Thesis 1.8 vs Genesis 1.3 – Detailed Comparison

Let’s be reasonable here. When it comes to WordPress frameworks there are only two real competitors: Thesis from DIY Themes and Genesis from StudioPress. Headway has made some nice strides and does offer a beginner-friendly interface, but its bulky and doesn’t match up to the efficiency or extensibility of Thesis or Genesis. There are several other notable frameworks. I’d love to see them do some catching up and really drive the market to be better, but they aren’t there yet.

What This Is And What This Is Not

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a full-time web designer/developer who works exclusively with WordPress and almost exclusively with Thesis. I have worked a fair amount with Genesis, and have, for the most part, enjoyed the experience. I’m attempting to be as unbiased as possible, but I say this so you know where I’m coming from.

Second, I’m not going to tell you that one framework is unequivocally better than the other. I’m striving to provide an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each framework, and to give you the tools you need to make an informed decision.

Playing for Keeps

Both Thesis and Genesis, as I’m about to explain, are great pieces of software backed by solid developers that I have a great deal of respect for. With that said, its important that you make a decision and stick to it. Changing frameworks on an established site is a big no-no. Even if your site is visually and functionally similar, your HTML will be completely different and you may be penalized by Google. Its not the end of the world if you switch, but its a road I don’t recommend traveling.

The Criteria

I’m not going to give you a grade for each criteria or anything like that, but this type of thing has to have some structure, or I’ll end up writing a book. Thus, I’ve laid out a set of criteria that I think are crucial in determining which framework is best for you. This is by no means exhaustive, but it should get you started.

In no particular order:

Efficiency

Both frameworks are obscenely fast! When used in combination with W3 Total Cache, and a decent server setup both frameworks can be served up in under 1 second even when heavily customized.

In a technical sense, the frameworks load almost 100% differently. Genesis more or less uses the traditional WordPress method of using different templates for the header, sidebar, footer, index, etc. Thesis almost completely ignores this structure. Regardless of how important you may think it is to use native WordPress functionality, there’s no questioning the fact that both methods are producing extraordinarily fast websites. At the end of the day. That’s what matters.

YSlow Analysis

To get an idea of just how fast each framework is, let’s take a look at YSlow. YSlow is an add-on for Mozilla Firefox that tells you exactly why your page is loading slowly, and gives you a rating from 0-100 for your website’s page load speed. I’m running a fresh WordPress installation, and fresh installations of Thesis and Genesis. Also, I’m using the latest YSlow ruleset which is version 2.0, and of course, that means I’m running the latest version of Firefox as well.

Genesis

Out of the box, Genesis achieves a score of 82 out of 100 on YSlow. Its score deductions come mostly because my setup is not using a content delivery network or gzip compression. The deductions that can be controlled by the theme come from the 3 javascripts.

The total page download for the Genesis homepage under this setup is 111.9KB. 4.4KB of this is the HTML document, 21.1KB can be attributed to the style sheet, 0.3KB can be attributed to 2 CSS background images, and 76.2KB is composed of 3 javascripts that take care of the fancy drop down menus. This means the entire page requires 7 HTTP requests. For the record, HTTP requests are usually the main culprit when it comes to high page load times.

Thesis

Thesis achieves a score of 82 out of 100 on YSlow. It has the same score deductions as Genesis accept that it receives larger deductions because it has 3 style sheets instead of one. Thesis also loads 1 random inline image that is between 10KB and 20KB by default, and, like Genesis, Thesis has a total of 7 HTTP requests.

The total page download for the Thesis homepage under this setup is 49.0-59.0KB. 4.9KB is from the HTML document, 33.2KB from 3 style sheets, 1.0KB from 2 CSS background images, and 10-20KB from 1 inline image. If you turn off the multimedia box image, the total download drops under 40KB, and you’re only looking at 6 HTTP requests. That’s still pretty darn slim, but it could be better. Thesis developer Chris Pearson has stated publicly that he plans to eventually cut down on the number of style sheets, and that would certainly help. For now, you can use W3 Total Cache to minify the stylesheets and combine them into one. That cuts out two HTTP requests right there. For the record, you can do the same for the Genesis fancy drop down JS and cut out two HTTP requests there as well.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

So, all of these ratings and statistics give us a decent barometer for efficiency, but ultimately what matters is the actual page load time. YSlow also records the amount of time a page takes to load. In as close to an unbiased test as possible, using the same setup as above, ignoring load results over 1 second, and running 100 tests for each theme under default settings here are the results:

Average Thesis page load time: 0.647 seconds
Average Genesis page load time: 0.683 seconds

If we cut out the unnecessary components of the default setups of each framework, here are the results:

Thesis without the multimedia box image or custom.css style sheet: 0.615 seconds
Genesis without the fancy drop downs: 0.676 seconds

Keep in mind, this test is a small sample, and not completely controlled, but Thesis was just slightly faster.

