Web Development WordPress

React WordPress Theme Development: Benefits and Drawbacks

Read this post to learn about the main advantages of using the cutting-edge React.js library to build a theme for your WordPress website.

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Learn about the ins and outs of React WordPress theme development

In this post, we discuss the specifics of building a WordPress theme with React. We also show you what value the WordPress React theme development brings to the table.

Content is king. Every site owner knows this truth. Just creating content is not enough, though. You also need to be able to manipulate it efficiently: add it to your site, edit it, or remove it.

At the dawn of the Internet era, working with content was hardly a job for ordinary users. Everything changed when the first content management systems (CMS) came into play. They allowed ‘mere mortals’ with no prior experience in using digital technologies to perform basic operations with website content easily and quickly.

Of these, WordPress is one of the oldest and most popular platforms. Millions of websites of all types, from blogs to online stores, are based on WordPress. What makes this CMS so attractive in the first place is the convenient, intuitive admin panel. It enables site administrators to handle both the back-end and front-end tasks effortlessly.

A few years ago, a monumental shift occurred in the WordPress landscape. REST API was added to the system’s core. Now, WordPress development teams have their hands free to work with other technologies apart from PHP and HTML to create custom WordPress themes.

The WordPress front-end has been decoupled from the WordPress back-end. It can now be developed independently and even run from a different server. This has created a plethora of opportunities.

Developers have started using various JavaScript frameworks to build custom WordPress themes or enhance existing ones while still leaning on WordPress to retrieve and send data to the database.

One of the most well-liked of these is React.js, a JS library released by Facebook in 2013. Let’s see why.

REST API: The Architectural Style that Enables Developers to Create a WordPress Theme with React

React uses WordPress REST API to build custom themes

When talking about building a WordPress theme using React, we can’t avoid explaining the cornerstone concept that makes this all possible — REST API. In the previous versions of WordPress, REST API was implemented as a plugin. Now, it has been added to the system’s core. This is one of the most revolutionary enhancements that WordPress has ever experienced.

API stands for an Application Programming Interface. REST, in turn, means the Representational State Transfer and is, in essence, a number of rules that define how a website data should be manipulated (creating, reading, updating, and deleting) in the form of collections and objects.

Every WordPress data type is represented by the so-called endpoint or URL of that specific type. For example, the base route of posts is /wp/v2/posts, while the base route of themes is /wp/v2/themes. When creating a WordPress theme with React or a similar JS framework, you can use these endpoints within the code to manipulate data in the database.

The data itself travels between the back-end and front-end as JSON objects. JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation. It’s a handy document format that contains JavaScript objects with key-value pairs. Values can be represented as other JS objects or arrays of objects. Here’s an example:

React uses JSON to communicate with the WordPress back-end

It’s like a TV remote control. You press the power button. The signal is sent to the TV to turn on, and you start receiving information. We can say that an endpoint is the button and the corresponding JSON object is the signal.

You have no idea how this signal is processed inside the TV. All you care about is the information. The remote control is the interface that enables you to communicate with the TV by pressing different buttons.

When you have a WordPress theme with React that drives it, the REST API serves as the interface through which you connect to the database and perform operations on the data. Two things to note:

  • REST API imposes the same security restrictions whether you have  built a WordPress theme with React.js (a similar JS framework) or have used the old faithful PHP.
  • Using the WordPress REST API is by no means compulsory.

We have already touched upon some of the value that the REST API brings to WordPress site owners: the front-end and back-end are now clearly separated. You can have two different development teams working from different locations and running their parts of the site from different servers.

Some other advantages include the following:

  • When you create a React app as a WordPress theme, you get a Single Page Application (SPA) with a unique design and excellent user experience.
  • A WordPress React.js theme is highly dynamic/interactive, well-performing, and can integrate animations. Other frameworks allow developers to use animations in themes, too, but React.js makes this process a bit more straightforward.
  • A React theme for WordPress can store data on the client side for additional speed.
  • A WordPress theme with React under the hood is capable of functioning even with the Internet off thanks to Service Workers.

