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WordPress Users: Avoid the Theme Lock-in Effect

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WordPress Theme Lock-in Effect

How easy will it be for you to switch WordPress themes in the future? Most theme users probably don’t ask themselves this question. Why would you? WordPress lets you switch themes with a few clicks so things should work smoothly. But that’s only the case if your theme was developed following WordPress standards in order to avoid the lock-in effect.

Much has been written for WordPress theme developers on the lock-in effect while hardly anything has been aimed at theme users like you to explain what the lock-in effect is and how to avoid it. I feel this is necessary because there are still many themes built without consideration for your ability to switch in the future.


The Lock-in Effect Explained

A respected member of the WordPress.org plugin and theme review teams summarizes the lock-in effect:

The lock-in problem is when a user is forced to continue using a theme because their data would be lost to them if they switched to another theme. Justin Tadlock

The Purpose of Themes and Plugins

Themes are for presentation. They are supposed to control how your site looks and how content is displayed. Plugins are for functionality and data (such as content and site-specific settings). There should be a thick red line drawn between what themes are for and what plugins are for. The thing is, developers can do whatever they want.

With great power comes great responsibility
Commonly attributed to Spider-Man’s uncle

The bottom line is anything you as the user reasonably expect to keep when you switch themes belongs in a plugin. This includes content from post types, shortcodes and search engine optimization settings, to name a few. Theme developers should be considerate of theme users like you by respecting the distinct purposes of themes and plugins.

I’ll provide contrasting scenarios to explain this by example. Since we sell church WordPress themes here, let’s pretend you’re building a church site.

Worst Case Scenario

Imagine choosing a WordPress Theme with sermons, events, shortcodes, search engine optimization settings, Google Analytics integration and a contact form. The theme claims to make things easy by including all of these features directly in the theme. None of them require a plugin. The theme looks great and the features are really handy. Good deal?

Fast-forward one or two years when your church decides to give the site a new look by switching themes. You do so and, to your horror, find that all your sermons and events are gone, shortcodes are broken everywhere, the contact form has vanished, the SEO settings you perfected have zero effect and Google Analytics is no longer updating statistics.

You have two options, spend hours, days or weeks essentially rebuilding the whole site or take the easy way out and accept the fact that the theme locked you in. That means sticking with the old theme forever.

Best Case Scenario

Now imagine choosing a WordPress theme like Saved that supports the Church Content plugin for sermons, events and other church-related content. It’s also built with consideration for the popular and free Yoast SEO, Contact Form 7 and Google Analytics plugins, should you choose to use them.

After a year or two, your church decides to switch to another theme from us or one of the other theme providers that supports the Church Content plugin. Your site has a new look and your content is intact. This is because content and functionality features come from plugins that remain active even when the theme is switched.

Why the Lock-in Effect Exists

There are free themes from WordPress.org and commercial themes (often called “premium”) from more than three hundred WordPress theme shops and even more individual sellers on theme marketplaces. Free themes undergo rigorous review to make sure submissions follow WordPress development standards and best practices (one of which is not to enter plugin territory).

Commercial themes are not available on WordPress.org so theme sellers have to police themselves. Many have failed at this (including myself with older themes on ThemeForest).

  • Some theme developers are unfamiliar with WordPress standards
  • Other developers are aware but do not care to follow them
  • Marketplaces tend to have lower standards than WordPress.org
  • Theme shops have their own standards for better or worse

Things are getting better because of awareness raised by developers like Justin Tadlock but theme users are not out of the woods yet. You need to purposely avoid using WordPress themes that lock you in. There are still themes being made that way today.

How to Avoid the Lock-in Effect

It can be hard to tell how much a WordPress theme contributes to the lock-in effect by reading its details page. The easiest way to know is to ask the provider if their theme includes any of the following content or functionality features directly in the theme instead of supporting a plugin (which is what should be done).

  • Post Types (e.g. sermon and event)
  • Taxonomies (e.g. sermon topic, event category, etc.)
  • Custom Fields (e.g. sermon MP3, location address)
  • Shortcodes (used to generate or change the appearance of content)
  • SEO Settings (a plugin such as WordPress SEO should be used)
  • Contact Form (many contact form plugins are available)
  • Google Analytics tracking code (this is plugin territory as well)

I would also suggest using a newer theme. A large portion of older themes (especially those sold on marketplaces) violate the boundary between presentation (themes) and functionality (plugins). In some cases, a plugin is used but that plugin was made for a single theme (ie. to get past a marketplace’s submission guidelines – a technicality). This is a nice thought but in practicality it doesn’t solve the problem. Themes need to support plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory that other theme authors can leverage.

If you happen to be in the market for a church theme, see our Best Church WordPress Themes article. It lists themes that take advantage of the Church Content plugin which was made to help church theme authors avoid lock-in. And learn about the sermons plugin for WordPress that we’re building to work with any theme. It will end any type of lock in.

Final Thoughts

There are probably more than 15,000 commercial WordPress themes. Many contribute to the lock-in effect, but not all. Use the ones that don’t. And if you see one that you would have used if it didn’t lock you in, tell the developer how much you regret not being able to give them your money.

Theme developers will ultimately provide what the masses demand, so make some noise and send other theme users to this article to become informed about the lock-in effect. I hope that it will not be too long from now when all new themes can be safely assumed to avoid the lock-in effect.

Your Thoughts?

Have you ever had trouble switching themes because of the lock-in effect? Does the theme you’re using right now lock you in or does it rely on plugins? Please add a comment with your thoughts and experiences.

More on the Lock-in Effect

  • Why custom post types belong in plugins by Justin Tadlock
  • Dealing with shortcode madness by Justin Tadlock
  • The Menace of Theme Creep by David Hayes
  • WordPress Theme Development Guidelines

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