I’ve done this many times. I have been bedazzled by great looking WordPress themes only to find out that they don’t suit my particular need. There are just too many good-looking WordPress themes and so many great designers who produce these functional pieces of online art. Search for ten/twenty/forty or hundred best WordPress (WP hereon) themes and you will find yourself sitting for hours both admiring their work and trying to see what best suits your purpose. This post hopes to unravel the mysterious process of shortlisting a WP theme to something more structured and doable.
Free Vs Paid Themes
The broadest of classifications for WP themes are free and paid. Some folks swear by paid and others free. Let’s take a look at the benefits and deterrents of both.
If you are a complete novice when it comes to all things tech, it is better to go for a premium theme. Premium themes come with detailed instructions, higher functionality, higher frequency of updates and the design itself is less common-place.
If, on the other hand, you are quite comfortable or conversant with coding, free themes are a good bet. You can tweak the design, add plug-ins and save money using a free theme. Open forums are available for any tech queries you might have.
A good theme should be light and full of relevant features. It simply must be mobile friendly and load fast. The attention span of an average online user is the time it takes to open a new tab. Google PageSpeed Insights is great tool to find out how fast your site is performing and how to improve it. It also provides insights into the browsing experience of your website.
Related to page speed, a site that has many images can get heavy over time. Slim down your images through Kraken.io an image compressor and optimizer. It will help you save space as well improve loading times.
Speed is really important depending on the kind of site you have. If your site has several HTTP requests a day, its speed is paramount to keep customers happy. While selecting a theme, you may want to run the theme demo through Google Page Speed Insights to understand how it scores.
Design is everything. A photography site will require a broad screen shot as well as a theme that showcases the photographers work. A news based website on the other hand will need a theme that looks more like a broadsheet online. A children’s toy store, an ecommerce venture could look at a great retail theme. Elegant Themes, ThemeForest, StudioPress, Woo Themes, Themezilla, Mojo themes are some of the places you can look for WP themes for your site.
A good way to test design functionality, if you like the way the theme looks is to go through the demo with the eyes of a user. Go to the blog section, shop and test how it feels. Were you able to find the links easily on the side bar? Do the blog posts look inviting to read in their typeface?
User Experience and Responsiveness
User experiences are becoming as important as the content the sites display. Pick a theme that is closest to the experience you want the user to have. Sometimes what started as a blog, morphs into a store. Do you want users to read the blog or see the products right away? The answer to this can help you further shortlist your theme.
Google in early 2015 released a letter to its customers saying that all their themes must be mobile friendly. This may seem like a no-brainer but there is simply no way any online player can not have a responsive site anymore. According to Smart Insights (January 2015 update) 91% use the PC or laptop to search the Internet, while a whopping 80% of the respondents used their smart phones to be online. (Data source: Global Web Index). Furthermore they say customers are using both devices for online experiences. This means the desktop and mobile experiences have to be on par.
Optimize or Else
Ensure your theme is SEO optimized. Most theme authors ensure that the theme has SEO best practices built in. You could further enhance your website’s SEO using a plugin such as the Yoast SEO plug-in.
You can use customizable dashboard plugins to do tweaks on your theme rather than working on Custom Style Sheets. Some themes provide demos for the same. You could try it before you make up your mind.
Independent Customer Reviews
You can find independent reviews for all themes. User experiences on theme installation, updates are available online. Make sure you run a review for your shortlisted themes to get a better perspective.
Plug-in: Like it or Not
As time progresses it is likely that the theme will require plug-ins. A good theme will incorporate WP best practices to ensure a seamless integration with plug-ins. Alternatively, some themes require a connector plugin which can be cumbersome. Good themes will support most popular plug-ins.
Elegant CSS and HTML
Rand-Hendriksen the creator of the accessible Simone theme says,
“The key is to build accessibility in as a baseline requirement, not a feature added on after the fact. When you start building accessibility in as a baseline you discover your code gets more structured, easier to understand, and as a developer you start caring more about the content itself, not just how to bend to the will of the design.”
The WordPress Accessibility Guidelines can be explored to see if your chosen theme is accessible.
Developers and WP specialists (like BlueKlip) find that theme updates that are integral to maintain security often cause problems. Naturally this cannot be assessed immediately but reveal themselves over time. You can test for this by using a staging setup. Plugins like Duplicator will help you copy a site to another WP install. Then the staging setup can be used to test any updates just as you would a live one. Theme updates, load time can all be tested at this staging setup. Another factor is to take a look at the theme vendor’s policy when it comes to upgrades. Do they do adequate updates and do they have updates that are compatible with the older version of the theme? It may not seem so important while choosing a theme but prove to be pressure points later.
If you are investing in a paid theme then an important factor to consider is customer support. In the event of an issue good vendors will reply with solutions. Some vendors choose to gloss over or simply not respond. Good customer support will mean quick issue resolution and a consistent user experience.
At the end of the day while the beauty of the theme itself is important, one must look beyond it and pick a theme based on robustness, functionality and responsiveness. Theme selection is not one simply of aesthetics but of providing a sound base for your business and a seamless user experience.