One of the best things about the WordPress website and blogging platform is that there are so many different themes to choose from.
But for someone new to this way of building a website or establishing a blog that very abundance of choices can be mind-bogglingly confusing.
So I thought it might be helpful to share briefly some of what I have learnt in years of using various different themes.
By the way, these are just my non-expert opinions (but learned through often frustrating experience). As regular readers will know, I am not a techie. I have taught myself some basics about site coding along the way – mainly HTML, a little about PHP and CSS (but not enough to impress anyone who really knows that stuff).
A little background on WordPress
Because of its origins, WordPress is commonly thought of as a blogging platform, which it is, but it is much more.
WordPress is a free and open source Content Management System (CMS) which happens to have evolved from a blogging platform.
An important distinction to make is in terms of site hosting. You can have your site hosted, at no charge, with WordPress.com or you can “self-host” with the same software, from WordPress.org , on your own web server. For most of us, “self-hosted” means we choose and pay for a hosting service, as I do with HostGator.
In a post last year I wrote about why I recommend that businesses choose the self-hosted option from WordPress.org, rather than using a WordPress.com (or Blogger – hosted by Google) site.
To get an overview of some of the possibilities in using WordPress.org, check out the official Showcase.
There are thousands of WordPress themes and plugins available: many themes are free, some are “premium”, with either a one-off payment or requiring an annual subscription. I have used many free themes and eventually realized the truth of the saying about the support you can expect for a free product – “you get what you paid for”. So now I use premium services. But there is something to be said for using some free themes to start off, so that you get an idea of how it all works.
What I look for in choosing a WordPress theme
The five things I look for are:
- Architectural Design
- Graphic Design
- Usability for a non-technical person
1. Architectural Design
I have learned the hard way that there are many themes that look nice enough but ultimately don’t deliver in business terms because they lack a well-articulated architectural design. There is of course an underlying architecture for the WordPress platform, which is the same for everyone. I’m referring here to the architectural design of the theme itself.
It’s been immensely frustrating to find, on more than one occasion, that a theme which looked like seemed to need a lot more coding and tweaking to be able to serve my purposes. Nowadays I am more interested in finding out, as best I can, how good the theme developers are at coding than how good they are at graphic design.
A claim to incorporate an effective structure for SEO is increasingly, and importantly, a feature offered by theme developers – something to look for (and preferably not just have to take the developers’ word for it but get some third party validation if possible).
I prefer to have excellent architecture and excellent graphic design, but in a pinch I would go for architecture over elegant graphics.
2. Graphic design
The counterpoise to the previous point is that I look for graphic design which will work for my business. I see many WordPress sites that are a riot of color and drama, which is enjoyable enough to look at and may work for the relevant audience but which I see as not working for the audience I want most to attract.
One of the best ways I know to get ideas about what will work for you is to check out the sites of your competitors, especially the ones who seem to be doing well and where the site looks as if it was designed some time no longer than a couple of years ago.
Elements of graphic design I look at particularly are:
- ease of navigation
- style – I want it to look business-like in a corporate but non-stuffy sense
- typeface – elegant, appropriate to my target audience, and easily readable
3. Usability for non-technical person
This is very important for me. I don’t really enjoy getting under the hood and fiddling with layout, style, fonts and such, but I like to be able to do it when I want to and not find the process too much of an ordeal.
Understandably, you are more likely to find the premium services delivering consistently on this than do the free ones: the financial imperative is wonderfully motivating, although not all WordPress designers are good at explaining how to use their themes.
Some themes require more coding skill than others do if you want to modify them beyond the “don’t have to know code” options provided.
As I indicated above, getting good support for free themes is not something you can expect to happen. My experience has been that even with those developers who do endeavour to provide some support for their themes, the support is more likely to be useful to other techies – people who know their PHP and CSS especially – than for the rest of us mere mortals.
And I think some developers get a bit bored with the whole idea of support. They are developers, after all.
In practice, I find that I get better support with premium themes than I have ever had with free ones. Stands to reason, but probably worth stating.
But even with a premium theme, it is not to be assumed that you will get quality support. It’s worth asking around, if you know people who use WordPress themes, about which providers offer and deliver quality support, consistently, over the long haul. And read the providers’ own blogs to get a feel for how well or otherwise they communicate – especially if you want someone technically skilled who can communicate in non-techie language.
The lack of an active support forum is a warning signal.
Another warning signal is that if there seems to be a long-standing but unfulfilled promise for a new release of the theme. That can mean it’s proved too difficult to update the theme, or maybe that the developer is not that interested any more in improving the product.
Instructional videos on site are a good sign of a company committed to support – as long as the videos are up to date: there are few things in this department more frustrating than trying to follow the steps in a video, then discovering it is out of date.
A well-frequented, busy support forum is a good sign that there is real interaction going on between the theme company and its userbase. If members of the forum are voluntarily providing help for one another, that is another good sign. Of course, you may have to become a paid customer before you get access to the forum.
I always want to have a theme which is to a degree timeless in terms of having a practical user interface and up to date in its look and feel.
I want to know that the theme is well supported and I am impressed when it is being used by leaders in the blogging/social media world.
If you have not followed the story of how various themes have come on the market, one way to get a sense of which ones are current and delivering good results is to do some searching for blog posts offering reviews (bearing in mind that some of these “reviews” are fairly uninformative promos for a particular theme for which the blogger is an affiliate). My experience is that blog posts comparing two or three industry-leading themes tend to be more informative than single-theme reviews.
An example of an informative blog post comparing themes is this one which compares Thesis and Genesis and has, at this writing, 160 comments in which you will find some gems of information and insight. Another example of an article which is informative and non-boosterish is this comparison between Genesis and iThemes Builder.
Everyone has their own needs, skill sets, preferences for how much or how little time they want to spend or not on learning some CSS, or generally on tweaking their site.
That said, there are three main providers which I can confidently say meet the 5 criteria listed above. (These are affiliate links but I am recommending them because I know they work and meet my criteria).
- Thesis from DIY Themes (I have used this on a number of sites)
- Builder from iThemes (the theme currently used on this site)
- Genesis Framework with Enterprise Child Theme (which, after a lot of checking, I have purchased but not yet installed)
Do you have any other criteria for choosing a WordPress theme/provider?