WordPress Page builders 101

Construction workers on scaffolding

Several times a week we get asked by customers and prospects about WordPress page builder plugins and which, if any, is right for them or if they should avoid them all together. It also usually seems that many already have some strong predetermined opinions on them, whether from previous experiences or just grumblings heard through the grapevine. Well while we can’t give you a definitive answer as to what is right for your business, we can provide you with our experiences and suggestions to let you decide what is right for you.

Wait...what is a page builder plugin?

Page builder plugins started appearing on the scene several years ago as WordPress gained more and more popularity and less technical savvy users wanted a way to create pages on their own without requiring a developer. These plugins gave users the ability to drag-and-drop various generic components onto a page in context and provide some basic styling attributes in a full interface right inside of WordPress instead of using a generic text editor. This allowed people to move at the speed of internet marketing, quickly able to make changes or launch new pages at the drop of a hat. Early builders were quite bulky and slow, but were still very popular since the benefits outweighed those negatives for many companies. Since then, page builder plugins have become extremely advanced with features to provide premium features including entire ecosystems of designs and components while still maintaining performance or integrating with popular speed optimization plugins.

In fact, WordPress themselves have now gone head first into page builder territory with the Gutenberg editor. Allowing users to drag and drop block of content in context.

Does using a page builder mean you don't need a developer?

While many of these plugins do make it incredibly easy to create layouts and several offer out of the box templates and themes, most businesses still need someone with the technical knowledge to help set things up and create layouts, thats usually where a Mashbox support plan comes in.

Unless you are using a pre-made theme you purchased, most established companies prefer to create something unique to them with either an internal or agency web designer. These unique designs will generally need someone with good knowledge of CSS, page structure, and a sharp eye to create the templates and components that will work responsively.

What businesses should choose a page builder?

Page builders offer several advantages for businesses and marketing teams, but here are the most common reasons they are chosen:

Little to no technical skill required

For marketing teams or individuals with little to no technical knowledge, page builders become an extremely easy way to keep a website updated. With the ability to move sections of content around, update text or drop-in an image, marketers can spin up a landing page with minimal effort.

Easy to use in-context interfaces

In-context editing is one of our favorite parts of these builders–now instead of editing a page in an admin area that looks nothing like the final product, you can edit things right in the page just as your visitors see them. This cuts down on the back-and-forth of making an edit and then previewing it for visual issues because what you see truly is what you get.

Easy Integrations

Integrations in WordPress are definitely plentiful as most common services and platforms offer direct plugin integrations, but a page builder can not only extend on that–but also take things a step further. Instead of using shortcodes or HTML, many of thee page builders have first class components making it easy to drop in product data from Woocommerce, a video from YouTube, or an email opt-in form from Mailchimp.

Can’t find the integration you need or want to integrate your own services? Most popular page builders offer a way for developers, such as Mashbox, to create custom components that you can drag into your page.

You don't necessarily need a theme

Only a few years ago, if you wanted a custom look and feel to your website then you needed a theme to control all of that. Now most page builders come with a generic theme that works in conjunction with the plugin to handle everything. It also means that you don’t have to worry about maintaining a custom theme as it is maintained directly by the page builder, so you are free to apply updates and fixes without breaking your site.

If you do need to extend your theme’s function, then you can always use a child theme to override the defaults or specific templates and still enjoy the benefits of updates.

Why should you avoid a page builder?

There are a few usual situations when we suggest skipping the page builder and going for a fully custom theme:

You want a website that is lean and mean, where performance is the number one priority

This is actually where most experienced web developers like to be, in a fully custom theme that allows a developer to create templates that are minimal, coded specifically for only expected content. This can creates a theme that is incredibly fast and fully optimized.

Since a page builder has to work for the majority of situations across countless use-cases, it uses more verbose code to ensure that it is consistent and stable. And while some page builders are smart enough to only include code for components used on the page, usually you will get some additional bloat from generic styles and scripts that must be included.

