.
Love it or leave it, page builders are here to stay. Due to their quick, easy "drag and drop" convenience, WordPress website builders are powerful tools that provide non-coding website owners with easy solutions to build websites that have elegance, style, and variety. While there exists a plethora of page builder plugins and theme options, developers continue to release new page builders as demand increases. As the number of page builders continue to grow, from the classic and trusted Visual Composer (2011) to newer upstarts like Valley Forge (2015), you'll be sure to find one website builder that fits your needs.
But don't forget: none of them provides you with all you should have to address your specific business needs as conveniently as you might have thought in the first place.
Now, it's your turn: what's your take on page builders? Have you ever used them? How was your experience with them? If not, why haven't you used them yet?