Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf San Francisco

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf San Francisco, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

What To Consider When Choosing WordPress Themes

Economists have taught us that a lot of choice is not always a good thing. Having many options can lead to “analysis paralysis” and a feeling of being overwhelmed, due to the increased effort required and the level of uncertainty in making the right choice.

With a nearly unlimited pool of WordPress themes to choose from, it becomes so easy to feel overwhelmed and resort to inaction or choosing a low-quality theme. In cases where you have a lot of options, it pays to know exactly what you need. [Content Care Nov/02/2016]

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

In this post, I’ll share what I believe are the most important factors to consider, so that you know exactly what to bear in mind the next time you’re on the hunt for a good theme.

Choosing WordPress Themes5

“Premium WordPress themes” Google search. (View large version6)

Put another way, how much easier is buying a bottle of wine when you know that you prefer reds and that your favorite red is Australian Shiraz? This small amount of knowledge cuts a choice between 500 bottles in a store down to 10.

To start off, let’s answer one of the most common questions asked: Is it worth paying for a WordPress theme, or can you get away with a free one?

1. Price: Free Vs. Premium WordPress Themes Link

Several years ago, the price of a theme was a good indicator of its quality. Free themes were often poorly coded at best, and were used to capture sensitive user data at worst. But times have changed, and developers in the WordPress community have created thousands of great free themes to choose from.

As such, there is no conclusive winner. Both free and premium themes have their pros and cons, which are detailed below.

Pros of Premium Themes Link

  • More updates
    Perhaps the most compelling reason to choose a premium theme is that such themes are typically updated more often. Given the rapid evolution of the WordPress content management system (CMS), having a theme that is regularly updated to patch new security issues is critical.
  • Less recognizable design
    Because free WordPress themes are so popular, it’s not uncommon for tens of thousands of websites to use the same free one. Premium themes are less common, which set them apart a bit more.
  • Better documentation
    Most premium themes include a detailed PDF explaining how to get the most out of them. Such documentation is less common with free themes.
  • Ongoing support
    Premium theme developers certainly offer the best support, usually through a combination of a public forum, live chat and an email ticketing system. Free themes usually just have a public forum for support.
  • No attribution links
    Many free themes often require a link to appear in the footer crediting the theme’s author. While this is becoming less common in free themes, you can be sure that no links are required in premium themes.

Cons of Premium WordPress Themes Link

  • The price
    You’ll have to invest anywhere between $50 to $200 in a premium theme.
  • More configuration
    Most premium themes have their own custom administration panel, with a variety of customization settings, which can take a while to learn and set up.
  • Unwanted features
    Premium themes tend to include a lot of bells and whistles, such as multiple slider plugins, a portfolio manager and extra skins. While these do make a theme very versatile, a lot of unwanted features will bloat the theme.

In general, the most important aspect to look for in a theme, whether free or paid, is the quality and care that’s gone into making it. The quality of the code will influence everything we discuss in this article, from security to page speed.

The easiest way to gauge quality is to read what customers are saying. If a theme has a public support forum, read what kinds of issues people are having, and how responsive the developers are in resolving them.

2. Speed: Lightweight Vs. Feature-Heavy Themes Link

In my last post here on Smashing Magazine, I emphasized the importance of optimizing website speed7. Fast page-loading speed does not just improve the general user experience of a website, but has also been confirmed to improve search engine rankings, conversion rates and, thus, online revenue.

It should come as no surprise that I recommended avoiding sluggish themes like the plague.

Understanding a problem is the first step to avoiding it. So, what causes a theme to drag a website’s page speed into the gutter?

In general, it comes down to three things:

  • Too feature-heavy
    Be wary of themes that boast 10 different sliders, 20 preinstalled plugins and a lot of JavaScript animation. While this might sound like a good deal, no website that makes HTTP requests to 50 JavaScript files will run optimally.
  • Overuse of large file formats
    The keyword here is “overuse,” which admittedly is a bit subjective. Try to steer clear of themes that use a lot of full-width images, background videos, etc. Less is more.
  • Poor coding
    From wildly scaled images to inline CSS injection, poor coding has a significant impact on website performance. As mentioned, poor code usually means that a theme hasn’t been updated in a long time, so always check a theme’s update history.

