This is adapted from a forum post I wrote on NTEN.org in response to someone asking whether they should branch out from the free WordPress themes they’re used to and try out some paid themes.
The WordPress theme landscape is vast and wild. It is a terrifying place, really, with lots of hidden dangers and dark corners. There are many things to consider when looking for a WordPress theme for your website (including whether you need a custom theme, “child theme,” or prebuilt theme), but here are some of the pointers I often give when the topic arises.
The Difference Between Free and Paid Probably Isn’t What You Think It Is
The WordPress Theme market place is huge and has attracted a lot of companies looking to profit off 23% of the web that is WordPress rather than build good themes. But because WordPress is part of a thriving open source community, many people build free themes in the hopes of spreading good theme best practices. (Others build free themes to get you to install them and then bother you to upgrade to the paid “Pro” version…sigh.) There are definitely high-quality themes that are not free, but many of the paid themes I’ve had to work with (after being picked by clients) were terribly coded compared to good free themes.
Theme Marketing Encourages Bad Decision-Making
The commercial theme marketplace is largely driven by competition on features like sliders, custom content types, shortcodes, widgets, etc. This leads to two big problems.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
This marketing strategy encourages people picking themes to make decisions based on features rather than the website needs and goals of their organization. I’ve heard this dubbed “shiny object syndrome,” and that seems about right. Picking a theme is one of the last decisions to make before building a site.
Permanently Attaching the Cart To the Horse
Every single one of those listed features above increases the “theme lock-in” that makes it harder to switch between themes because you lose features built into themes or have to re-enter content in a new format. Themes should focus on presentation of content, not administration or advanced features. Those are “plugin territory,” since you can continue to use a plugin if you change your theme. While not any kind of guarantee, promoting compatibility with other plugins (like Jetpack, Custom Content Portfolio, or a host of others) is a sign that a theme won’t lock you in as much.
Good Things to Look For
Almost any post about picking a WordPress theme will tell you to look at the theme author’s reputation (Do they have lots of other themes? Are they positively reviewed?), number of downloads (Lots of downloads = more pressure for updates and support.), and, most importantly, how the theme author provides support (the quality of support and the time between posting a support request and getting a response). Those are important but others have elaborated on theme before, so I’ll leave it at that.
Meaningful and Meaningless Technical Selling Points
Along with plugin compatibility mentioned earlier, I find themes that advertise accessibility, internationalization (abbreviated i18n) or “Translation-ready”, and Editor Styles (or editor-style.css) also may indicate an author’s attention to detail.
Unfortunately, while it’s good to use modern technologies, things like CSS3, HTML5, and jQuery don’t mean much anything in themselves. It’s just as easy to make a bad theme with HTML5 as it is with HTML4! Just like features, a lot of authors advertise with those “shiny” terms that most people have heard of but don’t understand.
How to Protect Yourself
To submit a theme to the official free WordPress Theme Repository, theme authors must follow a set of best practices—or “Guidelines”— in order to have their theme accepted. ((A few of these are a bit controversial but they are almost all good ideas. By “controversial,” I don’t mean that people disagree over the guidelines themselves. Rather people argue over whether something should be strictly required or just recommended.)).
Luckily for you and me, there is a WordPress plugin and a website to check themes against many of these guidelines. Whatever themes you do try, run them through the Theme Check plugin or ThemeCheck.org website.
An automated tool can’t catch everything, but if it throws a lot of errors, tread lightly and follow up with the theme developer about the errors.
- “Deprecated functions” can mean features breaking when WordPress updates.
- Incorrectly registered or “enqueued” scripts and styles can lead to plugin incompatibilities.
- A lot of any type of error often results from a lack of attention to detail or awareness of WordPress theming best practices.
If a theme throws a ton of errors and the theme author isn’t planning on fixing them, the theme check results strengthen your case for a refund.
Check out the recent (last 6-12 months) free themes from Automattic (WordPress.com’s parent company) which are always high quality.
You can find themes that match all three (or at least one) of my theme “holy trinity” (accessibility-ready, translation-ready, and editor-style) using WordPress.org’s handy new advanced theme search.
Now Stop Thinking About This
Despite all these technical tips, my #1 recommendation is to not get hung up on the theme and focus more on organizational and user needs. Establish site goals, a strong site map, user personas, and test your current website before you even begin thinking about considering starting to look at a WordPress theme.
What’s your #1 theme-choosing concern or theme-choosing tip?