This guest post is by Karol K of ThemeFuse.
Selecting a WordPress theme is one of those tasks that seem fairly easy at first How hard can it be? you ask yourself. You simply go to Google, type in “best free WordPress themes” and you’re good to go, right?
I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this. So let’s just say it out loud so we can put it behind us: Forget about free themes! They are evil! This is something I’ve been saying for a little more than a year now. And hey, don’t blame me, it’s just the way it is.
Long story short, almost all free WordPress themes include some kind of strange code in their structures, usually in the footer section. The code is encrypted, and, often, the theme stops working if you try to remove it. Also, you don’t have a clue about what’s actually in that code until you decrypt it. Just to make things clear, as a developer, designer, or simply a website owner, you never want to have any unknown code on your site.
What other solutions are there if free themes are out of the game, then? Three main ones:
- You can have the theme developed by someone on a contract agreement.
- You can develop the theme yourself on top of a popular theme framework (and create the design as well).
- You can buy a premium theme.
Of course, at ThemeFuse (the theme store I’m a part of), we strongly encourage you to take advantage of the last option because, well, that’s our business.
But I’m not speaking as a businessman now. I’m speaking as a WordPress developer. So let me take you through the most important elements of the decision-making process, so you can select the perfect WordPress theme for your website or blog.
What do you need the theme for?
This is the first and the most important question you can ask yourself.
Every website has its own purpose. And this purpose will greatly affect the kind of theme you should be searching for.
WordPress was originally designed to work with traditional text blogs, but over the years this purpose has evolved into something much broader. Nowadays, WordPress can successfully run almost any kind of website.
Some possible applications include:
- Video blogs: this is a new breed in the blogging world. Every day there are more and more bloggers who present their content exclusively through video.
- Photo blogs (or graphical portfolios): These blogs are popular among photographers and designers who want to showcase their work.
- Online magazines: These sites are created around the idea of publishing news from a given field, often along with a descriptive image to accompany text content.
- Business sites: These sites are owned by all kinds of professionals and contract workers, from dentists and tailors, to consultants and teachers … and more!
- Traditional blogs: These are run by people who want to share their own articles. Mostly, traditional blogs are text only content. In other words, these are blogs like we know them.
- Corporate sites: Big companies have a slightly different idea of what a good website contains, and that’s why the corporate style has sprouted up.
- Software/app/product sites: Some businesses are built around a given product or a piece of software. The websites of such businesses tend to focus on the product, rather than on the business itself.
- Small to medium-sized business sites: Such businesses often find it hard to choose a site design. The corporate style is too big, and a product site just doesn’t seem to fit many service-based businesses.
- Real-world, local business sites: This is a type of site that’s targeted towards all kinds of physical businesses, like hotels, restaurants, galleries, shopping malls, and every other brick-and-mortar business imaginable.
There are probably tens of other types of sites that WordPress can handle, but let’s just stop here as I’m sure you get the idea.
Whatever you hope your site will end up to be, you have to start with its purpose. That purpose will suggest specific goals for your site, and its design should reflect those goals. Only when you’ve decided what’s important for your future site and what isn’t, can you start searching for a theme.
The most important features of a WordPress theme
There are tons of features a custom WordPress theme can provide you with, but let’s just focus on the most essential stuff—the things you’ll actually use on a daily basis (or during the initial setup).
Price and license
This is probably the most important factor to consider when you’re choosing a theme. Just like every soon-to-be website owner, you’ll have a specific budget set aside for this, and you’ll tell yourself you won’t get anything too expensive no matter how great it is. This is a perfectly reasonable approach.
Therefore, there are some important things to be aware of here. For instance, ask:
- Does the license you’re about to get allow you to use the theme on more than one site?
- Do you get free support?
- Do you get the PSD files?
- Do you get the source files?
- Do you get any additional bonuses?
If you’re a WordPress developer and you plan on using a given theme for more than one client, you should consider getting a multiple site license, or maybe even a complete theme package (containing all themes a given theme store has to offer). Of course, the more you want, the more you have to spend, but such an investment might pay off soon.
If you’re only looking for a theme for your own site, then getting the most basic license will probably be the best choice for you.
An SEO friendly structure
No matter what other website owners are saying, SEO still is, and will remain, a very important element for the whole “getting popular on the internet” thing.
An SEO friendly theme is a really valuable asset. If you’re planning on doing any kind of SEO work around your site, then such a theme is essential. And even if you don’t have time for SEO, an SEO friendly theme can do a surprisingly big part of the work for you anyway.
Good SEO always starts with getting the basic characteristics of your site just right. Only then you can tackle link-building and other off-page SEO tasks.
How can you find out whether a theme is SEO friendly or not? Unfortunately, you can’t know for sure until you start working with a given theme. However, there are still some things to look for when you’re playing with a theme’s live demo, or analyzing the screenshots of a theme.
