How to choose the right WordPress theme?

How to choose the right WordPress theme?

With so many themes available, free and paid, it is not easy to pick the right one. There are many to choose from, and most developers claim to offer the best, fastest, safest, most useful and most user-friendly theme.

Because of the loads of themes to choose from, it is essential to know what you want to accomplish with your website. A wishlist, a sketch or a fully elaborated draft, that is where it starts.

Free or Paid?

One of the most frequently asked questions: “Is it necessary that I pay for a theme, or can I do what I want with a free theme?” To answer that question, you will have to weigh the pros and the cons. If you are not sure where you want to go with the design, start with a free theme. You can always pay for one later…

Several years ago the price of a theme was an indication of its quality. Free themes were often poorly coded, not WordPress-compliant. Some had malicious code to gather information. Times have changed. Most of the free themes nowadays meet, in most cases, the minimum requirements. Free themes that are published on the WordPress repository, should be trustworthy.

Pros of a paid theme

Regular updates

One of the main reasons to pay for a theme, is getting regular updates. Professional developers have an interest in keeping their theme up to date and ensure that even with major WordPress updates their themes continue to operate.

Better documented

Most paid (aka premium) themes come well documented. In most cases you can find a members section on the website of the developers. With forums, faq’s, tips, addons, support and documentation.

Better support

Developers of premium themes offer better and faster support. For example, they use a forum, live chat and 24/7 email support. That is also what you pay for when you buy a premium theme. Free themes often only offer a public forum or email support during working hours.

No credit links

Most free themes have a, hidden, hard coded link in the footer that reffers to the developer. You cannot remove this link, unless you know your way around PHP. Or buy the premium version of the theme. You won’t find such a mandatory link in a premium theme.

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Cons of a premium theme

The price

Most premium themes cost between 25 and 200 Dollar. Many developers offer lifetime updates and support, others offer lifetime updates and one year premium support. Always read their terms and conditions carefully!

More settings

Premium themes usually have a comprehensive customizer, with a lot of options. This will take some time to get used to it and to go through all the options.

Unwanted options

Premium themes are often loaded with options, to make you buy it and to make your life easier. For example: a page builder, sliders, google maps, portfolio manager and so on. Although such a theme can be used on a variety of websites, it also gets bloated. Chances are most of the options will never be used.

In general you could say that much depends on the care taken to build a theme. Whether it’s free or premium. This care has an impact on everything that is discussed here, from speed to safety.

Lightweight or loaded theme?

A fast website is important. Speed is affected by several things and one of them is the theme you are using. A fast website offers better user experience, will be better rated by the search engines en will get you higher conversion.

In general three things are important:

1. Too much functionality

Ten different sliders, a lot of pre-installed plugins and Javascript animation. It looks nice and you could do a lot of pretty things with them. But are you really going to use it all? Keep in mind that a lot of the functionality, whether it is used or not, will be loaded when the website is visited. The number of HTTP-requests will be high, which won’t improve the loading speed of your website. Less is more!

2. Excessive use of large files

A lot of premium themes use full width images and background videos and often create special effects. All these large files must be loaded!

3 . Poor code

From poorly scaled images to inline CSS and Javascript, many things can be done wrong by the developer. This will effect the performance of your website. Remember that a theme with a lot of options has to be maintained by the same developer. That developer must have great skills! Chances are you are better of with a simple theme with a few specific plugins.

Tip: if you want to know how a theme performs, go to Gtmetrix and enter the URL of the demo of the theme. Take a good look at the testresults. Does it load fast? How many HTTP-request does it make? Try to avoid too many HTTP-requests, unless you’re confident you can reduce them. Also keep in mind that adding a few extra plugins will also increase the number of HTTP-requests. In this article you can learn how to reduce the amount of HTTP-requests.

You already have a theme? You can test if it’s WordPress-compliant by using the plugin Theme Checker.

Design and user experience

Easy: a theme is meant to make your website look good, to attract your targetted audience and to show your identity at its best. Design is personal. To find the right theme, that meets your demands, can be a struggle. Themeshops like ThemeForest, MyThemeShop and Elegant Themes are a good place to start.
You don’t want to spend money on a theme right away? Then have a look at the themedirectory of WordPress.org. Make use of the special feature filter to make your search specific. Often you find “light” versions of the premium themes. You can test the theme for free and when you like it, you buy the premium theme for more options and better support.
Does the theme of your choice have a online demo? Use it! And asks others to have a look at the theme you have in mind.

Responsive

Visiting websites on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones is still increasing. A non-responsive theme is a definite NO. You will miss out on a lot of visitors.
Luckily most of the offered themes are responsive. Especially the premium ones. The fastest way to make sure the developer lives up to his promise, is to visit the demo website with a mobile device! Or you can enter the URL on Googles PageSpeeds Insights to test the mobile friendliness.

SEO

Search engine optimalization is a very important factor in choosing the right theme. WordPress itself is very SEO-friendly. Unfortunately many themes make all kinds of SEO-errors, like missing header and alt tags.
Always check what the developer has to say about SEO. Indications like “SEO ready” and “SEO optimized” don’t always mean they are. It indicates that the developer has at least thought about it and has made an effort to make the theme SEO-friendly. Several online tools can help you check the online demo, like SEO Web page analyzer.

Ease of customization

theme-customizer-600Most of the modern premium themes have a built-in customizer. A customizer makes it possible to change the look and feel of the website, without having to change the core files like the stylesheet. Look for the customizer on the demosite. If it’s there, you can try to make the changes you want to.

A lot of premium themes come with a built-in page builder. With a page builder it’s very easy to build and maintain complex page structures without having to code. Usually these page builders are drag-and-drop. If the theme that you prefer doesn’t have a page builder, you can always use a page builder plugin like SiteOrigin or Elementor.
The use of page builders always leads to some extra load. That’s because these page builders use some extra code to show on the frontend what you have built on the backend.

Security

The security of a website is determined by many parts. Like the hosting, the plugins, usernames and password strength. And your theme!

Building a safe theme should be a basic principle for the developer. Always check the security specifically! Read about what other users have to say. Check on forums for any security issues with the theme. And how fast the were solved!

Conclusion

It may look like a lot to keep in mind while searching for the right theme. But everything that was mentioned here, comes down to one thing: quality. That is what you are looking for besides the look and feel.
You may expect quality from premium themes. On websites like ThemeForest you find reviews and ratings. These give an indication about the quality of the theme. If you are looking for perfection, don’t. Compromises will always have to be made. If you don’t want compromises, you will have to make a custom theme. That will cost a lot of time, or a lot of (extra) money.

I hope you can find your perfect theme with all the recommendations in this post. Don’t go for everything, go for what you need. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Please leave a comment if you have any other recommendations or other thoughts.

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Ronald Heijnes

Since 2008 I have been busy with the functionality, management, maintenance and performance of self hosted WordPress. I like to share this knowledge!

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