Here’s a litmus test you can use to figure out how bloated a theme is. Go to the Pingdom Website Speed Test8, enter the URL of a theme’s demo and see how long the page takes to load and how many HTTP requests are made.

Let me give you a quick comparison as a benchmark. Earlier this year, I built two websites with very different theme frameworks. The first website, BrokerNotes9, was built with the Frank10 theme (a very lightweight theme designed for speed). According to Pingdom, the home page makes 38 HTTP requests and loads in under 1 second. 3.9 Mb in bandwidth is way too heavy though.

WordPress Themes BrokerNotes’ website statistics.11

BrokerNotes’ website statistics. (View large version12)

Now, let’s compare this to Qosy13, a website I built using a relatively feature-heavy theme. As you can see, the home page makes 61 HTTP requests and take just over 2.5 seconds to load. While still not bad, that’s a noticeable increase in loading time.

Qosy’s website statistics.14
Qosy’s website statistics. (View large version15)

Themes that make hundreds of HTTP requests before showing any content are not uncommon. Avoid them unless you’re confident that you can slice off some of that fat.

3. Design And User Experience Link

Of course, the purpose of a theme is to make your website look great and show off your brand in the best possible light. While design can be quite subjective, you will boost your odds of finding a well-designed theme by following a few steps.

Not a pretty website at all!16
Not a pretty website at all! (View large version17)

First, search on websites where the best designers sell their themes. This might sound obvious but is still worth mentioning. ThemeForest18 is my personal favorite, but plenty of other good ones are out there, including StudioPress19 and Elegant Themes20.

Secondly, spend some time browsing the demo. Does the website feel easy to use? Is there enough white space? Do you get a headache looking at it? Does it excite you? This is where your gut feeling plays an important role.

Finally, be sure to choose a theme that is cross-browser compatible and has been built with accessibility in mind.

4. Responsiveness Link

While mobile traffic varies between industries, most reports seem to agree that, on average, about 30%21 of all website visits now come from mobile and tablet devices.

Regardless of the exact ratios, there’s no excuse to use anything but a responsive theme.

Thankfully, virtually all reputable themes are mobile-friendly out of the box, so the lack of responsiveness in a theme is really a red flag. Most theme vendors allow you to filter out themes that are not responsive. Another good option is to look through a curated list of responsive themes22.

One of the best ways to determine whether a responsive theme is good or not is to run the demo through Google’s new mobile-friendliness tool23.

5. SEO Link

When enabled with one of the many good SEO plugins, WordPress is one of the most SEO-friendly CMS’ around.

However, plenty of themes render all manner of on-site SEO mistakes, such as the omission of header and alt tags, full-blown duplicated content and dynamic URL errors.

When choosing a theme, look for “SEO optimized” or “SEO ready” in the theme description, but don’t trust it blindly. A lot of developers include this to check of a box and sell their theme. That being said, knowing that a designer has at least considered SEO when developing their theme does offer some assurance.

A good practice is to install an extension for the Chrome browser, such as MozBar24 or SEO Site Tools, to run some quick SEO checks on a theme’s demo.

MozBar in action.25
MozBar in action. (View large version26)

Explaining what to look for is beyond the scope of this article, but that has been covered in depth by Joost de Valk27.

6. Ease Of Customization Link

A customization dashboard has become standard in a lot of themes. This saves you the hassle of having to make direct changes to style sheets.

A theme customizer.28
A theme customizer. (View large version29)

In addition, plugins such as Visual Page Editor make it easy to build complex page structures without having to touch code. While some of these WYSIWYG editors are somewhat limiting, I find that overall they’re very beneficial to getting a website looking very nice with little effort. If a developer has a demo of their administration panel, I’d recommend playing around with it to make sure you can customize everything you need to.

7. Security Link

A lot affects the security of a website, including hosting, plugins and password strength. Daniel Pataki has already covered some great steps to secure your WordPress installation30. This should not be an afterthought; rather, consider it when selecting your theme.