- Is there the ability to set the titles and descriptions for every post and page individually (including the homepage)?
- Does the theme use <H> headings?
- Are the categories and tags visible?
- Is the layout clean and simple?
- Does the theme support major SEO plugins?
Some of these factors can be seen when you’re looking at a theme, while others are simply listed in the promotional materials of the theme. Make sure to pay attention to these considerations, though. The more SEO features a theme has, the better.
Compatibility with every browser
This is a very important feature to look for when you’re selecting a theme. Your visitors will always use a range of browsers and devices to access your site. You, as the website owner or the developer need to make sure that the site looks the same in every environment. This is difficult to do if your theme doesn’t provide that functionality from the get-go.
There are a couple of ways to find out whether the theme you’re interested in has cross-browser and device compatibility built in. The time-consuming way is to check the live demo on different browsers yourself. The easy way is to look for the information in the theme’s promotional materials.
Your new theme shouldn’t force you to stick to the default layout. It’s usually difficult to find a theme that fits your requirements exactly. Serious theme developers understand this, so they provide you with the possibility to change the layout a bit.
Changes like switching to a two sidebar layout, or moving sidebars from left to right should be available inside a good theme.
Also, the sidebars should be dynamic, so that you don’t have to settle for a given layout for the whole site. You should be able to choose custom layouts for individual pages of your blog.
Different color schemes available
Sticking to the topic of customization, let’s have a word about color schemes.
Every website needs a brand identity or some other point of differentiation. Chances are that you already have a logo made, and that you want to use it with your new theme. The logo itself represents most of your visual identity, so the theme should follow the same direction and be in tune with the logo.
There’s no easier way of keeping everything in tune than by simply changing the color scheme of your theme. Good themes have a couple of predefined color schemes built in, as well as a number of well-defined CSS classes that enable you to create new color schemes with little effort.
This might not sound important at first, but it actually makes tuning the theme a lot easier if you have a color scheme in place at the outset.
Easily customizable header
Whenever someone gets a new theme, the header is always the first place where any sort of customization happens. This isn’t surprising at all: everyone wants to include their own logo, their own menu, or an advertisement banner.
Customizable headers are essential for every theme. If the theme you’re considering doesn’t support this, it’s going to be really time-consuming for you to do any kind of modifications by hand (i.e. by working with HTML and PHP code).
Widgets are small blocks of content you can include in various areas of your blog’s structure. The most common location for widgets is the sidebar, but that’s not a rule.
Every quality theme has a number of widget-ready areas predefined within its structure. Such areas are not only a form of a placeholder, but in most cases, they’re set with custom formatting and styling too.
The most common uses of widgets are:
- displaying your Twitter stream and other social media icons
- displaying recent comments
- offering an additional search field
- showing categories and tags
- listing recent posts
- showing popular posts
- displaying archive links
- displaying ads, additional menus, and so on.
Custom homepage support
For a traditional blog, the homepage is simply a list of recent posts. This is how it used to work for years, and it’s still the default setting in WordPress. But as I said earlier, there are many possible uses of the WordPress platform these days, and this default listing is the optimal solution for almost none of them.
Of course, if you’re a blogger publishing insightful articles on a regular basis, then by all means you should make the default listing of recent posts your homepage. However, if you’re a business owner of any kind, you’re probably better off to create a custom homepage displaying the most important information about your business and its offerings.
Most quality themes enable you to create a custom homepage and choose the individual elements you want to place on it. This is either done by a special category or another widget area (depending on the theme).
Video and image friendly
Just to make things clear, you can obviously display videos and images on every WordPress blog … I haven’t stumbled upon a situation where a blog wouldn’t support images. However, some themes make working with multimedia really, really effortless.
For instance, here’s a YouTube video. If you want to embed it into a standard WordPress theme, you have to go to YouTube, click the Share button, click the Embed button, grab the embed code, go back to your blog, switch to HTML editor, and finally paste the embed code where you want it.
But if you know you’ll be using a lot of video and imagery, you’d do better to choose a theme that caters specifically to those content types. For example, doing the same thing in a Themefuse theme requires only one action. In the visual editor, you simply use the shortcode:
[youtube width="600" height="350" link="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keIGj-bTagE"]
Making an image slideshow, or displaying a map from Google Maps is quite similar.
Social media integration
Social media and all of its forms is very popular. Everyone has a Twitter or Facebook account, if not tens of other profiles. Quality WordPress themes follow this trend and provide some form of social media integration. The most popular way is to show various share buttons next to the content, Follow or Like buttons, and sometimes even Twitter or Facebook streams.
Of course, you don’t have to use all of these options, but it’s good to make sure the theme you’re considering has a few possibilities you can choose from.
