Websites: Bespoke vs Off-the-shelf

Bespoke vs Off-the-shelf

Websites: Bespoke vs Off-the-shelf

There are pros and cons for both an off-the-shelf website and a bespoke website. Here we lay down our opinions on both to help you decide.

by Adam Maidment  @adamleemaidment  adamleemaidment 23rd November, 2017 read time: 6 mins

When looking for the best solution for our clients we always investigate a range of options and invariably the question of ‘should we use an off-the-shelf or bespoke website design’ often comes up. Here are a few arguments for and against each option. This list is by no means exhaustive but should give you enough food for thought.

Off-the-shelf website solutions

An off-the-shelf website solution provides a pre-built template which often contains multiple pages layouts for Home, About, Contact and more. There are many online providers of templates (or themes as they are more widely known) and many adhere to stringent quality control and best practices to ensure they are built to the highest standard.

Advantages of off-the-shelf 

  • No skills needed – You don’t need to have any developer skills to get going with an off-the-shelf website as all the design and coding is provided out of the box.
  • Fast setup – You can install a theme and have a site up and running within minutes of purchasing it online. If you have a requirement for an instant website then an off-the-shelf solution is the quickest route to take.
  • Cheaper outlay – Purchasing a template or theme is a relatively cost-effective way of creating an online presence when compared to a custom-built website.
  • Dedicated support – Some premium themes come with developer support, usually for up to 12 months after purchase. So if you have a question about customisation or something more specific regarding functionality, the theme support team are usually on hand to help.
  • Basic SEO as standard – Most off-the-shelf solutions (WordPress for example) come with basic SEO capability out of the box which means you’re covered right from the start.

Disadvantages of off-the-shelf

  • Restricted design flexibility – Although a lot of modern themes allow you to make customisations after installation such as changing colours, fonts and adding your own logo, these changes are still based on a rigidly structured template. This means you’re bound by the limited flexibility of a fixed template, which in turn restricts your ability to be creative and unique.
  • Part of the flock – The risk of using a template or theme is that there is a high chance your site will look like other websites, or worse still, as themes typically use similar blocks of content or layouts it will be obvious your site is using a theme.
  • Not business centric – A website template, like any template, is a generic entity and by its own nature not tailored to your specific needs, which means you sometimes have to make compromises as there’s every chance your preferred template doesn’t do everything you want it to.
  • Short shelf life – As your business and website requirements grow you might find the same theme which got you online in minutes now provides a hurdle with respect to getting your new content or functionality online. Sooner or later you outgrow your theme and either need to look for a new one with more functionality or review the bespoke route.
  • Less secure – The popularity of some off-the-shelf options such as WordPress (a content management system) means they are more highly targeted by hackers and malware. You can secure sites by adopting a collection of plugins and practices but out of the box the level of security is much lower.

Bespoke website design

A bespoke website solution provides a custom designed and built website that follows your brand guidelines and uses a clearly defined scope based on business needs and market research. The end result is a website which is creative, unique and provides the website user with a rich aesthetic and functional experience to achieve your business goals.

Advantages of bespoke website design

  • On scope – A bespoke solution will be based on a clearly defined brief and project specification which means the end product is built specifically to meet your business goals and requirements, without compromise.
  • Scalability – Custom solutions are built with the end goal in mind but also can allow for redundancy. This means that a bespoke site can grow in size and handle more content and traffic. Off-the-shelf options often charge a fee for higher levels of traffic, whereas a bespoke site on a stand-alone server can utilise all the resources it needs.
  • Extendibility – A bespoke website solution also allows for much greater flexibility when it comes to adding new design or functionality, so in many cases provides a much greater shelf life than a restricted off-the-shelf option.
  • SEO Optimised – A bespoke solution can be built with your SEO needs right from the start, including the content populated for launch. There’s no requirement for additional plugins or monthly fees (usually) as the functionality is all in place from the get-go.
  • Security – Bespoke websites are typically more secure due to their individual nature. Everything is built systematically, layer upon layer and they use fewer plugins, if at all, which reduces the risk of vulnerabilities creeping into your system.
  • Greater control – A bespoke website and CMS can be built with granular control so that even the smallest item can be managed by an administrator without the need for developer intervention. With templates only those items the developer feels best suits the masses make the cut, so your niche requirement may well not be satisfied by an off-the-shelf option.
  • Most cost-effective – Counter-intuitively a bespoke website may involve a larger outlay but as these sites typically last much longer because they are more flexible, scalable and secure, they provide a more cost-effective solution over time when compared to their off-the-shelf counterparts. 

Disadvantages of bespoke website design

  • Larger outlay – A bespoke solution is typically more expensive than an off-the-shelf option, however, all the functionality is built from the ground up and to spec, whereas with off-the-shelf option requires the installation of plugins or modules in order to supplement the core system. Time is spent on configuring and adjusting to accommodate these additions and issues arise over time when the site is updated, or the plugins themselves are updated, and things break or start to conflict. This then requires more ongoing maintenance time to keep the site up and running and secure (see ‘most cost-effective’ above).
  • Longer delivery time – Naturally building something from scratch takes comparatively longer. Personally I would argue it’s a more efficient process to build a bespoke site then it is to spend hours customising and optimising and unpicking something which is already in place, however, the process of review and feedback both during design and implementation does tend to lead to longer delivery times on bespoke projects.
  • Developer lock-in – Specialised custom solutions, such as content management systems, booking engines or e-commerce platforms, that are specifically hand built for your requirements as a one-off, often means that only the original developers are able to provide support should any issues arise. This can result in higher ongoing fees or being locked into a relationship over a long period. This is fine if your business is very niche but worth being aware of.


Both off-the-shelf and bespoke options have their place. Our opinion has always been to use the best tools for the job. Understand the requirements and goals of the client and then decide which route to take.

Finally, there is also a middle ground. It’s certainly feasible to deliver a bespoke solution which is based on an off-the-shelf template to save time on the initial design and implementation, or if you prefer the other side of the argument, an off-the-shelf solution which utilises a developer to customise the site beyond the original template to deliver a more custom product.

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