Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf Barcelona 2016

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf Barcelona, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

Are You Getting Cheated When Buying A WordPress Theme?

I’ve been around the block quite a bit as an SEO specialist, and in my experience website speed has emerged as an increasingly important search engine ranking factor over the last few years. Google, in particular1, considers website loading speed to be very important and has made it one of the more important factors in its ranking algorithm.

How does speed affect your rankings? The truth is, as with everything concerning Google, we don’t really know — we cannot isolate that factor alone. Here, however, are three articles that shed some light on the subject:

Based on my work with clients, I’ve seen evidence that websites that have better loading times rank higher than others. Accordingly, as I work on my upcoming website, my team and I have engineered good loading time into its design, its layout and all other infrastructure. We were prepared to test just about any approach, even if it meant just a minute in improvement.

The theme we started out with seemed very good, offering speeds that were quite good, especially for a news website or portal. We tested the theme with demo content; however, regardless of how hard we tried, speeds and scores never reached those on the vendor’s website. This led us to believe that theme vendors sometimes set up demos to make their websites appear faster than they really are.

So, the question is, when we shop for a theme, do we get what’s on the tin?

Preview image

Test Method Link

We set out to test this idea, using the following method to produce our loading-time comparison data:

  • Test the speed of 25 themes on the vendors’ websites.
  • Test the speed of the themes on a shared hosting account.
  • Test the speed of the themes on a low-budget virtual private server (VPS) running Apache.
  • Test the speed of the themes on a highly optimized cloud server running NGINX and Varnish and located in a top-class data center with very low latency.

After conducting all speed tests, my team compared speeds between the different platforms and also tried to find signs of “cheating.” We used online services to detect content management systems (CMS), as well as manually analyzed the source code.

Tools Used Link

We used three popular tools to test the websites: Google PageSpeed Insights (GPI), GTmetrix and Pingdom. For this report, I’ll refer mainly to Google, partly to show what it favors, although when it comes to accuracy and analysis options, GTmetrix and Pingdom are far superior.

GPI will survey a website and then give it a score between 1 and 100. The score depends not only on speed, but on quality of code — minimization of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, caching, compression and so on.

Google Pagespeed

The score shows how well your website performs:

  • Green: 100 to 85
    This is a very well-optimized website. Scores above 90 are very rare for websites that are not static — that is, those that use a CMS.
  • Orange: 84 to 60
    If a website scores at the lower end of this range, it might be on the slow side. If it falls in the upper range — say, around 73 — it’s considered to be relatively quick.
  • Red: 59 to 0
    This is definitely a slow or poorly optimized website. Even on a fast system or connection, users will notice this. Websites whose structure has not been thought through and media-laden news websites often fall in this range. Though rare, I have seen websites get a GPI score of less than 1 (one).

While we’re on the subject, I might as well throw in some criticism of GPI. It is very sparse in its feedback, especially for dynamic websites, which most of us use today, and sometimes the advice on optimization is borderline rubbish.

GTmetrix and Pingdom, on the other hand, are more thorough and provide much more data. Nevertheless, an excellent (speed) ranking with them doesn’t necessarily correlate with a similar score from GPI. For example, consider that GTmetrix will add points to a low score if a website uses a CDN. A website that uses a CDN might get marginally slower if a user is geographically close to the server, but for the broad majority of people, it will indeed get faster. Google does not seem to account for this.

In fact, the whole subject is a bit tricky, because many seem to treat a GPI score as a measure of speed, although I would consider it to be more a measure of optimization. I have written about this before5, and below are some examples showing how speed and page score don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

GTmetrix Example Link

Here, GTmetrix grades a website at 94%, although the loading time amounts to a far-from-acceptable 14 seconds.

Here, GTmetrix grades a website at 94%, although the loading time amounts to a far-from-acceptable 14 seconds.

Pingdom Example Link

Another website, tested with Pingdom, shows a perfection grade of 95, although you need 60 seconds to load it

Another website, tested with Pingdom, shows a performance score of 95, although it needs 60 seconds to load.

So, evidently, GTmetrix and Pingdom just look at optimization.