The “wow” effect: your theme’s looks
Setting all the features aside, there’s one really important characteristic that every good theme offers. All the features mean absolutely nothing if you simply don’t like the theme visually.
Some people will try to tell you that looks can always be changed and that you shouldn’t focus on this that much. I advise a different path here.
If you see a theme, and it doesn’t make you think something like “wow, this is great!” then don’t get it. Period.
Of course, remember your purpose for the theme. The looks itself are not enough to make a theme perfect for you—there are other important considerations as well, as we’ve just seen.
A theme can’t be overused
Popularity is a funny thing when it comes to WordPress themes. On one hand, it’s great to get a popular theme because you know that it’s a quality product. It’s a kind of social proof—if many people have decided to buy a certain theme, then it has to be good, right?
On the other hand, if too many people are using the same theme then it loses all of its uniqueness, and it can make branding it difficult.
Now, I’m not saying that an overall number of downloads for a given theme is important in itself, but it is important for your specific niche. The fact that 50 people might be using your theme in a different niche is not a problem. But if ten people are using your theme in your niche, that could be a big problem.
Simply do a little research before buying a theme to make sure that there aren’t too many people using it in the niche where you want to launch a site. (If no one is using the theme, that, of course, is the perfect scenario.)
Reviews are important
Depending on a theme’s popularity, you might be able to find some customer reviews, or even professional reviews to help you decide whether the theme is really worth purchasing.
The best way of finding those reviews is using Google. Search for something like “theme-name review”. The rule is simple: the larger the number of good reviews, the better.
On the other hand, if you don’t find anything, it doesn’t mean that the theme isn’t good quality. Usually, happy customers don’t spend time submitting reviews around the internet, they simply enjoy their purchase and go on with their lives.
Documentation and support
Some developers don’t believe in the power of documentation, and it’s hard to understand why. The fact is that even when you get a new washing machine, you get a user’s manual.
Essentially, digital products are no different—they, too, need a manual of some kind. Serious developers understand this so they always try to make their customers’ lives easier by providing documentation that’s easy to grasp.
Support is different. The better the product is, the less work support teams have. But still, there are times when you’ll need some assistance, either when something stops working or when you simply want to do something unusual with your theme.
Don’t choose a theme that doesn’t have any documentation or support. This might be okay when you’re getting a theme for free, but when you’re paying money, it’s not acceptable.
Only up-to-date themes allowed
This is an easy trap to fall into. Here’s the scenario: you’re browsing the web to find a nice theme, you stumble upon one that’s interesting, and you decide to get it. Only afterwards you find out that the theme you’ve chosen hasn’t been updated lately and that it has been developed for version 2.7 of WordPress, for example.
I’m not saying that every next version of WordPress is completely different from the previous one, but some things do change, and you need to make sure that your theme implements all the new functionality and interesting features of the platform.
Every self-respecting theme store makes sure that the themes it offers are always up-to-date with current versions of WordPress and current trends of the web as a whole. So when you’re shopping for a theme, simply take notice of whether the theme you’re about to get has been updated lately and if it’s compatible with the newest version of WordPress.
A step-by-step approach
This has turned out to be a rather lengthy piece, so let me sum it up with a quick step-by-step guide on how to select the perfect theme for your blog:
- Start with the purpose of your site. When you decide what you need the site for, you’ll be able to list its most important traits—traits you need the theme to support.
- Note the details about the themes you’re considering. Some possibilities include: price and license, SEO friendly structure, compatibility with every browser, customizable design, different color schemes available, easily modifiable header, widget-ready areas, custom homepage support, video and image friendly, and support for social media integration.
- Let me quote myself: If you see a theme, and it doesn’t make you think something like “wow, this is great!”, don’t get it.
- Make sure that the theme is not overused in your niche.
- Try to find some customer or professional reviews.
- Make sure that documentation and support is available for the theme.
- Make sure that the theme is up to date with the current version of WordPress.
Even though it seems like there’s much to do when selecting a theme, it can actually be worked through very quickly. You just need to know where to look for the most important information.
Essentially, selecting a good theme is like selecting any other product—digital or otherwise. You just need to know what you’re looking for. Don’t forget to ask or read about the details that are important to you and your blog.
There’s been a lot of talking on my part here. Now it’s your turn: how did you go about selecting your current WordPress theme? What words of wisdom can you give those who are about to do it for the first time? Let us know in the comments—and don’t forget to visit again tomorrow, when I’ll show you how to install the theme you’ve selected, set by step.
Karol K. is a 20-something year old web 2.0 entrepreneur from Poland and a writer at ThemeFuse.com, where he shares various WordPress advice. Currently, he’s working on a new e-book titled “WordPress Startup Guide – little known things worth doing when creating a WordPress site.” The e-book launches soon, and now the best part … it’s free. Also, don’t forget to visit ThemeFuse to get your hands on some premium WordPress themes.