What to Look for when choosing WordPress theme
Having a lot of choice is not always a good thing. When faced with lots of options, you can be overwhelmed with the decisions that you have to face. This can lead to poor choices and lots of time wasting!
Just knowing a few identifying areas that you need the theme to perform will help you filter out many of themes that will be wrong for your needs.
It is the same filter process that you use all the time. If you were to go out and look at buying a car, you rule out the cars that are not suitable for your needs, ‘it must have 5 doors’ ‘it has to be under 2 litre engine’ etc, once you have gone through the filter process, the choice is a lot more palatable.
This post will go through some of the factors that we feel are the most important for you to consider when out to get a new WordPress theme.
Free theme or Premium theme?
There are thousands of either! A few years ago the price of the theme was a good indicator of the quality that can be expected. Free themes were usually poorly coded and used for data capture. However in recent times developers in the WordPress community have created thousands of great free themes to choose from.
Take a look at the pros and cons underneath.
Premium theme pros
- 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, meaning that your design is more likely to be unique.
- 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.
Premium theme cons
- The price
You’ll have to invest anywhere between £40 to £200 in a premium theme.
- More configuration
Most premium themes have their own custom administration panel, with a variety of customisation 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 kind of issues people are having, and how responsive the developers are in resolving them.
Lightweight theme, or feature heavy?
There is a great importance in SEO terms in having a fast responding website. A website that has a quick loading speed has been proven to increase page ranking, conversion rates and ultimately online sales and revenue. In my opinion, you should always avoid sluggish themes
There are ways of checking if a theme is sluggish before using the theme, if you go to Pingdom website speed test and check the url of the theme demo, see how many HTTP requests are made and how long the page takes to load.
You should stay far away from a theme that has hundreds of HTTP requests and takes over 3 seconds to load.
Here are a few things that lead to a sluggish website.
- Too feature heavy
- 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.
Design And User Experience Link
The purpose of a theme is to make your website look great and show off your brand in the best design possible. While design can be quite subjective to personal taste, you will boost your chances of finding a well-designed theme by following a few steps.
First, search on websites where the best designers sell their themes. This might sound obvious but is still worth mentioning. ThemeForest is my personal favorite, but plenty of other good ones are out there, including StudioPress and Elegant Themes.
Secondly, spend some time looking around the demo. Does the website feel easy to use? Is there enough white space? Is there too much clutter? 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.
While mobile traffic varies between industries, most reports seem to agree that, on average, about 30% 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 themes.
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 tool.
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 MozBar or SEO Site Tools, to run some quick SEO checks on a theme’s demo.
Explaining what to look for is beyond the scope of this article, but that has been covered in depth by Joost de Valk.
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.
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.
A lot affects the security of a website, including hosting, plugins and password strength. This should not be an afterthought; rather, consider it when selecting your theme.
As when you’re buying a home, one of the best ways to gauge the security is to see what residents say about it. The same is with a theme, takea look at hte comments sections and filter for security. See what people who have used the theme have to say. If there are no comments, or not many, then I wouldn’t be using that theme.
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.
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.
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.