WordPress Themes vs. WordPress Page Builders: Which Is Right for You?

If you’re new to WordPress, you probably have a lot of questions about the most effective way to build your website. This makes sense, considering you have a lot of different options. 

WordPress newbies can hire someone to build their page for them, customize a WordPress theme, or use a page builder like Divi or Elementor.

If you’re reading this post, you are probably more interested in the DIY website building options, but may be wondering which route you should take.

This post will cover the differences between using a WordPress theme vs. a page builder and the pros and cons of each method. By the end of the article, you’ll have a better understanding of which method is a better choice for you, based on your interests, skill, and website requirements.

What is the difference between a WordPress theme and a page builder?

First things first, it’s critical to understand what a WordPress theme and a page builder even are and how they differ. They both help you customize the way your website looks and how it operates, but let’s take a closer look at how each works.

What is a WordPress theme?

A WordPress theme is a pre-coded layout, design, and the display settings of your website. A WordPress theme is essentially what you need to install and activate to dress your website up and give it a cohesive look and a style.

The good news about WordPress is it’s an open-source platform, meaning any developer can create a theme, free or paid, and offer it to other WordPress users for installation. As a WordPress user, you can install a free WordPress theme, a paid premium theme, or a third-party theme.

WordPress themes vary greatly from one theme to another, and what a theme will allow you to customize will also vary depending on the theme you choose. Some basic elements you can customize on most every theme include: 

  • Logo and headline
  • Color scheme
  • Layout
  • Menus
  • Typography
  • Widget selections

If you know a bit of basic code, you can edit other elements of your theme by adding your own custom CSS or PHP to a theme. However, since each theme has its own data structure, if you update your theme, WordPress won’t save your edits, and you’ll need to re-edit your theme.

To give you a better idea of what a pre-coded WordPress theme will do for your website, let’s look at a few visual examples. In the following examples, the only thing I changed on the website is the theme. I didn’t do any coding, back-end edits, or theme customizations.

As a quick note, I was able to change the theme by going to “Appearance,” “Themes,” and then pressing on “Live Demo” for the three top themes I liked. You’ll also notice on the left side of the screen, there is a menu. This menu is the theme customization menu, which shows everything I can potentially change within a particular theme. 

Live preview of the Bueno theme (free)

preview of wordpress bueno theme

Live preview of the Interface theme (free)

preview of wordpress interface theme

Live preview of the Twenty Twenty theme (free)

preview of wordpress twenty twenty theme

As you can see, each of these three themes is very different from the others in terms of the look and feel, the style, the colors, and how it displays the content. You’ll also notice on the customization bar that what you can customize on each theme varies slightly.

The cool thing about themes is it only took me one-second to press “live preview” on each theme and I have an excellent visual idea of what my website would look like if I installed and activated one of these themes. It’s equally as easy to activate a new theme once you decide which one you like best.

While a WordPress theme will give your website a different look and a feel from theme to theme, the one templated theme you settle on (no matter which one you choose) will control the display settings for every post and page you publish. 

If you don’t have a page builder plugin, then the only way to customize these settings within your theme is to manually edit your theme settings, which requires coding knowledge. It also requires you to update the code every time you update your theme.

Now that you have a better idea of what a WordPress theme is, let’s talk about what a page builder is.

What is a page builder?

A page builder is another, more comprehensive way to create a unique look and feel for your WordPress website. Instead of selecting a theme and then making slight customizations to your overall theme, a page builder allows you to delve a little deeper and customize those individual pages and posts within your WordPress theme. In other words, a page builder allows you more flexibility on individual pages, posts, and areas within your theme that you can’t customize from page-to-page within your WordPress theme settings.

A WordPress page builder is essentially a WordPress plugin that will allow you these enhanced customization features without needing to edit the theme settings or create any other custom lines of code.

It’s also worthy to note that it’s possible to install a page builder plugin (e.g. Divi Builder Plugin) and use it to customize the pages of the WordPress theme of your choice. However, it’s typically more common to use the same theme that the plugin supports (e.g. use the Divi Builder Plugin to customize the Divi Theme).

WordPress page builders work by giving you instant access to an intuitive drag and drop editor. Instead of changing theme settings or adding lines of code to the back-end, all you have to do to build a customized page is to drag and drop different elements where you want them to appear.

A drag and drop editor is an excellent way for a new WordPress website owner to build a highly customized website from the get-go. However, here is a critical bit of information. If you use a drag and drop editor and later want to switch your website to a different theme, your customizations won’t save. Your new theme’s settings will override any customizations you’ve made.

The moral of the story? It’s best to decide from the get-go whether you want to pick a WordPress theme or use a page builder plugin to build your website. To help you make a more informed decision, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a WordPress theme vs. a WordPress page builder plugin.

WordPress theme pros & cons

If you only need a simple website and are satisfied with the design of a particular theme, a WordPress theme is a steady bet.

