There are tens of thousands of WordPress themes available, some free and some “premium” (which just means paid). These are a huge asset and one of the main reasons for using WordPress as they allow saving up vast amounts of time when setting up a site.
With so many themes to choose from, there are huge disparities in quality. A bad theme can do your site much harm; a decent theme can be okay, but a brilliant theme can make a huge positive impact.
With so many themes to choose from, how do you choose a quality WordPress theme? With this article, I will run you through on some information to look for and what to avoid while choosing the right theme for your WordPress site.
What to Avoid When Choosing a WordPress Theme
There are some red flags you will always want to avoid. Theme reviews and roundups need to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt and “kitchen sink” themes that do it all can be a lot less appealing than they first appear. You also have to look out for ‘demo’ themes, and ‘spam’ themes. We will look at all of these in more detail now.
Theme Reviews And Roundups
Don’t take theme reviews, roundups or recommendations at face value. Theme companies offer affiliate programs, and the companies with the most generous referral payments get recommended the most. Theme companies will pay significant sums to the blogs with the highest ranking posts for popular search terms to appear on their recommended lists – the recommendations are not made on merit. Bear this in mind when reading roundups.
Individual theme reviews suffer from the same problem and rarely tell you anything insightful, offering at best superficial analysis.
Reviews are not always bad – but watch out for reviews that mask affiliate links, and don’t mention the themes controls, code, or any negatives. They are likely writing purely for the affiliate income. In these cases, it is best just to come to your own conclusions.
‘Do It All’ Themes That Do a Lot Less
Some of the most popular themes are uber-flexible “kitchen sink” or “do-it-all” themes. The appeal is obvious: buy one theme and have it do everything.
The problem with themes which offer to do everything “without customizing code” is that they make it very hard to do anything yourself, especially if you want to customize the code.
The need to cater for all circumstances also typically makes these themes much more bloated. With page speed a major consideration for visitors and Google; a leaner theme is the much better option.
Kitchen sink themes are often complex to customize and can take much time to look the way you want. The demos are set up by people with fantastic design skills who know the theme inside out. Most users do not have the knowledge to reproduce these things – at least not without investing much time.
Demo and Spam Themes
Demo and Spam themes are themes that start off free – often given away through a download on their website.
Demo themes will then upsell a premium version of the theme. Demo themes can serve your purpose, depending on where you download the themes from (wordpress.org is best). Spam themes, on the other hand, are poorly developed themes stuffed with links to low-quality websites that want to try and trick search engines. These tricks no longer work and will negatively impact your website.
What to Look for in a WordPress Theme
Once you know what you want to avoid, you can set out what you want.
The WordPress Theme Essentials
There are a couple of essentials you will always want to tick off and then some more subjective items.
Check out the Documentation. Most theme providers will let you see documentation before you buy. Is it thorough? Does it look well written and useful? Are there video tutorials? Solid documentation is a good sign that the rest of the theme is sound too. If the documentation is not publicly viewable, ask if you can see it.
Check Ongoing Support and Update Costs. You should expect to receive support and updates for at least twelve months and should have to pay a reduced fee then for continued updates. If it is anything other than this, make sure you are aware of the ongoing costs when making your purchasing decision. Not paying an annual fee can be bad as it is much more likely the developer will cease to find it financially viable to update your theme – in this case, check how long the developer has been in operation.
What Support Is Included? This is a really important one. Good support can save you a ton of time, so it is important to know what you are getting. Is just theme setup covered, or will you get customization too? What if you need help with something “above and beyond”? A good test is to ask a pre-sales question (even if you know the answer) to check the response rate and quality. You do not want to be waiting too long for a response.
Check the Refund Policy. Does it exist? What is the period for the refund? There’s always a chance a theme just doesn’t work out in practice – being able to get a no-queries refund straightaway is useful here. You will be able to tell if this is the case immediately, so a refund in seven days are ample here.