You want to limit your authors and editors to a specifically defined layout

The other situation is for websites that have a large editor pool and want to be very prescriptive with their design layouts. A good example of this would be a large e-commerce site with hundreds or thousands of products. You generally would not want an editor to be able to customize each product individually as you will end up with a hodge-podge of different looking pages that becomes extremely difficult to work with. Instead, you would want to use a plugin like Advanced Custom Fields to instead define specific content inputs that a user would fill out and then display it in a specific template.

You are integrating a large portion of data from a third-party source

While not a common use case, sometimes a customer wants to pull data from an external source to populate the WordPress site. An example of this would be using Salesforce records as a way to feed and adjust or change page content based on customer data.

In these situations, having a page builder makes things much more complex behind the scenes and generally not optimized for performance. Unless you are only looking to pull a few values, more complex integrations should be done in a custom plugin, custom theme, or in a headless application.

Choose wisely or you might regret it

There is one negative item that we like to point out any time we implement a page builder, because these plugins were created using different techniques and technology–they don’t usually translate to other platforms… including native WordPress. So do your homework before, try out a few and see which one feels right and is clear to you.

Once you begin to implement a website using a page builder, all of your pages are usually stored as data associated with the plugin in its particular format. If you decide that the plugin is not the right one for you, it will be starting from scratch to re-create your website in whatever your new chosen builder is.

If you do find yourself in this situation, our suggestion would be to wait until you are planning a full website redesign to make the switch in order to keep costs low.

Our current favorite page builders

While there are a number of great page builders out there, and talented developers creating new ones all the time, here are our current favorites in 2022.

Elementor

Elementor has been a favorite around Mashbox because of its simplicity to extend for custom content, plus it offers good performance on longer pages with lots of content. The interface is very straightforward and has over 40 widgets to use out of the box.

It’s theme builder allows you to create custom re-usable templates and assign them across various pages and content on your site. It is also pretty simple to extend with your own custom components and has great documentation.

One benefit that our developers like is the way they integrated custom CSS into a widget, the way it was architected allows for full control over the widgets styling using standard CSS, making it a cinch to customize.

Elementor itself is free to use, but you can upgrade to the Elementor Pro plugin (starting at $49/year) for additional modules and builder capabilities.

Divi

Divi is also a pretty common page builder across our customers, it has been around for quite a while and we have seen leaps and bounds in its capabilities in performance and customization.

Divi has one of the nicest and most modern interfaces of the page builders, allowing you to easily create or edit content in context of the page and is probably what I would consider the most user friendly with most controls overlaying the content. Similar to Elementor, Divi has a theme builder built-in that allows you to create and style templates and components that can be re-used across the site.

When it comes to performance, Divi has quite a few options to take advantage of or tweak to create the best experience including static file generation, asynchronous CSS loading, and easily disabling features.

One area that we do find Divi lacking a bit in is extra modules and creating custom modules or overriding is definitely more involved than other builders. That said, the out of the box modules from Divi do cover most use cases and they have a fairly strong community of third party modules to extend function.

Divi starts at $89/year and does have a free trial to test it out.

Gutenberg

We couldn’t talk about page builders without bringing up Gutenberg, the amazing new-ish WordPress block editor. Because it is native to WordPress, we are seeing more and more companies opt to use it and are excited by many of the advancements and features being released.

That said, we still feel it is limited–especially when it comes to layout and context. While most page builders have a pretty broad set of out of the box components, Gutenberg blocks are still limited to a handful of basic functions. You can extend that with some third party libraries, such as Genesis Pro, or by creating custom blocks but it is definitely more involved than other choices at this time.

Gutenberg comes out of the box with new WordPress installs or can be installed for free from the WordPress plugin library.

Once you choose, let Mashbox help

Now that you have the basics on page builders and have chosen the direction you want to go, make it easy and let Mashbox WordPress experts implement your page builder and templates. Schedule a 15-minute call with us today! Our expert WordPress developers have experience with most common page builder plugins and will use industry best practices to ensure your site is performing its best.