Premium vs. Custom Themes: The Benefits of Jet Rhino

Website Design & Development

Read Time: 9 Min

There are three paths you can take when faced with deciding which WordPress theme to use: custom, premium, and free.

For purposes of this conversation, we’ll be ignoring free themes – let’s be real, they’re generally unusable for any serious business case.

That leaves just two options – custom themes and premium themes.

Jet Rhino (weird name…we know) is AOR’s in-house custom WordPress starter theme which we’ll be referring to for the remainder of this guide. That which applies to Jet Rhino generally applies (at a high level) to other custom themes that a WordPress developer might use as a starting point for a website build. We’ve been in the website business for nearly 15 years now. Our website solutions have evolved through the years, and our knowledge and understanding of the benefits that custom WordPress themes bring to a website have only solidified.

There are many reasons why almost all agencies build WordPress sites using custom themes rather than Premium themes, we touch on just a few of those reasons below..


The House Analogy

We often use a new home build as an analogy for building a website. We talk a lot about our website development process in one of our recent insight posts — “So You Need A New Website.” In this case, let’s compare a custom-designed home to a production home (a home built by a community builder where the houses are built using pre-made templates).

A custom-designed home (ie. the custom theme) is going to give you complete control over everything involved with your build. The design, size, layout, and all features that go into it will be custom designed according to your tastes and lifestyle. In this case, the quality will generally be much higher.

A production home (ie. the premium theme) might offer you some options that the builder has already specced out but you’ll be very limited in what you can choose from. You’ll be picking from a select few pre-set designs — it won’t have all of the features you were hoping for, and you may run into quality issues. These production homes, like premium themes, offer the developer a faster way to build out a website but they sacrifice quality and customizability.

Jet Rhino mascot


Jet Rhino vs Premium Themes

Jet Rhino is a custom theme that AOR has built iteratively over the last 7 years as a starting point for all of our WordPress theme development projects. It contains all of our core code, helpful tools that save our developers time, and features that we include within every site (so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel).

Premium themes (sometimes called pre-made or pre-built themes) are WordPress themes that you can buy from a theme marketplace or developer (like Envato). They provide various levels of flexibility and pre-built functionality. Premium themes are generally used by WordPress website creators who aren’t comfortable with code and don’t build custom themes.

Now that you are comfortable with the difference, let’s talk about some of the specific differences between Premium themes and our custom theme (Jet Rhino) — or rather, the ways in which Jet Rhino is definitely better.


Site Speed

Premium Themes

Premium themes, with few exceptions, are very slow.

This is partly because the developer of a Premium theme doesn’t know exactly what you’re planning to use it for and doesn’t know what you want it to look like.

To make their theme more marketable, they pack as many options into the theme as possible. They provide options to customize the styling, layout, and colors as well as a number of different modules and functionalities to cover all their bases.

All of this flexibility requires more and more code to provide all of these features, most of which you won’t use — this adds tremendous code bloat.

A bloated codebase usually includes all sorts of extra javascript files, CSS files, and PHP code that requires more processing power to run. These things all very negatively affect site speed which, in turn, affects visitor bounce rates, average time on site, and search engine rankings.

Jet Rhino

Jet Rhino is built to be fast.

Being a custom theme, we have complete control over the whole code base and all of the assets used inside of it.

It also only has one purpose — your website’s exact look and functionality. There’s no code in our codebase that isn’t specifically being used for your website.

Laptop with Computer Code

Editing Flexibility

Premium Themes

In an attempt to be the jack of all trades, premium themes end up being the master of none.

Because so many different options are provided, users often feel like they need to have development experience to successfully edit their own website.

With all of these options available (none of which were created specifically for your brand), it’s incredibly easy for editors on your site to break design guidelines and create pages and posts that simply don’t look good (all while getting frustrated at the difficult to use back-end interface provided by these themes).

Jet Rhino

Jet Rhino provides guided flexibility that gives your editors the freedom to accomplish what they need to while also keeping your website looking stellar, branded, and intuitive to edit.