Pros of WordPress Themes

Here are some other pros of opting for a WordPress theme:

  • You have thousands of options for free and premium themes
  • Skilled programmers have already coded the theme for you
  • All you have to do to get started is press “Install”
  • New and updated WordPress themes are mobile responsive
  • You can opt for a high-converting theme
  • You don’t have to make any layout designs, as it’s already done for you
  • You can switch between themes with a couple quick clicks of a button
  • You can live preview themes
  • WordPress themes allow you to make basic customizations
  • WordPress themes are easy to activate and customize
  • You can make custom CSS edits in the theme editor
  • You can get your website up and running in less than a day

Cons of WordPress Themes

Here are some of the cons to selecting a WordPress theme for your site:

  • Your website may look like other websites if you pick a common theme
  • You don’t have as much customization flexibility
  • If you want additional features or functionality, you must install a plugin
  • The sidebars, widget locations, and general layout are fixed on every page
  • If you want a new layout design, you need a new theme
  • They don’t have page templates
  • There are limited design options for pages and posts
  • Customizations outside of the theme settings require coding
  • Customizations aren’t saved when you update your theme

The bottom line on WordPress themes: WordPress themes are an easy way to get your website up and running with a nice design, but lack flexibility in customizations.

WordPress page builder pros & cons

If you’ve been toying around with the idea of using a page builder to build your site, you’ll want to consider all of the pros and cons.

Pros of WordPress Page Builders

Here are the top advantages of a WordPress page builder:

  • You can use a page builder plugin for any theme you like
  • You have much more flexibility with customizations
  • You can start directly with a page builder built for a popular theme (e.g. Divi or Elementor) and still have a totally unique design
  • You have several custom design options for different pages and posts
  • You can change the layout
  • You can select a custom background
  • The drag and drop editor makes it easy to build pages without needing to code
  • Free versions are available
  • You can use a child theme
  • You can customize widget locations
  • You can add custom widgets to different pages
  • Functionality is built-in to the page builder, reducing the need for multiple plugins that might bog down your website
  • You can customize your theme settings
  • You can pick a page template if you don’t want to customize everything from scratch
  • It takes less time to develop a webpage with a page builder than it does to code one
  • Many page builders offer A/B testing functionality

Cons of WordPress Page Builders

Here are the disadvantages of a WordPress page builder:

  • It takes more time to build a site with a page builder than it does to install and customize a theme
  • You still need a basic eye for design to get the most out of the plugin
  • You won’t launch your website as quickly as if you’d opted for a WordPress theme
  • There is a larger learning curve for page builders than for picking a theme
  • You won’t get to keep the same customizations if you want to select a theme later
  • Many advanced features are premium features

The bottom line on WordPress page builders: WordPress page builders allow you more flexibility, but require more time, attention, and an eye for design.

Should you use a WordPress theme or a WordPress page builder for your site?

Whether or not you use a WordPress theme or a WordPress page builder plugin depends on how much you want to customize your website and how much work you want to do.

Who should use a WordPress theme?

You may want to opt for a WordPress theme if the following describes you:

  • You’re not very tech-savvy and just want a “set it and forget it” design
  • You don’t have a great eye for design
  • You like the theme settings and customization options of your favorite theme
  • You don’t want to make any changes to your theme
  • You know basic coding if you do want to make changes to your theme
  • You don’t care if you can’t customize the pages and post elements
  • You like the layout options of a particular theme
  • You don’t plan on making any CSS customizations to your website
  • You want to turn on automatic theme updates
  • You want to install and activate plugins to provide more website functionality
  • Simplicity is important to you

Who should use a WordPress page builder?

On the other hand, consider a WordPress page builder if this describes you:

  • You like learning new things
  • Drag and drop editing appeals to you
  • You have an eye for design
  • You are a creative individual
  • You don’t want to learn any coding
  • You don’t ever want to have to touch the back-end of your WordPress website
  • You want to be able to customize your pages and posts
  • You want to switch up the layout of your website
  • You want more flexibility than a theme will offer
  • You don’t want too many plugins on your website but still want added functionality
  • You don’t plan to migrate your website to a theme later
  • You are patient and don’t need to launch your website right away

Host your WordPress site on a reliable web hosting platform

And there you have it! Those are the main differences between a WordPress theme and a WordPress page builder, the pros and cons of each, and how to know which one is a better fit for you.

Regardless of which way you plan to create your website, you’ll need a reliable web hosting platform. HostGator provides affordable WordPress web hosting and several other web hosting options for other content management platforms.

If you are interested in using a site builder to make your website, you’ll be happy to learn that HostGator just launched a new website builder that will help you design a custom, gorgeous, eCommerce-friendly site in no time at all. 

Ashley R. Cummings is a professional freelance writer specializing in SaaS, tech, and advertising/marketing. In a previous life, she was a Russian teacher at Brigham Young University, a corporate trainer, and a grad student—all at the same time. When she’s not writing, you can find her traveling the world with her 2 kids and husband, reading poetry or taking a deep dive into the fabulous world of comedy. Connect with her on Twitter at @ashleyrcummings.