The pitfalls of WordPress page builders

We’ve been vocal recently in our dislike for what has become an omnipresent force in WordPress – page builders. Love ’em or hate ’em – they’re here to stay. So what are the potential pitfalls?

First, let’s look at what we mean by a WordPress ‘page builder’. These are plugins (sometimes built into themes) that allow a WordPress website owner to build pages with pre-built layout and content module options. We’re talking here about plugins like Visual Composer, Beaver Builder, and Divi Builder.

The plugins are extremely powerful. They allow users full control over the layout of a page and can offer a bewildering array of options and settings.

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It isn’t hard to see why these have become so popular. Chris Lema wrote a whole post on it. If you’re a website owner you can now add the content you want, where you want it. Effectively, you become a web designer and cut out the need for expensive developers.

And that’s where some of the problems lie.

You’re a designer now, ready or not

Some of these page builders give you free reign over page design, including columns, margins, padding, colours, etc. If your theme is based on a grid system, that’s gone. You’ll now be creating column widths manually. Your theme’s spacing between elements (padding and margin) can also be overridden by the page builder.

If you’re not a good designer you’ll quickly tinker your way into a visual mess.

Built-in, inconsistent design

Also on the point of design, many page builders come with pre-built content modules. These can be anything from maps, parallax background sections, image galleries, and sliders. All of these elements come with their own built-in style rules. It’s highly unlikely that these will match your theme’s current designs.

Have you tweaked that layout on a case study page to look perfect? Get ready to do it again for every case study on your websites, as those styles aren’t global.

Content mismanagement system

WordPress is a content management system (CMS). It is supposed to make content management easy. But what does that really mean?

The content of your website is the text, images, and any other data stored on your website. A good content management system will make it easy to add new content and edit or delete content that is already on the site.

A few years ago WordPress content was primarily added using the built-in WYSIWYG editor (‘the editor’). You could add formatted text, images, galleries, and use shortcodes to extend the functionality.

Most WordPress page builders enhance hijack the editor and replace it with their own interface. As Pippin Williamson points out in his excellent page builder review:

I would love to see more builders give greater care to the playground in which they play. Respect native interfaces and design decisions and leverage them. Hands down the greatest user experiences will always be those that successfully blend functionality and interface design seamlessly into the environment in which they live (WordPress).

Pippin Williamson

These interfaces are usually very well designed, considering what they are trying to achieve, but they can be highly intimidating. With so many options, settings and content types, finding a line of text to edit can become a chore.

This can be a problem for users who are familiar with the usual WordPress interfaces, but it has deeper problems, shortcode handling, and content lock-in.

Shortcode handling

Most page builders rely on ‘shortcodes’ to add the necessary code to your page. Shortcodes have been an integral part of WordPress for years. Many plugins add and manipulate shortcodes to customise your content.

The problem now is that many of these page builders interfere with the way that shortcodes work. Leaving some popular plugins, and potentially your whole web page, broken.

Content lock-in

This is probably the least obvious but potentially the most harmful aspect of using a page builder. Once many of these page builders have been activated all of the content added using that system relies on you using that plugin forever. In some cases, deactivating the plugin will mean all of your content disappears completely. In others, it will leave you with huge amounts of redundant code to tidy up.

WordPress page builders summary

Page builders have their place, but it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls before using them, as they can have serious, unwanted, and non-obvious consequences.

Think about whether you really need the flexibility in layout, and whether the potential downsides are worth it. For a great review on some of the top page builders, check out Pippin’s aforementioned post here: WordPress Page builder plugins: a critical review.

We haven’t found a page builder yet that meets our needs, but we’re sure that as they get better, and more come on the market, that we’ll eventually make the switch.

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About the author

Co-founder and lead front-end developer at Highrise Digital. Keith has a passion for building beautiful, fast and usable websites.