What’s A Good Speed Or Score? Link

What’s a good score, and are there any benchmarks? On my blog, I’ve tested Alexa’s top-100 shopping websites, measuring loading time and GPI score. Here are the results for the top 10 and bottom 10:

I measured the loading time of Alexa's top-100 shopping websites, and these were the 10 quickest and 10 slowest

I measured the loading time of Alexa’s top-100 shopping websites, and these were the 10 quickest and 10 slowest.

The chart below shows the GPI scores for the same websites.

GPI gave these same websites the scores above

GPI gave these same websites these scores.
The above table shows the GPI score for each individual theme on each single hosting platform

This table shows the GPI score for each individual theme on each individual hosting platform.

Assessment of the results is quite subjective, but it’s safe to say that anything above 75 can be considered good, and anything below approximately 40 is very bad. However, it very much depends on the category of your website. It’s a sure bet that a personal blog will have a better score than a big portal like the Huffington Post.

Benchmarking Link

Back to the tests. All tests were conducted when we could assume that traffic to the (demo) website in question was low; if we did get abnormal results, we would crosscheck on another occasion. All of the tests were performed with the caching plugin in use on the demo website, if any. Also, note that the VPS’ used were 100% idle — they had no traffic during the tests.

Here is all of the raw data from the test.

In this illustration of the data, the y axis shows the GPI score, and the x axis marks each individual theme

In this illustration of the data, the y axis shows the GPI score, and the x axis marks each individual theme.

The summary below shows the differences (not the actual GPI scores) between the three different server configurations and the reference (i.e. demo) websites.

The key results from the tests

The key results from the tests

Findings And Thoughts Link

Does a theme generally perform worse than the demo when you host it yourself? Do some theme vendors simply make static HTML versions of their demos to boost loading time and speed metrics?

Here are some of my key findings.

  • The average score of the budget VPS and shared host was 13% and 26% lower, respectively, than the reference websites. Only the NGINX server came close to matching the reference websites, with an average 6% lower score.
  • For the optimized VPS, the two websites with the highest deviations had a negative score difference of 27 and 22 points.
  • For the budget VPS, the two websites with the highest deviations had a negative score difference of 35 and 20 points.
  • For the shared server, the two websites with the highest deviations had a negative score difference of 33 and a whopping 53 points.
  • On the optimized VPS, 19 themes (approximately 80%) had a score lower than the reference websites.
  • On the budget VPS, as above, 19 themes (approximately 80%) had a score lower than the reference websites.
  • On the shared host, 22 themes (approximately 88%) had a score lower than the reference websites.

Tricks Employed Link

As mentioned above, we wanted to check not only the speeds of the themes on different platforms, but also whether we are being misled to believe that they are quicker. In as many as 5 of the tested themes (20%), we found signs of cheating.

Based on what we detected, here are the tricks employed by these theme vendors:

  • Some created a pure static website — a demo with no dynamic parts at all. This would increase the GPI score by a whole lot, and loading time would, of course, lower significantly. This is what we anticipated because we were mislead by this ourselves.
  • Some run local optimization of JavaScript, CSS, HTML, etc. This means that the theme delivered to the client is different than the one used on the demo website. I wouldn’t consider this to be cheating, however, and so didn’t count it as such.
  • In two cases, websites seemed to have multiple optimized files that could not be retrieved. They would block calls to the files unless the referrer showed that the request was coming from one of the demo pages. However, by faking our referrer to reflect the optimized files’ required request source, we got around the block. Yes, the files were different from what is offered out of the box.
  • Some websites masquerade as WordPress by inserting comments and familiar footprints in the code. Comments might be drawn from sources such as Yoast’s SEO plugin and W3 Total Cache, and also the generator tags might be set as wordpress. This seemed to fool some of the online CMS identifiers out there.
  • A few vendor also seem to block the GPI bot, which seems kind of odd.

Summary Link

As you might already have noticed, we have not named names in this survey. We didn’t write this to out any company, but rather to show the importance of doing one’s due diligence when buying a theme that is marketed as being “fast loading” or “well optimized.”