Bonus: Google Common Problems. This extra check can be helpful: do a quick Google search for “theme name” broken and see what comes up. Issues showing up isn’t necessarily a problem if fixed promptly; if the issues are recurring with no fixes, then you should be on the lookout for the issue fixes, or better, find another responsive theme.
Extra Bonus: Search or Ask for Discounts. Most theme shops have sales from time to time. Before you buy, do a search for discounts. If you cannot find any and there’s a discount code box on the checkout, ask for one. Be reasonable – 20% off is fine, 50% off is unreasonable – however, you may get what you ask for if you know how to negotiate a deal.
These are all technical points but going through the essentials first lets you eliminate the bad themes straight away, rather than being seduced by badly made themes that manage to look good.
Is the Theme GPL?
WordPress was released under the GPL license and still follows the same. This means that the code is free to use as you wish. Since themes make use of WordPress, they should also be based on the GPL. If theme shops do not mention this or try to hide the fact, then it is possible they are hiding other things as well.
The WordPress Theme Subjective Features
Once you have covered off all of the essentials, it is time to think about design. You want a theme that looks good, but “good” means different things to different people. A couple of things to think about:
- Is the theme suited to your kind of content? Imagine your posts on the site, not the specially crafted and carefully edited content of the demo. Do you have suitable imagery for a media-heavy theme?
- Is content readable? Look at a decent font size and good line spacing.
- Is it easy to publish content? Alternatively, is the theme adding lots of extra bits of content you will need to add each time? Be wary of adding extra time to publishing content.
Theme demos are the place to try out all of these things. If possible, remove any layover boxes and see the theme as visitors will see it on your site. While you are doing this, resize your browser window to test the responsive design features. Test for tablet and mobile devices; in a well-made theme, everything should work flawlessly.
The final thing to consider is SEO. This is subjective as it is difficult to measure without seeing any code. Running the demo through Google PageSpeed is a good starting point; you want to be looking for a decent score there. Otherwise, any well-built theme will do a good job when coupled with some speed improvements and SEO plugins. A general rule of thumb is that if the theme has passed all of the checks up-to-now, it is probably fine. Look out for audits by SEO agencies but take other alleged SEO benefits with an awareness that, as they are difficult to prove, they may just be marketing speak.
Where to Find Quality WordPress Themes
There’s only one place to go for free WordPress themes, and that is wordpress.org. All of the themes published on wordpress.org have had a code review by an independent developer. There are ratings and support forums included – so you should be able to get a good idea of the potential for the theme.
Don’t download free themes from any other websites. If they have not been reviewed through wordpress.org, then you are more likely to download a spam theme. In some cases, you may even install a theme containing malicious code that will allow a hacker to get access to your website.
Where do you go about finding all of this feature rich, well engineered and good looking themes? Independent theme shops run by a small team of passionate developers are the places you want to be looking. Marketplaces such as Creative Market or ThemeForest do not have a guarantee of quality across all their themes and should thus be avoided.
We have personally used some and recommend them to the readers:
- ProThemeDesign (full disclosure – this is mine)
- Array Themes
- Theme Foundry
- Anariel Design
Otherwise, theme shops who sell on wordpress.com tend to have good quality themes since the wordpress.com team reviews all of the code in the themes they sell, so the standards are high. Also, the themes found on the WordPress.org Commercial Themes page usually have pretty good themes on offer.
In all cases, though, make sure you consider the checks mentioned earlier in this article.
Good Themes Provide Solid Foundations
It is worth spending some time getting the right theme. As you work through your journey to becoming a WordPress Expert, you will get faster at choosing quality themes – and you will find that picking out the right theme saves time and money down the road as you do not have to swap your mediocre theme in six months as you run up against its limitations.
For this, and more – check out our free email course – Master WordPress – containing seven feature packed lessons.
This is a Guest Post Contribution from Ben Gillbanks, the owner and developer at Pro Theme Design.
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