These arguments should be strong enough to convince you to take advantage of the REST API in your next or current project. Why build a WordPress theme with React, though, when you can use other technologies as well? Here is the answer.

The React WordPress Theme Development: The Best Option for Your Site

We have already highlighted the main strengths of React in one of our previous posts. Let’s go over the key points that make React a great library for building WordPress themes.

The WordPress Theme Development with React Is Fast and Easy

WordPress developers greatly appreciate this feature of React. If you take a look at the syntax, called JSX, it looks like JavaScript code with HTML inside it. In addition, everything in React is a component, which incorporates the logic, structure, and visual presentation in one location.

While this violates the separation of concerns principle, developers quickly come to grips with this concept and find it convenient.

Anyone familiar with JavaScript and HTML can grasp the basics of React fairly quickly, although it may take a while to master some advanced stuff.

The simple syntax and familiar technologies make React WordPress theme development quite fast (again, some tasks such as implementing server-side rendering may take longer to handle). This contributes to reduced development costs.

You Can Use Many Available Components

Another great thing that expedites React WordPress Theme Development is the ability to use many components from one project in another. Just like Lego building blocks, WordPress developers can take one ‘cube’ and insert it into a different site.

Of course, there can be specific features that are hard to port to a different project painlessly. When it comes to simple components, though, this is quite possible. The best thing: all of these building blocks are not interconnected and, thus, can be altered without the fear of breaking something in the others.

Only the Components in a WordPress React.js Theme That Have Changed Are Redrawn

React.js implements the concept of the virtual DOM. As you might know, manipulating real DOM is a time and resource-consuming process. Say you have a group of six checkboxes, and you have checked one of them. With Vanilla JavaScript or a framework other than React, the entire group of checkboxes is reloaded to reflect the changes in the DOM.

If you have chosen to create a React app for a WordPress theme, by contrast, only the selected checkbox will be redrawn in the DOM. Why? For each and every real DOM object (e.g., checkbox or radio button), React provides an identical virtual DOM object that has absolutely the same properties.

However, it’s just that: “virtual.” It’s a “ghost” copy of the real object, which is used only for comparison purposes. Once a checkbox is selected, React redraws the entire virtual DOM. Unlike the real DOM, virtual DOM is re-rendered lightning-fast, as it has “no flesh and bones.”

Then, React compares the new virtual DOM with the DOM version that existed before the checkbox was selected and redraws only that checkbox in the physical DOM, ignoring the rest of the page elements. This creates rocket-like themes.

These are just some of the great features of React.js that convince more and more site owners to have React themes for their WordPress projects. Read another of our posts to learn more about React’s merits.

Just like any other technology, though, React is not without drawbacks, but they are few and minor.

Some Negative Aspects to Consider When Going the React WordPress Theme Development Way

React.js Is Still Evolving

As fast and efficient as React is, it’s a relatively new tool. Its initial release took place in 2013. This means that the platform is still in the active development phase. Issues and bugs are not rare.

That being said, with every new version, React is growing more mature and robust. The React development community is already quite substantial. This means that WordPress theme React developers should easily find solutions to their problems.

Implementing the WordPress REST API with React May Require Some Additional Workarounds

Just by connecting React.js to WordPress through REST API doesn’t mean that your site will be working really fast. This is because the React app still needs to retrieve lots of data from the database, especially if the user interface is very complex.

Therefore, to build a really fast WordPress theme with React, developers need to go the extra mile. For instance, they may have to create an indexer to populate a single document with lots of frequently used data from the database. There are other workarounds to make the React-WordPress combination more efficient.

If all this seems overwhelming to you, the GetDevDone WordPress development team will handle the React WordPress theme development for you from start to finish. We have been working with React.js for many years and created multiple custom WordPress themes by leveraging the power of this advanced technology.

Feel free to contact us for any WordPress or WooCommerce theme development tasks.

