Tutorials, WordPress Help

Stop! Before you use that WordPress theme…

These days, there are a vast number of WordPress themes to choose from. I didn’t even try to count them. I also haven’t tried to count the stars in a long time. Suffice to say that your options are not limited. So, with the multitude of themes out there, how do you choose one for your site? It’s not easy. I’m going to break things down by category to help you make the best decision for your site. We’ll talk about design, functionality, ease of use, speed, compatibility, and price. Grab a nice beverage and I’ll give you lots to think about.

Price

I’ll start with price because when you’re building a website, you probably want to know up front how much it’s all going to cost you. WordPress themes are like good wine. Just because the bottle is expensive doesn’t mean it’s better (you knew that, right?). So caveat emptor, my friend. First, let’s talk about free themes.

Free Themes

WordPress comes packaged with a free theme of its own. The latest version (5.7.1 as I write this) comes with Twenty Twenty One. You can also install older WP themes if you like. They are typically very basic, bare-bones themes but will get you up and running fast. You can actually create a pretty great-looking site with Twenty Twenty One, especially if you apply some custom CSS or use a site-builder like Elementor.

If you go to your dashboard, look under Appearances>Themes. You’ll see all the themes which are installed and the one that’s currently active. If you click the Add New button at the top, you’ll be taken to a new page where you can choose from plenty of themes and search for more.

These themes are all free to download and install, and you can use them right away. One thing to be careful about is that some of the themes offer Pro or Premium versions that have more features. That’s fine, but if you want to stay free, you’ll want to make sure that the theme will do everything you need without upgrading.

Paid Themes

Aside from the upgrading option of a free theme, there are WordPress themes that you need to purchase right up front. Typically you’ll find these themes in a marketplace like Envato. Expect to spend anywhere from $20 – $75.

There are several categories of themes. Keep in mind that, while you can simply look for themes that match the type of site you’re building, it can be helpful to look in other categories. For example, even if you’re creating a site for your gym, a theme in Education might work well if you plan to post online courses or training plans.

Now that we have price out of the way, we need to talk about how to know if a theme is actually good or not.

How to Sniff Out a Good (or bad) WordPress Theme

Whether free or paid, there are things to watch out for when choosing your theme.

Is it Current and Compatible?

The first thing I look at is how recently the theme was updated. If it’s been over six months, I’m cautious. That doesn’t mean I won’t use it, but I would definitely connect with the author(s) and ask when or if they plan to update. I recently asked a theme author about a theme and he told me that he had no plans to update unless there were bug reports. That was fine with me, because first, he responded fairly quickly and personally (no robots). Also, his company is actively creating new themes, so I know he didn’t just stop developing to become an entomologist or something. Secondly, he explained that the theme was designed to be a very basic blog theme, so there were no features he could add to improve on it.

Another thing you want to check is if the theme is compatible with the latest version of WordPress. Again, if it’s not, you can ask the theme author if they plan to update along with WordPress. If you don’t get a response, I would recommend going with a different theme. The theme could work fine to start, but down the road it may become obsolete and you will end up needing to switch themes. If you don’t want that hassle, choose a theme that looks current.

Feature Bloat

Some themes are super simple and elegant, but have few customization options. That may work just fine for you. Other themes have every bell and whistle available, with tons of customization options and “core plugins” (we’ll discuss those in a moment).

Customizing your WordPress site should be as simple and intuitive as possible, especially if you’re not a developer. Ever since the Customizer was introduced, it’s been easier than ever for WordPress users to change colors, fonts, headers and such without knowing a lick of code. However, I believe that with great customizability comes great responsibility. At some point, too many options becomes overwhelming to the user. For example, I recently took over a client site where the theme has 35 menu areas in the customizer, with each area having either several sub-menus or hundreds of scrolling options. That doesn’t exactly lend itself to efficiency in creating or editing your site.

Some themes come with “core plugins” they either recommend or are necessary for the functionality of the theme. While this can be useful, you’ll want to be cautious. Too many plugins can slow down your site. Also, the more plugins you must use to make your theme work, the more troubleshooting you’ll need to do if one of their plugins doesn’t play well with something you’ve added yourself.

Just remember that even though a theme is loaded with options doesn’t mean that it will serve you well. You want to find something that’s useful and easy, yet streamlined.

Customer Support

A good theme will have responsive, personal support. The theme authors should be easy to reach. Even if the theme is free, you should be able to contact the theme author if you have a question. Typically, you can do this through WordPress support. Some themes on Envato will answer all questions in public comments, others won’t even address you unless you’ve purchased the theme. Choose accordingly.

Design

When choosing a WordPress theme, think about the features you need to have versus the ones you’d just like to have. Every theme can’t do everything. Try to get as close as you can to what you need your site to do, and enhance the functionality by using plugins or a theme builder.

For example, let’s say that you choose a very simple blog theme and you find that the header doesn’t allow for a search bar. There are plugins that can help make that work, but it also depends on how the theme was developed. It may take some CSS or even creating a child theme and writing some PHP code to get that functionality. If the search bar is important to you, maybe try searching for a theme that already has a search bar feature. It may be more complex than you need, but it’s easier to create a simple site with a complex theme than it is to force a simple theme to do super things.

It’s Your Choice

Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose the right theme for your site. Like choosing art for your wall, it’s a very subjective process. I hope the guidelines above will at least make it easier to narrow down your choices. Now, take a deep breath and go count some stars.


Questions? Comments? Hit me up! Paste your comment below, tweet at me, or get in touch.

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By D.J. Billings

I love to help bloggers and small businesses with their WP websites.

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