We provide a variety of customization options including a drag-and-drop page builder, flexible content sections to easily create rows and columns for different types of content, custom post types to manage the different kinds of content, a site-wide options panel, and many different modules (all with the ability to edit padding, margin, background colors, sizes, etc).

All of this flexibility is tested to ensure your editors are easily creating content that is design-approved and on-brand.


Design & Branding Implementation

Premium Themes

Premium themes offer many ways to edit the look and feel of the site but you’re limited by the different options that they give you (or, as often is the case, don’t give you).

Implementing a specific design using a Premium theme is just not what they’re meant for, which often makes them a poor choice for businesses with specific branding and style guidelines.

Jet Rhino

Being completely custom, we start with an approved design file and recreate it as a WordPress site with pixel-perfect precision, giving you complete control over your brand. There’s nothing we can’t change and no design we can’t create — ensuring your website is, well, you.

Laptop on desk

Functionality Implementation

Premium Themes

Premium themes often include different pieces of functionality, but if they need to be changed at all, you’re going to run into issues.

If there’s a feature or layout that isn’t offered by the theme (or if it doesn’t work quite how you want it to) it can be difficult (or not feasible) to add/edit. It will then require a larger budget to accomplish what you want using the theme’s code, which is often bulky and harder to work with.

This typically leads to two possible solutions:

  • Finding a 3rd party plugin that accomplishes what you want, which adds even more bloat.
  • Tasking AOR with creating a custom plugin to accomplish your goals and override the theme’s code, which typically has a larger cost (from the added overhead of the Premium theme) than if we had coded it into Jet Rhino.

Jet Rhino

We custom code the functionality your site requires in a way that is in line with your exact specifications.

There’s no fitting a square peg in a round hole here — the functionality is built for your site and is seamlessly integrated into your site’s look and feel, maintaining branding and giving us complete control of any changes or evolutions of that functionality.

There are some cases where we’ll suggest using trusted 3rd party plugins rather than recreating the wheel. However, we do what we can to limit that action to only features that truly don’t make sense to code in-house.


Updates & Security

Premium Themes

Premium themes are often the target of mass hacking events. The more popular the theme the more likely this is to happen, and it makes sense why. There’s much more incentive for hackers to focus their energy on compromising software that is widely used — there are more websites to hack that use it.

To combat that, a good Premium theme provider will release security updates patching known vulnerabilities (though not all do and are sometimes “too little, too late”).

They will also release updates to the themes that sometimes add new features or fix problems with the themes. Being proactive about this kind of thing is good but, if you’re running into issues with your theme, you never know how long it’s going to take for the theme’s developer to make the fix (if they ever do).

Jet Rhino

Jet Rhino, being a theme specifically created for your website, is not widely distributed and as such, isn’t the target of mass hacking events.

If we find a vulnerability in the code or need to update the code for a new version of PHP, for example, we’ll make those updates monthly for sites on maintenance plans with us. If your site isn’t on a maintenance plan, we still provide support for updates and upgrades as they’re requested.

In the 7 years of developing websites with Jet Rhino (and hosting them on WP Engine), AOR has never had a single security issue.

Man sitting at desk with WordPress shirt

“Does Jet Rhino Bind Me To AOR?”

No! Jet Rhino uses very popular development tools that any experienced WordPress developer can work with.


In Summary

Custom themes are better. They allow us to build anything we want without the design restrictions, coding limitations, and code bloat that come from using a Premium theme.

There’s a reason why almost all WordPress agencies choose to build custom themes rather than using Premium themes. Once you’ve decided to go custom, you need to pick one of the many starter themes available or decide to build your own.

Jet Rhino is simply our in-house implementation of a custom theme, packed with lots of development tools that help us build modern, flexible, and easy-to-edit websites faster.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how we would tackle your website needs, check out our capabilities and give us a call. You can also read more about which metrics we use to track the success of your site here.

Related Insights

Selecting the Right Type of Website for Your Property

Website Design, Website Design & Development, Real Estate Development

Website Data Privacy: The What & Why

Digital, Website Design & Development, General

Reddit & SEO: An AOR Guide

Digital, Website Design & Development, General