How to choose a WordPress theme

We, like millions of others, love WordPress! It’s initial success was driven by the fact that it was free, easy to use and easy to customise. Today it’s popularity is further driven by the ever expanding theme and plugin marketplace. If there’s something you want to do that doesn’t come as standard with the default WordPress installation, then a quick search will often lead you to a plugin or theme that will provide exactly what you need.

According to WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, in July 2013, 18.9% of the web was running on WordPress, and figures have been rising ever since. For more interesting WordPress facts see Tom Ewer’s post “14 Surprising Statistics About WordPress Usage”.

So – given the huge choice of themes, some free and some not, how do you choose the right one for you?

1. Free versus Premium Themes

It’s difficult to pick a winner here as it really depends on your situation. Although there are free themes of excellent quality, and premium themes of poor quality, it’s likely that there will be a higher proportion of quality themes in the premium category. It takes time to produce good work so you’d expect this to come at a cost.

Pros of Premium

  • More unique
    There may be less users of a paid for theme than a free one, so the site may stand out more.
  • Support
    Assuming the theme maker is still in business you should get support for 6 months at least.
  • Documentation
    Most premium themes come with documentation.
  • Quality control
    Theme marketplaces often have quality control in place to ensure that all themes added for sale meet a specified standard.
  • Updates
    WordPress and web technology generally is constantly being updated so to ensure a theme is secure and working well regular updates are expected and available as part of your premium theme license.

Cons of Premium

  • The cost
    Most themes cost between $50-$100 which, although it represents very good value, might be an issue for some.
  • More complex
    Premium themes often come with more features than free ones and as such can require more skill and experience to set up. If a professional is required, this can be an additional cost.
  • Can bloat your site
    Following on from the above, added features can bloat your site. Sites become bloated when too much unnecessary stuff is installed, causing them to run slowly, or develop bugs when components interact oddly with each other.
  • Customisable to a degree
    A good theme is very customisable, not just by the theme options in the WP admin, but from a developer’s perspective. However, there is a limit. Although anything is possible the changes you might want to make could mean that you can’t practically run future theme updates on your site. See below for highly customisable free themes.

Pros of free themes

  • They cost nothing!
    Free is always good and if you don’t like it you’ve not lost money.
  • Light weight
    Many free themes will focus on the basics and so will not include lots of unnecessary features.
  • Totally customisable
    If you are employing a developer then there are a number of excellent free starter themes which are highly customisable – _underscores, Bootstrap or Foundation.

Cons of free

  • No support
    If you get stuck you’re reliant on general WordPress forums and won’t be entitled  to dedicated support from the developer.
  • Basic
    Many site owners want advanced features like sliders, portfolio, gallery etc and so with a basic theme you might have to install extra plugins to get this functionality.
  • No documentation
    There may be little or no documentation.

Conclusion

Key considerations when choosing any theme, free or premium, are:

  • Is it a new theme?
    New could mean it’s new and improved or uses the latest, best practices. It could also mean it doesn’t have much feedback yet so it might be difficult for you to evaluate.
  • Is it an old theme?
    Old could mean it’s a bit tired and dated now or it could be an excellent theme that has had regular updates to keep it up to date. Just do a little research and check the reviews.
  • Reviews
    Look for reviews to gauge the quality of a theme. Check the number of reviews, when the last review was and the overall score. I would suggest you avoid any with a score less than 3.5 out of 5.

2. Responsiveness

With mobile users accounting for 30% of website traffic there is rarely a good reason not to buy a responsive theme. You’d actually probably struggle to find modern themes that aren’t responsive but do check to make sure.

Don’t assume that because the theme claims to be responsive and the demo site looks great on your laptop or desktop that it will automatically look great on a device. You need to test this and the best way to do this is to browse the demo using both a phone and a tablet. Although themes may be responsive, that doesn’t guarantee that they will respond well.

Another useful test is to use Google’s mobile friendly test tool.

3. SEO

We all want an search engine friendly site and generally WordPress is search engine friendly. Personally I use the Yoast SEO plugin on all sites which over-rides any theme SEO. This is an excellent plugin that’s been around for a long time and as SEO is a complex business I don’t really feel most theme developers are experts in this field.

If you don’t want to use this plugin look for terms like SEO ready, SEO optimised when reading the themes description. Although this isn’t a guarantee it’s certainly a positive sign that the developer has considered SEO.

Resources

Theme marketplaces

Free starter themes