This was not an “official” test either. Accordingly, we cannot conclusively say that the page-loading “cheats” we detected will continue to be present or whether they were intentional. Some cases seemed quite suspicious, though. We also tested some free, non-commercial themes, such as Frank6, which follow what we would expect. This reinforces our hypothesis that some themes aren’t as fast as what is advertised on the demo websites. When running small tests on themes for other CMS’, like Joomla, we had the same findings.

So, Are Theme Vendors Scamming Us? Link

Whether theme vendors are scamming us depends on whether they intentionally want to mislead buyers. There is certainly a big difference between the figures claimed by vendors on their sales websites and the speeds actually experienced by buyers. Double-dealers might have a lot of leeway, in practical terms. Why? Because most buyers don’t care; they buy based merely on appearance. Other buyers are very lenient; if a website gets a GPI score of 70 or higher, then they don’t care. But for serious online publishers, a seemingly small difference in ranking could mean a difference of thousands of dollars every month.

However, keep in mind that developers in general do what they can to obfuscate the technology behind a website — that is, they hide the fact that they are using WordPress. I expect that top-class theme shops optimize just as much as we do when setting up their server. The average Joe being hosted on an oversold server would, thus, have a hard time getting anywhere close to the performance figures cited by theme vendors.

Still, this ordeal set my company back quite some time when we built our website; and, in this case, I am quite certain we were right. I sent a quite detailed email to the theme’s vendor, telling them what we had done and ending by saying that things didn’t really add up. We never heard a peep from them, but a few days later their demo website was performing a whole lot worse.

Once again, when looking for a theme, do a fair amount of research. Look through the review websites, look for websites with the same theme, and compare.

I hope you like this article. If you would like to see more detailed data and to download my layman’s infographic, you may do so on my website7. And you’ll find two excellent articles by Marcus Taylor here on Smashing Magazine: “What to Consider When Choosing a WordPress Theme8” and “How to Speed Up Your WordPress Website9.”


TL;DR Link

  • Website speed is becoming increasingly important for SEO and usability.
  • We tested 25 WordPress themes on three different server configurations not only to compare scores, but to find signs of theme vendors cheating to inflate their score.
  • Of the 25 themes tested, five vendors seemed suspicious at best.
  • On a budget shared hosting place, 88% of the themes got lower scores than their demos.


Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

Hold on, Tiger! Thank you for reading the article. Did you know that we also publish printed books and run friendly conferences – crafted for pros like you? Like SmashingConf Barcelona, on October 25–26, with smart design patterns and front-end techniques.

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook


Philip Blomsterberg is a Swedish Internet entrepreneur involved in Internet marketing since the mid-90s. Having dealt with most parts of the web he sees himself as the typical T-shaped web marketer. Philip is the founder of Intripid Sökmotoroptimering and has his personal blog at sö

  1. 1

    This is very interesting, thank you for your research.

  2. 3

    Pasquale Vitiello

    November 9, 2015 6:43 pm

    Not a good article IMHO, it’s quite misleading. Website performance doesn’t rely only on themes, but – in a large part – on many other aspects (host, caching, CDN, etc). There are many different strategies to speed up and optimise a website that go beyond the theme itself and I am afraid you can’t really judge a theme only analysing the demo version on GTMetrix or other tools like that.

  3. 4

    While you focused on *intentional* fraud, I think that it’s important to consider the reality of canned theme construction and their practical use beyond their demo sites.

    The most important consideration is that any theme is built to an “ideal” scenario. The theme designers have the resources to construct a demo with the perfect stock photos and shape design elements around them. Their theme is tuned to a precise use-case like “Magazine” or “Store” that will start to break down as the customer customizes to their real-life need. The client-side assets (CSS, JS) do exactly what the demo needs, little more.

    The article mentions that “most buyers don’t care” which is isn’t entirely true. In my experience, clients consider appearance because that is the only aspect that they can evaluate. The purchase of a theme supposedly removes the need for designers and developers and lets the site builder just start cranking out pages. It’s only later as a site approaches completion that the abstract concern of site ranking and page speed come to mind.