As when you’re buying a home, one of the best things you can do to gauge a theme’s security is to read what customers say about it. Unless a theme was created by a trustworthy developer, I avoid any theme that doesn’t have many downloads or reviews.

My advice is to evaluate themes on community websites like ThemeForest, where all customer reviews are displayed by default. This level of transparency tends to reveal the truth about themes, which you wouldn’t get directly from a developer’s website.

While buying a theme directly from its developer’s website is fine, do so only after evaluating it on a community website with transparent reviews.

Theme reviews.31
Theme reviews. (View large version32)

If a theme has a security loophole, then customers have probably picked up on it and flagged it in their reviews for future customers. While the developer might have fixed such issues, the overall ratings from customers should give you an idea of a theme’s overall quality.

Conclusion Link

While ticking off all of these boxes might sound ambitious, the truth is that they’re interrelated, and they all come back to a single point: Themes should be built with quality in mind.

One of the best things you can do when choosing a theme is to learn about the person or company who made it. If they have a reputation to live up to, then their themes will undoubtedly be of a higher quality than developers who don’t.

Of course, no theme is perfect, and you’ll almost always have to make some compromises. That being said, with the recommendations in this post, you are hopefully now better informed to avoid the really bad themes and to choose one that is fast, well coded and SEO-friendly and that includes all of the features you need.

(dp, il, al, ml)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/11/ripped-off-buying-wordpress-themes/
  2. 2 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/01/create-customize-wordpress-child-theme/
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/03/a-guide-to-wordpress-theme-options/
  4. 4 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/06/wordpress-custom-page-templates/
  5. 5 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1-google-search-large-opt.jpg
  6. 6 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1-google-search-large-opt.jpg
  7. 7 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/06/25/how-to-speed-up-your-wordpress-website/
  8. 8 http://tools.pingdom.com
  9. 9 http://brokernotes.co
  10. 10 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/01/16/frank-a-wordpress-theme-designed-for-speed/
  11. 11 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2-brokernotes-large-opt.jpg
  12. 12 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2-brokernotes-large-opt.jpg
  13. 13 http://qosy.co
  14. 14 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/3-qosy-large-opt.jpg
  15. 15 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/3-qosy-large-opt.jpg
  16. 16 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/4-uglysite-large-opt.jpg
  17. 17 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/4-uglysite-large-opt.jpg
  18. 18 http://themeforest.net
  19. 19 http://www.studiopress.com/
  20. 20 http://www.elegantthemes.com/
  21. 21 http://marketingland.com/mobile-devices-generate-30-pct-traffic-15-pct-e-sales-75498
  22. 22 https://www.ventureharbour.com/premium-responsive-wordpress-themes/
  23. 23 https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/
  24. 24 https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/mozbar/eakacpaijcpapndcfffdgphdiccmpknp?hl=en
  25. 25 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/5-moztoolbar-large-opt.jpg
  26. 26 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/5-moztoolbar-large-opt.jpg
  27. 27 https://yoast.com/wordpress-seo-theme/
  28. 28 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/6-customizer-large-opt.jpg
  29. 29 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/6-customizer-large-opt.jpg
  30. 30 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/11/10/securing-your-wordpress-website/
  31. 31 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/7-reviews-large-opt.jpg
  32. 32 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/7-reviews-large-opt.jpg

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook

Advertisement

Marcus Taylor is the founder of Venture Harbour, a digital marketing agency that specialises in working with companies in the music, film, and game industries.

  1. 1

    The Litmus test concept, testing the demo with Pingdom is such a simple yet brilliant concept! Thanks, great piece.

    8
  2. 3

    Regarding premium theme customization and page building, many use their own content builders for creating pages. This page content is outside of WordPress’s core page/post fields, so the tracking revisions feature doesn’t work and page saves can be tricky. More importantly, this information will be lost if you want to change to a different theme.

    This is a good article. Thanks!

    1
    • 4

      Tracy, I’ve used a premium theme recently for a project, and you’re absolutely right, the information is lost when the theme is changed because the page content is generated with the theme’s builder. Had I known that was going to be the case, I would never have purchased the theme. It’s actually more work with the theme than had I done a lot of it myself.

