Whether you have a professional blog, manage a business or use WordPress to publish art and photography, the look and function of your theme has a lasting effect on how you are regarded by peers and visitors. The immediate impact to a new visitor is also obvious. A layout that presents your brand and content in the best way possible will not only set you apart, but lets the world know you care about your yourself and your content.
There are hundreds of WordPress themes out there, but they are not all created equal. Determining quality and choosing the best theme can quickly become overwhelming or downright frustrating, especially if you are new to the WordPress platform. Below are some tips for how to evaluate themes to ensure they offer the absolute best functionality, are easy to customize and use features that will stand the test of time.
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links (at no extra cost to you). I recommend that you do your own independent research before purchasing any product or service. This article is not a guideline, a recommendation or endorsement of specific products.
1. Shop around
Spend some time looking at multiple theme galleries and marketplaces to compare designs and value. For example, you may find a design you like in a free theme gallery, but notice it lacks a good admin panel and some functionality you need. By checking out multiple resources, you are likely to find a premium theme with a similar look that offers more value. The opposite is also true – if you don’t need a lot of extra bang, many free themes exist that mimic the look of popular premium themes. However, beware of many free theme sites, as the themes can contain malicious code or hidden links. A few reputable places to start looking are:
- WordPress.com Theme Showcase
- WordPress Theme Directory (free)
- Web2Feel (free)
- ElegantThemes (read a review of this vendor here)
- UFO Themes
WordPress is really popular and there are many other places you can find good WordPress themes.
2. Choose a design you love
The ability to customize or modify the look and feel of a theme varies greatly and depends on how the theme author has both constructed the templates, and integrated customization options. If you don’t have a design background, go for a theme you love out-of-the-box. Additionally, look for themes that let you customize options such as fonts, colors, backgrounds and layouts through a user-friendly options panel. When evaluating themes for their design, consider whether you have seen the design before and how many other websites are using the theme. The more unique your website is, the more memorable it will be. Be careful not to get distracted by the art or photography used in the demo and choose a design that does not depend on the content to look good. Things to consider when deciding on a design are:
- Does it match your style or brand?
- Can you imagine your own images and logo on the theme?
- Is the design appropriate for the kind of website you want to build?
- Will the design still be in style next year?
3. Check for complete theme options
While the front-end is important, the backend of a theme is just as critical. A truly fantastic theme comes with a full options panel for configuring various features, and may include custom post options, or custom page templates. (see this this video as an example.) Avoid themes that use proprietary methods for managing image galleries, portfolios or force you to manually enter custom fields. Creating content and setting up the theme should be effortless and straightforward. Additional features you should look for are:
- Is the theme widget ready?
- Does it support or use WordPress 3.0 menus?
- Is it optimized for WordPress 3+?
- Does it require you to install 3rd-party plugins?
- Can the footer text and links be changed?
- If needed does it have good page templates, e.g. CMS style front-page, unique archive design etc.
- Does the theme have shortcodes
4. Opt for function over form
How your theme responds and functions is almost more important than how it is styled. The best themes are focused on providing excellent navigation and image-handling options, custom widgets and multiple layout options rather than trying to wow you with the graphic design. If a theme looks pretty “blank” or minimal on the surface, chances are, it is easier to customize and style to fit your own aesthetic. Check out the demo / preview pages and see if the theme features are being showcased.
5. Read the comments
Some theme marketplaces such as ThemeForest display reviews and comments on individual theme pages. Take some time to read the comments to see if others have had problems with the theme that would affect you. Some common problems you want to avoid are themes that require extensive customization to look like the demo, those that have compatibility problems with popular plugins, or any theme with multiple bad reviews. Commenters also provide an invaluable resource for seeing how customizable the theme is. Check any URLs the commenters leave to get an idea how the theme is being used.
6. Go for fully-tested markup
Get the most mileage out of your chosen theme by using one that is designed using modern or cutting-edge techniques. HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery are good things to look for, as they will be around for a while. Avoid Flash and themes that are several years old. Look for evidence of cross-browser testing in the theme description – if the author did not take the time to test the theme properly, it may encounter problems when viewed in older browsers (alternatively test the theme demo yourself to see if the HTML, CSS etc. validate). In addition to making sure the code is solid, be sure to review the theme’s requirements. Newer themes may need your web server to be using specific platform versions to support its functions properly, such as PHP 5.3. If you are unsure about this step, send a link to the theme to your hosting provider and ask them if it is safe to install.
7. Evaluate support options
If you are embarking on a serious web endeavor such as a business website or monetized blog, it is critical that someone is there to help you if something goes terribly wrong, when the theme needs to be updated etc. WordPress.org will not assist with errors or other issues that are related to your theme and neither will your hosting provider. Make sure the theme author or marketplace provides some kind of support for themes you download or purchase, through a community forum or support ticket system, especially if you are paying for the product. Keeping WordPress, themes and plugins up to date all the time is critical if you want to avoid hackers taking over your site. Non-supported themes makes this difficult if not impossible when major WordPress updates hit the market.
8. Ask before you buy
While all of the above are prudent measures to take when browsing through theme directories, sometimes it is faster just to ask questions. Don’t hesitate to send the theme author an email or post a comment on the theme page covering specific issues before you choose. Some good questions to ask are:
- Do you provide sample data
- Is this theme compatible with (WP-Store, qTranslate, NextGen Gallery, etc) plugins?
- Are all of this theme’s scripts enqueued properly to avoid conflicts?
- Can I customize (page layouts, headers, image sizes, etc)?
Always read the theme page to gain a complete understanding of what is included before you ask to ensure a prompt reply!