    Researching theme performance is also *very* difficult. Theme vendors are far from impartial. Many of them lock support forums to licensed customers. When available, support discussions require a level of technical expertise that most don’t have. I would love to know more about impartial theme review sites if anyone has recommendations.

    Finally, I can speak from experience that the commercial canned themes out there are filled with terrible, slow, bloated code. Shared/low-cost hosting introduces its own server-side/IO latency, while poorly coded sliders and other whiz-bang effects (that look great on the demo…) do the rest. I don’t doubt that they do whatever they can to speed up their demos using hosting resources beyond the reach of their customers. I would, too.

    • 5

      Alex Mansfield

      November 19, 2015 3:42 am

      You’re right Jeff, researching themes is very difficult. I attempted to contact a large number of theme companies when I was starting Theme Friendly. Theme Friendly is a website where I tested commercial WordPress themes using the standards set by the WordPress theme review team. Most theme shops were unwilling to give me access to their themes for testing purposes. Many themes tested quite poorly, so I can see why most theme shops didn’t want their themes to be tested.

  4. 6

    I think this can go far beyond just canned WordPress themes. The (terrible) trend in web design now is to throw in every ridiculous bell and whistle–regardless of whether or not said bells and whistles actually add to the user experience–and load speed falls by the wayside. A lot of designers seem to ignore it altogether because they are too wrapped up in meaningless CSS animations, parallax backgrounds, scrolljacking, sliders, etc. We need to throw most of these things in the trash or at least put some better thought into the where and why for these features. Just because 56k isn’t around anymore doesn’t mean we can make sites ridiculously heavy and get away with it.

    • 7

      I agree. Many of the WordPress themes load many JavaScript files to show off all the bells and whistles, which then contributes to the overall bloat. I would like to see theme developers giving the ability to users to enable or disable features, which would then control which functions are registered. That would allow you to have a bell, but turn off the whistle because you don’t need it.

    • 8

      Totally agree with that. Having a real hard time these days finding not just cursory good-“looking” themes, but also actually properly working ones. Maybe 30% – and of these, at least half have some butt-ugly frameworks or overly unfriendly programming, which sometimes are bordering “lets make more money by brutal obfuscation”-schemes.

      Can’t really recommend such to my clients .. so far, in my experience, only the themes created by, themeblvd and proved to be not only serving up homey, nifty outer shells, but continually, reliably provide us = the intermediate user, and thus our clients, the actual end users, with properly adaptable, quality themes.

      Thus, my current stance is: Build the theme from scratch or nearly from scratch using a proper starter theme (like _tk), or persuade the client to choose from one of the above mentioned theme manufacturers.

      cu, w0lf.

      ps: intentionally NOT linking to the sites (google is your friend) :P

    • 9

      Kristof Bernaert

      November 11, 2015 11:21 am

      If you use every bell and whistle in (web)designing, then you are not a webdesigner but trying to sell your project with a wand.

      The only one you need to blame is yourself by choosing this option. Even not the creator of the (slow) theme you bought. It’s up to you to know what you do.

      It’s a very good article to get the insight that making a website is not something like 1-2-3. Still not.

  5. 10

    good article ;)

  6. 11

    This article needs to be a bit more brushed.

    I think there are some lines in here that are not correct:
    “For this report, I’ll refer mainly to Google, partly to show what it favors, although when it comes to accuracy and analysis options, GTmetrix and Pingdom are far superior.”
    – first of all, GTmetrix is half GooglePagespeed and half YSlow
    – second, Pingdom tips are from GoolgePagespeed (from – See how your website conforms to performance best practices from Google Page Speed)

    Then you say GTmetrix and Pingdom provide higher grades even though the response time was 14s and 60s. So first they are better than GPI even though they are partly GPI, and then they are not so good after all.

    The third concern over the article is the method of benchmarking. You do not expect one theme provider to just drop all elements onto a page. Also, there is the custom factor, each user will only use part of a theme on a website, which will make your test a bit irrelevant.

    What is important when picking a multi-purpose theme, from my point of view, is the ability to set what components to load or not. Thus having a better control over the loaded resources. Also, code quality is important in such templates, providing you with a clear view about code overriding possibilities.