In any case the difference is less than 1/10th of a second, and both frameworks are still just obscenely fast!

It should also be noted that Thesis comes with a stylesheet specifically for Internet Explorer 6 and 7. Genesis does not. While I have not encountered any issues specifically because of this in my experience with Genesis, the potential is certainly there for issues with those browsers. Having an additional style sheet would be a welcomed addition.

Learning Curve

Both frameworks do the heavy development lifting using hooks, filters, and CSS style sheets. The way they go about it is slightly different (okay, almost completely different), if you can learn to use hooks in Thesis, you can definitely learn to use them in Genesis. Thus, in terms of learning curve, the differentiating factor definitely lays with options panels.

These are two of the best options panels in the industry. That’s where the similarities end. The options can be more or less summarized into two separate divisions: seo settings and design settings. Both frameworks offer options panel for site-wide changes as well as post and page specific options.

Genesis

SEO Options

Genesis certainly has some serious chops when it comes to site-wide SEO options. You have a ridiculous amount of control over what goes in the head of your HTML document, and you can control what portion of your homepage is wrapped in an h1 tag which has some serious SEO implications! You’ll also find some standard features here like robot meta control (noindex and nofollow archive pages if you please) as well as canonical URL control.

As for SEO options on individual posts, Genesis is absolutely rockin’ here as well. Of course the standard custom title tags, custom meta descriptions, and custom meta tags are included, but you also have the ability to add your own custom canonical URL for each individual post. Awesome!

Design Options

Genesis definitely brings the noise when it comes to SEO options. No complaints there. In fact, I’m thrilled! Then, I go looking for the design options and an extremely efficient framework with phenomenal SEO options leaves me wanting more. The design options in Genesis leaves me sorely disappointed. Aside from the ability to add breadcrumbs (which you have very little control over) and an about the author box (which, again, you have very little control over), there really isn’t much there. Brian Gardner and Co. over at StudioPress have stated on numerous occasions something to the effect that there focus is not on design options.

I must say that despite my disappointment with the design options site-wide, the ability to specify a 1, 2, or 3 column layout (and designate the column order) on a per-post/page basis is pretty frickin’ sweet. So is the ability to add custom tracking code on a per-post/page basis. I also love the integration of the new(ish) post thumbnails too. No complaints there.

Thesis

SEO Options

Thesis also does a great job with SEO options. While you don’t have as much control over the content of your document head, all of the WPGarbage is removed by default (as it is by default in Genesis). One thing Genesis does that I would LOVE to see Thesis emulate is the option to wrap the h1 tag on the homepage where ever I please. You don’t always want it to be on the tagline (though most of the time that’s fine).

As for SEO post options, Thesis offers you a ton of flexibility. You can, of course, set custom title tags, meta descriptions, and meta tags. You can also 301 redirect any post or page to and URL, and you have all the robot meta control a man could ever want.

Thesis has an added SEO bonus as of 1.8! Now you can control the title tag, meta description, meta tags, headline text, and item description for each and every tag and category! That is absolutely enormous for SEO on your archive pages!

Genesis also has options for archives pages. They also support seo options for custom taxonomy pages which is pretty slick.

Design Options

Thesis SEO options are great, but the design options are where it really shines. You can control the size and color of virtually every font on your site all through the “design options” in your WordPress dashboard. You can also enable most of the commonly used javascript libraries on a site-wide or per-post/page basis with the use of an options panel. On top of that, you can choose from a page framework which is similar to the Genesis layout, or you can use a full-width framework which allows for more control of the site’s background among other things.

Thesis also gives you the ability to control the layout of your homepage using any combination of featured posts and “teasers” to create a magazine style layout. Finally, you have near complete control over what shows up in your bylines, comments, teasers, and post content. It really gives you an insane amount of control over the layout of your site. Its not perfect, but its the industry standard in my opinion, and it completely blows Genesis out of the water in this department.

My one major complaint here is that Thesis is still sticking to this archaic post image system. I really like the new wp post thumbnail system, and I’d at least like to have a simple option to use that instead rather than writing the code and inserting the image myself. If there were some way to migrate images from the legacy system to the new wp system that would be extremely sick!

