How to pick a WordPress theme that doesn’t suck

Finding the perfect theme

For most small company’s websites, they will be looking for a WordPress theme to get their online presence started.

This is because WordPress is the top content management system, and purchasing a premium theme is much cheaper than getting a custom one built.

What’s not immediately apparent is that your premium theme could quite easily end up costing more than a bespoke theme unless you take some time in finding a theme that is right for your business.

This article will highlight the process you need to take when deciding on what theme isn’t going to drive you mad in a few months time.

To get the boring bit out the way, you really need to know your target audience. Yes, it is important that you like the design of your website, but not nearly as important as it is for the people who could be making a purchase, or hiring services to like it.

So it’s vital you have that persona in your head before you continue.

Let’s get to it!

#1 – Are you going to be extending your theme?

This question is very important as lots of themes are very restrictive. This means adding new functionality and styles might not be as simple as you would initially believe.

If you are planning on heavily extending your theme, you should either go for a very simple theme that just provides styles and layouts for the typical pages, or go for a completely bespoke option.

I realise that the bespoke option is quite significantly more expensive, but at least you will have the additional functionality working correctly and looking good from the start.

The simple theme option should allow for basic styles to be passed into the extra functionality, this could reduce the overall development time of the new functionality.

If you were to go for a complex theme with lots of options, then adding features is likely to take significantly longer.

#2 – Always shop around

This is where you really need to put your researching hat on.

There are thousands of themes to choose from, both good and bad. So it’s worth spending some time looking around on different websites for the theme that will suit your business most.

As there are thousands of themes, it’s likely one will exist that provides functionality very similar to your requirements.

So before you start shopping around, build a list of required and ‘nice to have’ functionality.

Required might consist of a shopping cart, or portfolio page as these are both critical to your online presence. ‘Nice to have’ could be a slideshow that turns images upside down; quite why you would want that I’m not sure, but you get the idea.

#3 – You must read the reviews

Reviews are vital when picking a theme.

Seeing a 5 star rating next to a theme doesn’t cut it. You need to go through the reviews and find the ones that talk about the technicalities.

At some point in the future, you will probably want to modify the theme, give it a bit of a customised feel.

This is all well and good, but if you picked a theme that is brilliant out the tin, but rubbish when you need to develop it, then you have just increased the time required to make those modifications.

Read through the reviews and look for ones from WordPress developers. If you Google the theme name, you should find resources away from the website that is selling the theme, make sure you read those too.

Remember this theme is representing your business; you don’t want something that’s going to be a headache a year or two down the road.

#4 – Check out the theme authors profile

I’ll let you into to a very badly kept secret – developers re-use code.

Developers don’t like to write the same functionality more than once; that means if they have created something similar in the past, they will grab that code and modify it slightly.

This is especially true when it comes to themes.

Therefore you must Google the theme authors name, find out what other themes they have created or projects they have worked on and read up on what others thought about them and their functionality.

If they don’t have an online profile, it’s probably because they are new to the game. Your guess is as good as mine on whether they will be trust worthy or not, so that’s your call.

But the majority of theme developers will have made a number of themes in the past.

If you find a free theme by that same author, then download it and play around a little. It is likely that the free theme will contain similar (maybe slightly primitive) functionality to the one you are thinking of purchasing.

#5  Does the theme come with good documentation

Documentation is essential if you are not a WordPress coder.

The majority of premium themes will have little bits of extra functionality that is hidden away, like adding icons or short codes.

If the theme doesn’t have good documentation, then you are going to spend hours after purchasing your theme trying to figure out how to add them.

Good documentation should contain straight forward information on how to complete any theme specific functions. This could be how to change the background colour, or how to add a second column.

Good documentation can save you having to rely on a developer answering your questions when you’re sure how to complete something within the theme – this again will save you both time and money.

#6 – Does the theme come with great support?

Similar to number 5, website support is very important.

There are quite a few theme developers who won’t provide any support for their themes, this is only OK if there is a large community of people who are currently using the theme as you can post your question in a forum and hopefully receive an answer.

In the best case scenario, the theme developers will also have a support team. This will allow you to get any bugs in your theme, or questions you may have responded too quickly and released as a theme update.

If you have a developer handy, then theme support isn’t essential as your developer will be able to help you out as well, but this will obviously be another expense.

Recommended sources

As a personal recommendation, I would always say any theme developed by StudioPress. These themes run on a framework called Genesis which has been optimised in terms of search engine compatibility, speed and maintainability.

As a developer myself, it’s also very easy to work with and customise, making extending a theme nice and easy to do.

This website is currently running on a modified theme from StudioPress, so worth taking a look.

Other great sources include WooThemes, the themes these guys create have brilliant admin options that are very easy to use and customise. It’s worth checking out one of their free themes to see how their admin options work before purchasing, they also have brilliant support!

