It’s All the Rage
We’re seeing a surge in new installations of WordPress websites using divi themes, a framework that “simplifies” the development process. Many clients aren’t aware of the lasting implications for their business. Love it or hate, let’s look at what divis do, the benefits, the drawbacks, and what it means for SEO. Then you can decide.
October 2016 Update: Since this article was published in August, Google announced they will be splitting their search index. In the next several months, Google will launch a separate mobile index… and it will become the primary Google search index. The desktop index will not be kept as up-to-date as the mobile one. This is a significant SEO shift. Google has been pushing “mobile” for years. With the index change, having a mobile-responsive website isn’t enough. Brands that cater to how information is displayed on mobile devices will gain the advantage. One component of that advantage is download speed. Sites built with Divis or Visual Composers are sluggish due to the extra shortcode it adds. If you needed another reason not to choose a Divi theme or switch off of one, now you have one.
What is it?
Divi themes, also known as divi builders and visual composers, offer a “drag and drop” way of building and designing a website. Rather than writing code, designers use shortcuts or modules to create components like buttons, sliders, contact forms, sidebars and more. Of late divi themes are gaining popularity in some sectors of the WordPress community due to its flexibility without fiddling with code. It’s a little like decorating your home with Ikea furniture; you pick the pieces that make the most sense for your living space and piece it all together (allen wrench tool included ;). Similarly, divi theme authors create templates that appeal to different types of businesses.
Two years ago you didn’t have a huge selection of divi theme choices. More and more visual composer themes are now available with Elegant Themes and ThemeForest. However, there’s a bit of controversy amongst WordPressers. The debate is heating up. Some love it… some hate it with a purple passion. Let’s explore why.
What Visual Composers Do to Code
By using pre-made modules, it’s very easy to add elements like photo galleries or call to action buttons. It’s like a buffet of website functionality, just waiting for you to sample. What you don’t see is the extra code it adds. Here’s an example of code using a divi theme:
Here’s an example of similar code without the divi theme shortcodes:
So what’s the impact? Site speed. All that extra code (called shortcode) loads via a visitor’s browser in order for a site to be viewed. As search engine bots crawl the site, they too sift through the extra code to decipher things like title tags, meta description, content, images, etc.
The Beautiful Benefits
There are two primary reasons why divi themes are so popular. First, it’s easier and faster for some designers to create a beautiful website without knowing how to code. It takes less time to use drag and drop elements compared to coding a website from scratch or developing a child theme using a theme framework (like Genesis or Woo). With divis, designers can arrange pre-made modules to launch an attractive website in less time. For the coding-challenged, divi themes offer a point-and-click solution to achieve more advanced design features and site functions. Out of the box, divi themes contain everything but the kitchen sink. As a result, the functionality menu is varied and robust.
The second advantage is design consistency. If your website has multiple contributors — especially those new to WordPress or website content management systems (CMS) in general — divi themes allow you to create templates. For novice WordPress users, creating a new page or post is as “easy” as filling out the template boxes (stay tuned for more on the “ease of use” a bit later in this article).
For marketing managers who tightly control their brand and have a large organization contributing to a website, divi themes avoid inconsistent formatting on pages. Even with stringent style guides, formatting of headlines, graphics, and text blocks, a page’s appearance can vary especially if a user is not familiar with the WordPress interface. A divi’s page template theoretically avoids those problems. From a holistic point of view, if the site is well constructed, visitors interact with a consistent user experience (UX) across the website. As a result, brands maintain their corporate image and visitors are strategically guided to take the next step (conversion).
The Cons of Divi Themes
Okay, let’s delve into the other side of the argument. There are three main reasons why our agency does not recommend the use of WordPress divi themes:
- It’s really not that easy.
I asked a developer/coder whom we often collaborate with on web projects if he agrees with the “easier and faster to build a website” claim. Ozzy Rodriguez, a regular contributor to the WordPress community and core code, said this:
I’ve worked with several themes using visual composers; they are more confusing, more complicated and more circuitous than actual coding. That’s not even taking into account how much more difficult they are to maintain after launching the site. Migrating to another non-divi theme is a nightmare.”
~ Ozzy Rodriguez
Recently a prospective client approached us literally weeks after launching a new divi-themed website. While they like the site’s appearance, she’s frustrated with the process of adding content. After 4 hours of struggling with adding a single page, she now wants to know what it would take to ditch the theme and start over. What a waste.
- The bloated code negatively impacts SEO.
Using a framework like Genesis or other professionally-coded themes, your website is built upon W3 web standards. The better themes also use HTML5. However, not all theme (including divi) authors are as diligent about their code. We favor the Genesis theme framework because the code is streamlined and the dashboard is well organized. Since the code is designed to be responsive and fast, it doesn’t unnecessarily bog down site speed.
Remember my buffet analogy? Divi themes let you can pick and choose from a wide variety of dishes (features and functions). Here’s the problem. The dishes you don’t want also end up on your dining table. Even inactive divi code bloats your site’s code and slows page speed, even with caching. Download speed is an important SEO factor and it’s 100% in your control. It’s so important that Google has a free testing tool to analyze a site’s performance.
- Compatibility problems with some WordPress plugins.
Remember the page or post templates? They’re built using modules. Content is buried within those modules, making it difficult for popular plugins like Yoast SEO to analyze. If you decide to construct your website with a visual composer, make sure your developer understands which plugins work and where more configuration is needed (or even feasible). Not all plugin developers are coding for divi compatibility.
- It’s difficult to migrate to another WordPress theme.
One of the things we love about WordPress is its flexibility. Imagine that WordPress — the core upon the website is built — is a mannequin. Themes are the dresses or suits you put on a mannequin. Tired of that 70’s leisure suit? No problem, just change the theme. With a divi theme, that transition isn’t so easy. Chris Lema, frequent WordCamp speaker and WordPress coach, explains the coding issue beautifully in his Divi Theme Forever article. To switch out that baby-blue, wide-collared polyester leisure suit into something more contemporary requires a lot of effort (read: expensive). That’s why we caution clients to stay away from themes using a modular framework. You may love it now; will you love it in 5 years? Converting a small website is one thing; converting thousands of pages is another. All your content, nestled amongst short code, must be extracted in order to migrate it to another theme.
Questions to Ask Before Moving Over to Divi
- Is there another non-divi theme that you like as much? With literally thousands of themes, there’s a very good chance you’ll find an alternative that fits your brand and website needs. We suggest using a well-respected theme framework (like Genesis) that has a proven track record of support and clean code.
- Can I use a style guide or centralize access to ensure website consistency? Rather than relying on a theme’s template to control consistency, there are other ways to achieve the same results. We think that locking your content within modules is a short-term solution with long-term problems.
- Are you willing to pay the price to convert once you’re tired of the theme? Most website designs are refreshed every two to three years mainly due to technological advances. For example, mobile responsiveness wasn’t a requirement back in 2013. Now Google is penalizing websites that don’t cater to smaller screens. If you have a small website with limited content, then the cost/effort may be affordable. Then it begs the question… why do you need a divi structure in the first place?
So what side of the visual composer fence are you on?