Development Capability

Most of my complaints above about the lack of design options are irrelevant to me personally, because it doesn’t take much time for me to write css to manage whatever font size, font color, background colors, etc. my little heart desires. At the end of the day I am – and I believe you should be – infinitely more worried about the potential power of your framework to create versatile, scalable websites than whether or not the framework comes with some easy to use design options.

Both frameworks come with more than 50 hooks, and a whole bunch of filters (Genesis has significantly more filters). They use style sheets to dictate CSS changes. Again, that’s about where the similarities end.

If you’re a developer, and this section actually applies to you, you probably know what hooks and filters are and how they work, so I’ll leave that part out. I think its sufficient to say that both frameworks offer enough hooks and filters to do just about whatever you want in terms of controlling your site’s content.

I do want to talk about the difference in the way Thesis and Genesis are customized though as its a HUGE difference and I do think its relevant.

Genesis

Genesis uses a child theme for customization. Basically, the process for getting started looks like this:

  1. Create a new folder in your wp-content/themes/ directory
  2. In that folder, place a png image entitled “screenshot.png”
  3. Also place a file called functions.php
  4. Create an images folder within this here new folder
  5. Copy the Genesis theme style sheet into this same folder
  6. Finally, insert Template: genesis below Theme Name: [your theme name]

Viola! You’ve just created your first child theme. Now, make all of your CSS customizations in the new child theme style sheet, and put all of your custom functions, hooks, and filters in the new functions.php file you created. When you’re done, activate the child theme. Just like that your new design is live. Need to add custom page templates? No problem! Just add your_new_page_template.php to your new child theme folder, and it should be available to use as one of the page templates in the page template drop-down. Want to modify an existing page template or loop? Genesis has 13 hooks that fall within the loop!!!

I really love working with this system. It might honestly be the only system I’ve ever seen that is simpler than the Thesis model of a custom folder containing a custom stylesheet, images folder, and custom_functions.php file where you place all of your functions, hooks, and filters. I must admit, I really like the idea of just 1 style sheet instead of 3.

Thesis

As I said, the Thesis system involves a custom folder contained within the main Thesis folder…not a separate theme. The customizable ingredients are an images folder, a custom stylesheet, and custom_functions.php. Yes, I know you silly WordPress purists don’t like it because its not native functionality. Whatever…it is exceedingly simple, and, while I’m not sure its as intuitive as the child theme concept, its very efficient and extremely extensible. With the addition of the Loop API (more on that in a minute) I would venture to say its more extensible than Genesis.

If you’d like, you can find out more about the way that Thesis handles hooks and custom css.

Recent Game-Changing, Spoon-Bending Development

When Thesis 1.8 dropped, Thesis added the new Loop API. This enables you to create absolutely any kind of template for absolutely any page on your website. Talk about game changing. Genesis does offer similar functionality with the genesis_loop hook, but it doesn’t offer quite the same flexibility or ease of use.

Typography

No, gentle reader, this is not a matter of personal preference. There are certain, incontrovertible facts concerning the way the human eye digests information. Well thought out typography will make people spend more time on your site.

There are four basic elements to good typography: contrast, size, hierarchy, and space.

Contrast simply refers to the color of your text against the color of your background. Dark red on dark blue = bad. Both Thesis and Genesis having black on white = good. Moving on.

Size refers to the size of your font. Its Crazy. I know. The basic idea here is that you shouldn’t use small font. Both frameworks seem to use readable font sizes. Awesome!

Hierarchy refers to the differing size of your text. Important text – such as headlines – should be significantly larger than the text of your main content. Thesis has quite a contrast there by default. Success. Genesis does not by default. In fact, most of the font size on the site seems to be pretty close to the same size by default. This is horrendous and needs to be addressed. The StudioPress site design does, yet its framework does not out of the box??? Fail. I realize this is easily changed with CSS, but, again, this is where design options would be sooo clutch!

Space refers to the space between blocks of text. Thesis does this as well as any theme I’ve ever seen. Of course, there are weak spots – comment meta anyone? Genesis, on the other hand just runs together sometimes. Its really completely inexplicable for such an excellent framework to mess up something so simple. The really bad thing is that it trickles down to most of the child themes as well. Again, I know its an easy fix, but you have to understand that so many of your users aren’t going to do the CSS work.

Support

One of the most important factors in choosing a framework to work with is the support that stands behind it. In my opinion this is a three-pronged ideal.

The Development Team

First, you absolutely must have a development team behind the framework cranking out awesome sauce updates on a regular basis. Genesis has a great team behind it. With people like Brian Gardner, Nathan Rice, and company you know you’re in good hands going forward.