React WordPress Theme Development: Frequently Asked Questions

Is React WordPress theme development possible?

It has been possible since the REST API functionality was added to the system’s core a few years ago. Now, with the back-end and front-end decoupled, WordPress developers can use various technologies to build custom WordPress themes.

One of the best options is React.js. It can make http calls to the WordPress back-end and exchange data with it through JSON objects.

What are the main advantages of React for building WordPress themes?

  • React has a simple syntax that’s easy to master by any front-end developer.
  • React components can be ported from application to application. This makes React WordPress theme development exceedingly fast.
  • React implements the concept of the virtual DOM. Only the DOM elements that have changed are redrawn. This expedites the UI rendering tremendously.

Can React be used to create custom WordPress themes?

Yes, it can. This is actually the best value that React.js can bring to WordPress site owners. Instead of installing a ready-made theme and trying hard to customize it to meet your business needs, you can build a React.js WordPress theme from the ground up. This will give you total control over every aspect of your site.

Does a React WordPress theme render well on mobiles?

Certainly. React is a universal solution. You can build React apps that will render immaculately on any device.

How SEO friendly is React?

When building React apps, developers have always found it hard to handle the search engine optimization issue. This, above all, has to do with the operation of search engines that try to render the page efficiently and then index it.

Although Google has been able to crawl and index websites rendered on the client side since 2015, there are several reasons why this may cause errors.

1. Limited, partially limited, or missing JavaScript rendering support by other search engines. That also goes true for SEO tools that crawl the network and retrieve important data about elements such as website links.

2. Empty page content on the first view. First off, this has to do with the dependence of React on JavaScript. Initially, HTML contains no important content, so a search engine bot or user has to load and execute the JavaScript code to view the page content.

Thus, on the first view, the page content is empty and you have to wait until the entire content finishes loading. As a result, if you are working with thousands of pages, that may slow down the indexation of their content.

3. Challenge of adding various metadata to specific pages due to the use of a unified app model for all pages. Without that, search engines and social media platforms will always display identical titles, thumbnails, and descriptions for each page.

4. No built-in sitemap generation tool. First of all, a sitemap is required to provide a blueprint for search engines that they can use to crawl the entire website’s content.

At present, there are several methods that enable developers to solve the main SEO problems when building a React app, namely creating an isomorphic React app and using pre-rending.

Isomorphic React apps can render both on the client and server sides. This arrangement allows the server to give the green light to render the React app and send the rendered version to users and search engines so that they can immediately view the content while JavaScript is being loaded and executed in the background.

The isomorphic approach to building apps normally takes up a very long time. However, developers can use frameworks to facilitate the development process, with Next.js and Gatsby being the most popular. The key function of those React.js-based frameworks is to solve the problem of rendering an SPA on the server side.

That allows developers not only to fix SEO-related issues but also to increase the app’s loading speed, which in turn enables them to focus on enhancing the app’s capabilities.

What makes creating React components so fast?

When building UIs, developers now tend to use modern CSS frameworks, with Bootstrap, Tailwind CSS, Material Design, Semantic UI, Foundation being the most popular. Each helps developers create an awesome user interface for your project as fast as possible.

That, however, brings up the issue of using frameworks in React apps. Of course, we can go down the conventional path, linking CSS and JS files, using CDN, or installing corresponding NPM packages. However, those methods are inconvenient when creating components since each component has to be built from scratch, which takes up a much longer time.

To solve the problem, each of the popular CSS frameworks has its own component implementation. Some components have official support by the framework developers who have made them, while others have been provided by the React community and are supported by it.

That means we don’t have to create each component from ground zero. Instead, we can simply use readily available components, adjusting them to our own needs. That also enables us to reduce the development time and scale apps more easily.

Dmytro Mashchenko

Dmytro is the CEO of GetDevDone, an experienced web developer, and a prolific author of in-depth technology and business-related posts. He is always eager to share his years-long expertise with everyone who wants to succeed in the web development field.