There’s more to a theme than looks – handsome is as handsome does. Here’s how to check whether a theme is safe, well-maintained, and well-supported.
Why is Selecting a WordPress Theme So Hard?
The WordPress.org world is heavily biased in favor of people with advanced coding skills. It’s hard to complain about this, since those are the people who constantly update and improve WordPress, as well as creating and maintaining the free themes and plugins that make it so useful to millions.
The problem with the bias is that it causes creative and technical freedom for professional coders to be prioritized over ease of use, with the result that there’s very little standardization of terms or features across WordPress themes. This makes searching for a theme with particular characteristics very challenging (for an example, see this post).
For new WordPress users, this is compounded by not knowing what they should be looking for in a theme. My post, 6 Important Design Characteristics of a WordPress Theme will help you narrow down your choices from a design perspective. But there is more to a theme than how it looks. You also want a theme that is secure, easy to work with, and likely to be around for awhile.
1). Stick to the WordPress Repository
There are many sources of free and paid themes. I have nothing against paid themes. Theme authors certainly deserve to be paid for the extensive investment of time it takes to build and maintain a theme. But for new WordPress users, a premium (paid) theme can add third-party vendor accounts, update procedures, and separate plugin licensing to the already none-too-gentle learning curve. Also, many of the most heavily marketed paid themes have hundreds of options, which sounds like a good thing – until you are staring at them and realizing you have no idea which ones to choose. Bigger is not always better!
Above is what the standard WordPress Theme interface looks like. When you click the plus sign or the Add New button in this interface, WordPress shows you free themes from the WordPress.org repository. Some hosts alter this interface to divert users to the host’s paid theme catalog, so they don’t even realize free themes exist. Some of the biggest name hosts such as Bluehost and GoDaddy are guilty of this practice.
These companies spend millions on marketing to position themselves as the go-to hosts for WordPress sites. They sponsor WordPress conferences, pay kickbacks to bloggers on WordPress-related topics, and offer special “managed WordPress” hosting plans (which typically cost more and give you less than regular cPanel hosting plans). Behind all the glitz, they are hosts to avoid.
GoDaddy aggressively markets features such as email addresses, site backups and adequate processor resources to run an average WordPress site as add-ons, when all of these are included in basic hosting plans on most other hosts. GoDaddy also uses hidden settings, deceptive knowledgebase pages, and deceitful customer service responses to make switching domain registration to another company as difficult and disruptive to your website as possible.
Bluehost is one of dozens of name brand hosts that are actually a front for one gigantic hosting company, EIG, that is notorious for high prices and poor service. EIG buys successful web hosts and related services, fires all the staff, raises prices and guts customer service — but they keep the brand. This means if you decide to leave one EIG host due to poor service, you are very likely to end up at another one.
Bluehost does not offer support tickets. This means you can contact them repeatedly about the same problem, and if it can not be handled by first tier support, it never gets escalated. The average length of time for a support chat is 45 minutes. Their reps are very polite and apologetic, but they are not trained to handle anything but the most basic issues. If you want more, they offer “expedited ticketing” for $30/month!
Bluehost, HostGator, iPage, and other EIG hosts include the MOJO Marketplace plugin with their WordPress installations, which changes the theme and plugin interface as described above, and diverts the user to paid themes and plugins before they can even discover that there are hundreds of FREE themes and plugins available. MOJO Marketplace is – you guessed it — also owned by EIG.
Getting back to themes, for service provider websites or a personal interest blog, a free theme is more than adequate. An exception would be if your site is in a particular industry with unique characteristics that are standard to all websites in that industry (real estate sites, for instance). In that case, a premium theme tailored for your industry might make sense.
For everyone else, I recommend sticking to the free themes in the WordPress repository at https://wordpress.org/themes. This is the same collection you access when you log in to your WordPress dashboard, go to Appearance/Themes, and click the Add New button. Themes in the repository have to pass inspections for compatibility with the WordPress core, and are free of underlying exploits that may be hidden in free themes from other sites. Since themes in the repository are open source, security plugins such as Wordfence (also free at WordPress.org) can compare your theme files to the “official” version, and alert you if there have been any file changes that could indicate hacking, which is a major advantage.