If you’re after a framework to power your theme, and have decided against Genises, then Thesis would be the next one to look at.

Their popularity has decreased slightly with the growth of Genesis, but there is a huge community of people who support it, and an equally large number of themes to pick from that use Thesis as their framework.

Finally, ThemeForest contains thousands of standalone themes. This website is extremely popular as developers and designers from all over the world can submit themes and sell them here. This means that there are plenty of both great and terrible themes, so make sure you read those reviews and find out more about the theme author and their previous themes before purchasing.

Over to you!

I’d love to hear about your experience in purchasing a theme. What did you look for and are you happy with it? Please let me know in the comments below.

  • Totally agree, and those are all great resources, Sam. The most important part for me is whether I’m going to be extending the theme. Even Genesis-powered child themes can be a royal pain to extend beyond a couple of color customizations and maybe a widget here & there.

    • Yes that is definitely one of the most important considerations. I’ve been working on a 1 page website (slides up and down) and it’s been a nightmare to extend, which increases the development time and consequently increases the costs for the client. So working out where your website is going in the next year is a must.

      Thanks for the comment Stephan!
      – Sam

  • Hi Sam – I have heard of genesis and woothemes and of course themeforest. We have only used themeforest out of the 3 and we use this for some of our small clients as it is (in most cases) a more affordable option – however it is true you do really have to spend time reviewing as some have been very restrictive and time consuming to change. I have had people who have chosen to do it themselves have often called me up and said help as they can’t figure out how it works due to bad documentation or lack of functionality or just thinking it is going to be really easy but have no technical skills and they dont realise you need to have a basic understanding of how wordpress works for a start. So often they end up paying out more.

    For bigger clients we then custom develop the site. However for those who have started on a themeforest template, in most cases when they do need enhancements and changes in the future, then our developers can easily change it without the need to do go through the genesis framework as well and be a studiopress expert. Plus if you are on studiopress when it comes to updating you have to update wordpress, studiopress and plugins and themes .. more hoops to jump through.

    As long as people are not using wix, weebly, moonfruit and free website builders that come with hosting then I am happy! I tell so many people to not go down that route – it may be free but it costs in the long run if they want to upgrade and enhance or if they have to move the site, they have to start from scratch – but some still go there .. I need to write a blog on that! What are your thoughts on using the free builders guys and the pros and cons and happy to include links to you in my next blog.

    • Hey Karen! – First off, I’m sorry for the slow reply. I think you are spot on! I’ve also had clients who have gone down the themeforest route (to save money) to then find they have no idea how anything works (even if they know WordPress reasonably well as an editor).

      For the bigger projects, I will typically build the site without using any themes – I personally find the code behind the themes very annoying and bloated in most cases, so I prefer to start from a clean slate. But saying that, the cost of those types of projects are significantly higher and often want a custom design as well as functionality – so it makes sense to start fresh.

      I also completely agree with not using site builders, my experience of them has been no where near good. If you’re looking for a 1 page website that consists of a picture and some text, then by all means go for it. But if you’re serious about an online presence, then website builders are not the way to go.

      Pros = Very quick to set up, Very cheap,
      Cons = Restricted, Often can’t have your own domain, You don’t own the software (or the content!), Frequently see bugs and errors in the systems, Any information entered can’t easily be transferred onto a different system, if your website becomes popular they will shut it down (or charge you lots more).

      To put it simply – you get what you pay for when it comes to the web.

      Thanks for the comment Karen!

      • Thanks Sam and I agree totally – same points on pros and cons as you! Cheers!

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  • lenore

    Help! I’m so overwhelmed! What I need is quite simple, really. Just a very basic website for my small business, no bells and whistles. I’ve gotten the popular Responsive free theme to do some things (such as location and contact form pages), going from some video tutorials, but in other areas (such as homepage look and content) it’s utterly nonsensical. I would pay for a premium theme if only it was easy as pie to get started and maintain. Suggestions are welcome.

    • Hi Lenore,

      Sorry for my slow reply, but take a look at the StudioPress themes, they are quite popular and built on an optimised system. It’s also built in a way that a developer should be able to extend easily should you wish to have additional functionality later.

      Hope that helps,
      P.S. I’m not a sales person of theirs, I just like their products 🙂

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  • Mariana Levickyy

    I use website for selecting WP themes“, I can find here examples of themes, I can view design of real websites, that use some needed theme – this is the easiest way select best functionality for own websites. For Genesis 1372 examples of real websites – and all different. First – is most popular – I usually view first 5-10 samples

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  • Thanks for sharing . Really helped , i do not want a wordpress theme that sucks.

  • Great post, thanks! Im looking some free responsive themes for my sites plz share some links if possible and Can you share your template with browser window and iPhone?

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