      1
  3. 5

    Great read! Everytime I come to SmashingMag I find answers.

    6
  4. 6

    Another ‘con’ of a feature-rich theme is that you’ve relied on the theme for functionality as well as design. Unless you know what you’re doing, when you go to change themes in the future you’re going to lose a lot of content on your site that is unique to your theme such as portfolios, galleries, sliders, pricing tables, team pages, etc…

    Consider using plugins to provide the functionality you need instead of relying on your theme for that functionality. That way, when you’re ready to change themes you won’t lose all of your non-post & non-page content.

    4
    • 7

      Derrick Douglass

      December 8, 2014 4:31 pm

      Eric,

      Great insight. Can you dig deeper into your thought process? A concrete example of how a theme could provide functionality or how a plugin could provide that same functionality.

      Derrick

      1
      • 8

        You could write a custom post type into a theme’s function.php file or use a plugin to define the custom post type. If you write it into a theme and change themes the custom post type will disappear. If it is handled by a plugin it wont dissappear when you switch themes.

        1
  5. 9

    Pretty surprised that you were able to load 4MB website under a second.
    I would be interested to know what sort of server setting the website is running on?

    2
    • 10

      It’s on a MediaTemple VPS server with a separate CDN service. It looks like 2.8MB of the 4MB is due to the hero image being uncompressed / PNG format.

      1
  6. 11

    When i search to a premium theme for wordpress, i find a lot of website with lists, that provide no real review, just to promote and get us click to affiliate link! Every theme have his own options, panels etc! the most important is to have a theme that can be more friendly for mobile, very light, optimized for speed, so you can rank well in search engine! a lot of club themes just release a ton of themes! to have a theme by months a lot of them when launched get a lot of bugs, etc ! The theme designers spend a lot of theme to make a nice looking theme, full options, drag and drop etc! but with ton with javascript css ! i make a lot of research some theme are great for desktop, poor in mobile! you need to choose a theme or framework and make some approvement for every project!

    2
  7. 12

    I’ve encountered similar problems when choosing a wordpress theme. This article nearly solved all my puzzles. Great!

    -1
  8. 13

    I develop a premium WordPress SEO theme (Stallion Responsive) and it’s not easy educating WordPress users what an SEO theme actually is. Most think it’s still about title tags and meta tags.

    As you touched on under “2. Speed: Lightweight Vs. Feature-Heavy Themes” since Google uses speed and usability as a ranking factor (IMO I think it will be more important in the future) trying to convince a webmaster if they have that flashy slider, yes it’s going to look nice**, but using Jquery and 10 large image (whatever the slider uses) is going to have a negative impact on user experience (site loads slower) which is going to cost sales.

    ** Might look nice but research has shown users don’t click on sliders, they are a pointless flashy feature for most sites. One of the best examples of how to build a site is Google: simple, clean and fast.

    BTW Found this article searching WordPress SEO Theme, was in the Google news feed today pushing my site down the SERPs :-)

    David

    0
    • 14

      I’m interested in the research you’re talking about in your comment. The research on sliders on websites I presume that with sliders you mean the full-image top sliders, used in almost every theme out there. Do you have a link to this research for me?

      0
  9. 15

    Nice article! I’m in the process of getting a new website for my business and this couldn’t have been more handy.

    I especially like the Seo mentioned and tools to review them.

    Thanks

    -1
  10. 16

    Very nice article! As a German WordPress user one of the most important things on themes for me is the possibility to translate it. Unfortunately this is not the case in many themes.

    -3
  11. 17

    what about doing a post with a list of the best WP Premium Themes websites? :-)

    1
  12. 18

    Lots of good info! Accessibility was mentioned briefly, but its so important I think it deserves its own section. Run the demo through an accessibility tester, like tenon.io before purchasing, or you could be stuck spending hours adapting it.

    -1
  13. 19

    Great information. Solved many of my problems. Thanks for sharing!