    PS: What criteria did you use in picking the 25 themes (which by the way you didn’t list)?

    My 2 cents.

    • 12

      Nice critique, Andy. GTmetrix we used to love but find it useless now as Google as knee-capped GTmetrix. The load times GTmetrix reports are three times higher than they used to be and effectively useless. What does one do with 18 second page load times?

      This kind of testing is very difficult to do and Philip did a reasonable job on a large sample size. I found the article useful. Hopefully your notes will help him improve for next round.

      And hopefully Smashing Magazine will allow him to name names next time!

  7. 13

    This post is smelling advert via paragraph and screens which is not proven.

  8. 14

    Very good article and an interesting point of view! I’ve never thought of this before, but now I can see how many theme authors been fooling me and my clients!

  9. 15

    Vladimir Smitka

    November 10, 2015 8:18 am

    I made a huge research of Czech WP sites in February and tested about 65 000 WP sites.

    You may be interested in PageSpeed score distribution – half of sites achieved 75+ score, but there were some with zero.

    I also made a list of the most popular themes including the premium ones.

    I think the situation is almost similar in other coutries.

  10. 16

    60 second load time for a 300 kB site seems weird. I think it’s because the Pingdom test define “fully loaded” as X seconds of “network silence”. The tested page probably run some kind of AJAX every second or so and 60 seconds would then be Pingdom’s timeout limit.

  11. 17

    Gunnar Bittersmann

    November 10, 2015 12:06 pm

    “How does speed affect your rankings?” – What a false start into the article! SEO mimimi.

    The question to be raised in the first place is “How does speed affect your users’ experiences?”

    • 18

      But please, as this is posted out of an SEO perspective (by an SEO specialist) he will of course talk about ranks. You wanna talk UX, you should probably got have at it over at the CRO-articles. lol.

  12. 19

    In this illustration of the data, the x axis shows the GPI score, and the y axis marks each individual theme.

  13. 20

    Ugh. The names of the sites, please.


  14. 21

    The whole basis of this article seems backwards. Pick the theme thats best designed for your goals and needs, then optimize the site from there. Don’t buy a theme just because its fast, they can all be fast with some tweaking. Most of them come with a lot of bloat because they are trying to make it work for a wide range of people.

    • 22

      I have to disagree with you here John. Yes, anything can be made fast. But optimisation can take more effort than building from scratch. We ran our own tests on commercial themes and then just stopped used them for a few years. We’ve found a couple of developers with whom we’re happy now but the difference is night and day.

      Knowing that we have two days of wrestling with optimisation rather than two hours of easy optimisation with a well written theme makes a huge difference to me and to the viability of even medium sized projects.

  15. 23

    Interesting claim here. I’m almost sure vendors are not aiming to scam anyone.

    We, for example, tend to put a lot of attention into optimizing the page load time on our Themes. And if we would receive such a complaint we would do our best to fix it asap.

    Feel free to have a look and provide any kind of feedback (it’s impossible to offend us). Just write us a message to support[@]


  16. 24

    I find this topic very interesting and I think its important that someone with insights in this matter talks about it and spreads information.

    Also I thank you for the tools you presented. I will try some of them for sure!

  17. 25

    Thanks for an interesting article.
    Man, sometimes you really want people to name names!

  18. 26

    FWIW, WordPress 4.4 will automagically serve responsive/resized/smaller images depending on the users’ screen sizes. Should help?

  19. 27

    By not naming the offending products tested, you’ve done an injustice to hard-working theme developers that put the effort into creating great software for WordPress — a practice that is undervalued, because of hype articles like this.

    Moreover, if an author wants to use premium managed hosting with CDN and caching, while using optimal image sizes — there’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously, the internet wasn’t created equal. If Walmart wants their pagetimes to load better — cut out all of the crap (and tracking js) on the homepage.

  20. 28

    Great article, simplified a lot of things for me. I can see that a lot of research has gone into it, so good work. I’m having a problem with my theme myself, so I basically agree with the conclusions.


↑ Back to top