So you’ve decided to start a new website. You’re going to use WordPress to do it. But you’re not a designer, or you don’t have the time, desire or patience to build a new WordPress theme from scratch. What do you do? You choose a WordPress theme that’s the perfect fit.
But wait: since 2008, when the WordPress premium theme market started to take off, the number of options have multiplied exponentially. There’s free themes and premium themes and freemium themes (those are the ones that start off Lite, and upsell to Pro versions with additional bells & whistles). There’s theme forests and theme mojos, there’s woos and zillas. Your mind is boggled, and why not?
Here’s some things to consider when you’re looking for a new WordPress theme.
1. Free, Premium and Freemium
For me, choosing between a free theme or a premium theme comes down to one thing. Is the site business, or personal? If you’re building a website for a business, go with a premium theme. There’s some fantastic free themes out there, but when money is on the line, it’s best to go with the professionally supported theme that offers frequent updates and future-proofing. In short, a premium theme from a strong developer will provide peace of mind.
A free theme that’s cutting edge and feature packed right now might prove to be a nightmare down the road when there’s no support for new versions of WordPress, when it conflicts with a plugin update, or even when you need a support request answered today, not three weeks from today.
As a general rule of thumb, keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for. A developer selling fifty themes for $10 is unlikely to provide the level of support and quality control of a more expensive provider. There are exceptions, but a reasonable price for a high quality, supported theme is somewhere between $40 and $100.
Alternatively, consider choosing a freemium theme as a happy medium. This is a good option for a new small business that doesn’t have a lot of capital to work with up front. Upgrade once the money starts flowing.
2. What Type of Site are You Building?
This one is straight-forward in terms of aesthetics and design. If you want to start a blog about fishing, make sure the design complements the content. A theme designed with fashion in mind could look great, but might be off-putting to burly outdoorsmen who land on your site looking for helpful tips about bass fishing. Take a look at other sites like yours, and see what they’re doing. You might want to shake things up with an experimental, creative theme, but consider that in many cases going against the grain of expectation can be off-putting to site visitors. Do you have a logo, or a colour scheme unique to your brand? Make sure the logo will fit and that the theme gives you plenty of control over colors.
In terms of features, You should also make a list of the features you need in advance, and keep those in mind when selecting. But keep it as simple as possible: there’s little to gain by bogging down your site with features you don’t think you’ll ever need or use. If it turns out you need a particular feature later on, it’s very likely you’ll be able to meet that requirement with a plugin instead.
When you’re trying to choose a WordPress theme, be wary of themes that list dozens of dozens of features. More often not, this is indicative of poor development practices. Some sellers on Themeforest are guilty of this. Presentation and functionality should be separated as much as possible.
3. What’s Your Skill Level?
If you’re a master of all things web development, you may decide to go with a free theme and making and changes and fixes yourself when necessary. But if you’re new to WordPress, or web development in general, or if the theme you’re considering unusually complex, make sure you’ll have access to quality, well-thought out documentation. You should also make sure that your provider is capable of providing timely support. It’s not always easy to tell in advance, but if a support team is substandard, there’s a good chance that someone is talking about. Google to turn up reviews.
If you think you might need additional customization to the theme, consider buying from a provider that provides customization services. General theme support usually won’t cover any customization.
4. Does it Work?
This sounds like it would be a no-brainer, but remember that different browsers display sites differently, and different devices display sites differently. Don’t purchase a theme that doesn’t offer a live demo, and test that demo on as many browsers and as many platforms as possible. At minimum, it should work in IE9, IE10, IE11, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. IE8 support is now beginning to tapper off, but if this is important to you, many themes do still support it.
Be sure to check out how it will appear on smartphone and tablet if you can. You need to ensure that the theme not only works on mobile devices, but displays on them correctly. This is called responsive design, or mobile-first design. There are theme developers still selling non-responsive themes today. Because we live in 2014, not 2006, you shouldn’t buy one.
5. Updates and Future Proofing
No one can predict the future, and even the biggest providers and most popular themes could vanish tomorrow, but it’s definitely worth noting how frequently the theme you’re considering is updated. It goes without saying that a theme with frequent, recent updates is a better choice over a theme that hasn’t been touched in months or even years. A theme that’s in active development today has a much better chance of being in active development tomorrow.
Again, a word about separation of presentation and functionality: themes that have features baked into them, instead of sensibly separated into plugins, can leave you trapped down the road and most times are best avoided. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where changing the appearance of your site means giving up content, or spending more money than necessary to port features from the previous theme into the new one.
6. Don’t Overthink It
If you like it, and it meets all of your requirements, use it. A person could spend weeks pouring over theme after theme, many of them nearly identical in features in design. At some point, you just need to pull the trigger.