    -2
  14. 20

    Juergen | webbeetle

    December 12, 2014 4:27 pm

    Although I agree with most points raised I find it disappointing that, after the introduction, the article refers only to premium themes – over and over! After a lot of searching (both free & premium) and some trial & error (theme changes) I have settled for a free theme, which I believe is as good or better than many premium themes out there. Yet a lot of your write up centers around ways to examine premium themes.
    Another thing, which I find makes the evaluation of themes so difficult, is the fact that almost nobody provides a complete feature list. Free themes hardly ever, most premium vendors neither! So you constantly have to read between the lines and search for features not mentioned – they are the ones possibly missing in a theme. Next you have to contact the provider to confirm the feature list and hope for a timely reply. Annoying and waste of time!
    [I’m using ‘hueman’, which is among the top 20 free WP themes, which I strongly customised to get away from its dark background/header.]

    -1
  15. 21

    wow awesome review wordpress theme (premium vs free) i use free also premium. but, premium is really more awesome then free. Keep up the great works mate :)

    -1
  16. 22

    Damien Parsons

    December 18, 2014 3:30 pm

    Hey Marcus! Thanks for the great advice and indeed these are great considerations when choosing a theme.

    I’ve been developing my online business for a few years now, and as you may know, not everybody is intuitive on coding and design. It’s very important to decide carefully and only go with reputable themes (plugins too).

    I have 3 websites and 2 of them are very new and incomplete.
    I’m having a very difficult time in choosing a responsive theme for each of them, and if I can receive any advice or recommendations it would be great.

    The two websites which I need help with are: cell-phone-plans-compared.com and wearable-tech-fashion.com.

    – My plans for cell phone plans compared is to pretty it up, and eventually sell it.
    – My plans for wearable tech fashion is to keep and develop.

    My main website contains many “perspective” articles and personal development resources successful-lifestyle-secrets.ca. I’m using a simple theme for this but would like a more mobile friendly theme for the other two websites.

    -3
  17. 23

    WordPress’ greatest weakness lies in security. Double check everything, can’t stress it enough.

    -1
    • 24

      Damien Parsons

      December 19, 2014 1:58 pm

      You’re 100% right Red.
      Like any CMS offered, security will be a conflict and mindlessly trying themes and plugins will leave us vulnerable.

      Basic is more powerful than one might think. With that said, I’m not coding expert and wouldn’t even know what to look for with themes.

      Iconic One theme seems to work very well.

      0
  18. 25

    Jessica Jacobs

    December 22, 2014 9:50 am

    Sure, there are a lot of awesome and cool WordPress themes out there, but this list is exactly considered. For me, the first thing I look for is the complete documentation. I don’t want to sit all day wondering how making things work.

    0
  19. 26

    Missing the THIRD option of themes in here, ie. freemium – this is the chosen modus operandi for quite a few themes available at the official WordPress Theme repository.

    There are two main approaches towards this:
    a) More or less complete theme, which may be used perfectly well without any further enhancements – plus a commercial plugin, that adds quite more bling and fun.

    b) A basic theme which showcases the most important features of its big sibling, ie. the premium version, which is available as seperate purchase.

    cu, w0lf.

    -1
  20. 27

    “If a developer has a demo of their administration panel, I’d recommend playing around with it to make sure you can customize everything you need to.”

    There is another important point we could actually write out: user experience.

    You say “unwanted features will bloat the theme” and I do believe that 2015 will be the year of “unwanted features will bloat the UX of the theme” as one new strong trend in WP premium is making your theme a “jack of all trades” which can morph into anything because you get hundreds of skins × thousands of options.

    This is becoming UX hell, this is no design at all.

    I took a look at the latest WP premium themes on one famous marketplace a few days ago and that was just insane:
    • scrolljacking for the sake of scrolljacking;
    • choose your own setup adventure to get what one of the thirty-five demo versions is displaying;
    • parallax & animations everywhere;
    • stuff “as seen on Codrops” included;
    • all-in for the single-page, no typographic and design expertise at all anypage else;
    • f(l)at design;
    • and so on and so forth.

    It’s more and more difficult to find real design, design that solves problems instead of putting it in the hands of customers with a terrible experience, on some marketplaces. I think that my bold 2015 statement will be turning to free themes and build on top of that because, frankly, this is going nuts.

    6

↑ Back to top