2). Check When the Theme Was Last Updated
This is not easy to do if you are browsing themes from your WordPress Dashboard (Appearance/Themes/Add New), as any theme you select will open in Customize rather than displaying the theme’s page on WordPress.org. To get to that page, keep a second browser tab open to https://wordpress.org/themes. When you find a theme you like, enter the theme name in the search box, and you will be able to access its description page, which has all kinds of useful information.
If a theme has not been updated in the past 6 months, steer clear of it. WordPress releases minor updates several times a year, and major ones 2-3 times a year. Any or all of these updates to WordPress could require some minor tweaking of a theme. A theme that is not being updated is a hacking risk, and should be avoided.
3). Check the Theme Reviews
The theme reviews and 1-5 star rating appears on the theme’s description page (https://wordpress.org/themes/themename/). Don’t just look at the stars, check the number of reviews. A 5-star rating based on 4 reviews is a lot less impressive (and more likely to be the result of paid or friend reviews) than a 4-star rating based on dozens or hundreds of reviews.
Click the yellow bar in any star row to see all reviews for that rating. Click the title to read a review. One and two star reviews can help you identify issues with the theme, but check dates – bugs may have been fixed since the review was posted. Reviews can show whether a theme author is committed to upkeep.
4). Check the Support and Documentation
Click on the View Support Forum button to see questions and answers about the theme on the WordPress.org support forum. Note that this forum is staffed by volunteers. Theme authors are not obligated to monitor or respond to questions about their theme posted there, though some do. Others prefer to provide support on their own website (sometimes for a fee).
If a theme is used by thousands of people, this may not matter – there could be many people besides the theme author who can answer your questions. However, whether an author answers support requests – or whether they make free support available at all – tells you a lot about their attitude towards the users of their theme, and how committed they are to fixing bugs and maintaining it for the long term.
Many themes come with instructions, which may be found on the theme’s website (click the Theme Homepage link under the number of Active Installs), or accessed from your dashboard after you install and activate the theme (Appearance/look for Theme Options, or in Customize). Some documentation is better than others. See if the instructions look complete and easy to understand.
5). Check the Author’s Experience
Generally, I encourage WordPress beginners to stick to themes in the “Popular” section of the WordPress repository, and avoid newly released themes. New themes often have bugs, which can make the beginner experience even more challenging.
If the theme author has written other themes, this may be less of an issue. Click on the theme author name next to the theme name to show all themes by that author. Lots of other themes does not necessarily indicate lengthy experience with WordPress. New theme developers may release several themes at once as class projects, but if they are all 3 months old, the author has not had much time to learn from their mistakes. Visit the theme details for a couple of the author’s other themes. How long has the theme been out (check the download graph below the theme description – how far back does it go)? Is the author continuing to keep their other themes updated?
Some free WordPress themes have a paid version with additional features. This is one of many ways authors use to receive some compensation for the time they put into creating and maintaining a theme.
In principle, I have no objection to this. It takes years to learn coding skills, and themes require ongoing attention to keep them current. People who put in that time should surely get paid. However, some authors release free themes which lack the most basic functionality to force users to buy the paid version. Although this doesn’t violate WordPress rules, some feel that creating free themes solely to funnel traffic to paid versions violates a certain WordPress/open source sharing spirit.
Calling a theme a freemium theme is, therefore, not exactly a compliment. But not all free themes with a paid version are freemium themes. There are also many generously-featured, fully-supported free themes that have a paid version. It’s not that hard to tell who has a passion for helping people build great WordPress sites, and who’s just in it for the money.
There are some nice freemium themes, and if you just want to do a simple blog, one of them might work fine for you. However, if you decide to upgrade to a pro version, read the terms very carefully. Some premium themes require an annual licensing fee if you want theme updates (You do. Updates are not optional, unless you want to be hacked). A few theme authors even require a monthly fee to keep updates available.
If the theme is a great fit for your needs, and you can afford it, there is nothing wrong with the above payment models. Just know what you are getting into before you spend a lot of time and effort customizing a theme.
Can’t I Just Pick One?
Sure. WordPress is designed to keep your content separate from your theme (mostly), so you can try out as many themes as you like. But once you start sizing photos and logos, tweaking post excerpts, and adding custom css to suit a particular theme, it’s time to get serious about your screening process. The steps above sound long, but you can run through them very quickly once you get familiar with the theme descriptions on WordPress.org. Taking a few minutes to check for major dealbreakers before committing to a theme can save you a lot of work and heartache down the line.