The same can be said for Chris Pearson. As far as the development aspect of Thesis/DIY Themes, he’s a one man show, but his development consistency over the past two years speaks for itself. Love him or hate him, you know you’re going to get quality updates on a regular basis, and its quite possible that Chris has provided more innovation in the premium theme market than any other developer in the past two years.

Staff and Community Support

Second, you need good quality staff and community support. Genesis appears to be getting there on this one. Having only been around 6 months they don’t quite have the community of 28,000+ users that Thesis does, but they’re gaining steam and the support forums are quite active.

Thesis speaks for itself on this one. They have quite possibly the most active support forum of any single WordPress theme, and they employ several staff members focused primarily on support.

You’ll also notice I’ve linked to a couple Thesis tutorials written by community members. This is not because I’m biased, but because there are an abundance of community-written tutorials for Thesis, and there are virtually none for Genesis.

Documentation

Third, you absolutely must have good documentation. From a development perspective its incredibly frustrating to not be able to find a list of filters listed anywhere on the StudioPress website or anywhere in the support forum. Maybe I’m missing it, but that’s just inexcusable. The specific how-to’s are great, but give me the basics first please! I do need to cut them a break here and say that being only 6 months old is a pretty big detriment in this regard.

Of course, the Thesis documentation is absolutely rock solid, and has gotten a big boost recently with the addition of Derek Halpern to the Thesis team as well as the talents of a certain girlie. You’ll find detailed documentation for every Thesis hook and filter along with a growing list of specific how-to’s based around commonly used design elements. Again, being around for two years longer is a big advantage when it comes to things like documentation, but you definitely have to be impressed by the docs that Thesis offers.

Security

Please note: I am not a security wizard by any stretch of the imagination. Take what I say on this subject with a grain of salt!

Security is absolutely one of the central issues you need to be concerned with at all times as a webmaster of any sort. Genesis has been the industry leader in security since its inception. It makes extensive use of the WordPress security API, and has been audited by Mark Jaquith who seems to be considered one of the foremost experts on WordPress security.

Thesis was slammed for its lack of use of the WordPress API in a recent comparison of the major WordPress frameworks. Accordingly – I have no knowledge of any direct correlation – Thesis 1.8 has introduced use of the WordPress security API and should be more or less up to par with Genesis security.

Again, I’m not a security expert, but I haven’t had any issues with security in two years of working with Thesis. To my knowledge, neither have any of my clients.

Future Outlook

The future outlook is definitely an important factor in making a purchasing decision here. Where is the theme going to be a few years down the road? As your site grows, you need a theme that will grow with you.

Genesis

The outlook for Genesis is about as positive as it can possibly be. Honestly, the majority of the few pitfalls Genesis currently has are results of only being 6 months out from release. In another year I fully expect Genesis to be leaps and bounds ahead of where it is today. The fact that it has apparently been merged with Copyblogger certainly points to a bright future.

Thesis

Despite the exodus of Brian Clark, and the recent feud between Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg, I have it on good authority that its full steam ahead in the quest to create the best WordPress framework on the market.

Considering the two years of established development history, and the game-changing developments in Thesis 1.8 (with the addition of Google Fonts, the loop API, etc.), I don’t think there’s any doubt that Thesis will continue to be one of the driving forces pushing WordPress theme development forward. Given the innovative nature of the recent Thesis updates, the future looks very bright for Thesis as well.

My Thoughts

At the end of the day I think Thesis remains king of the hill by a slim margin. At this point in time Thesis is still – especially with the addition of the loop API – more flexible from a developers standpoint, and offers significantly more design capabilities for a novice user who may not be familiar with CSS, HTML, etc. You also get a framework that is blazing fast and built with SEO and content consumption in mind.

With that said, I don’t think Genesis is a terrible option by any means. Its still very flexible, has great SEO options, and provides you with an efficient framework to build on. If you have the coding skills to do the design stuff yourself, its certainly a viable competitor. Improved typography and some semblance of a design options panel would turn what is already a pretty close comparison into a relative coin-flip.

Thesis has been around for a couple of years, and, it would appear, finally has some reasonably close competition. That can only be a good thing for you and I as end users. Regardless of which framework you choose, you know that development is going to be pushed forward that much faster with more competition. That’s a win for everyone involved!

Adam has a decade of experience as a WordPress designer and developer. Learn more about him here.

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Adam has a decade of experience as a WordPress designer and developer. Learn more about him here.

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