It’s tempting to choose a WordPress theme that’s eye-catching and beautifully designed, but looks can be deceiving. You need a beautiful theme that’s well-built, well-maintained, fast, and flexible. But with literally thousands of free and premium themes on the marketplace ranging widely in terms of quality, choosing the right one can be tricky.
In this article we discuss the five most important criteria we use to source a quality theme that will hold up over time and doesn’t come with any hidden costs.
- Responsive Design
- Niche Appeal
- Inner Resources
- Code Quality and Support
The good news is there are quite a few expertly coded and designed themes out there, but they’re not all suited for your business requirements, and they’re not all professionally maintained and supported. Keep in mind that WordPress is open source software, making it easy for anyone to build on. In contrast, themes are packages of pre-built templates, design assets, features, and plugins created by private companies. A good theme gives you a solid starting point in standing up a website, saving you time and money so you can focus on growing your business.
The first thing you want to do is conduct a global search using terms relating to your business or personal goals. Themeforest is a good place to start your search. You should be able to turn up a quite a few themes catering to your industry on Themeforest. Once you’ve found a few themes that look cool, it’s time to inspect them in more detail.
1. Responsive Design
These days all websites should be designed with mobile devices in mind. As of October 2020, mobile devices commanded half of all global web traffic, and that number only goes up as you drill down by niche.
Theme builders offer live demos with common page types mocked up — that’s design-speak for prototyped — with dummy content. Be sure to demo the theme on a mobile device. Some themes are optimized for big screens and treat the mobile experience as an afterthought. A website that isn’t designed mobile-first will require lots of custom coding to optimize for mobile devices.
Pay careful attention to how quickly the page loads in your mobile device. Page speed is crucial to providing a good mobile experience to your audience. Studies have shown that fast websites generate more revenue and higher levels of engagement. Google has even made page load speed a factor in its search rankings. Page speed is all the more important on mobile, where bandwidth is limited. So a site that looks good on a mobile device but loads slowly when you demo it in a mobile device should be a red flag.
Flexibility is a bit tricky to assess at the demo stage. A general rule of thumb is that the more prebuilt page templates the developer has thought to include in the theme, the more flexible it will be. Remember, anything the designers haven’t thought of you’ll be building out yourself.
For building out custom and landing pages, you’ll probably want to use an intuitive, drag and drop page builder like Elementor of Divi. Look for themes that are built with one of these page builders. For ease of use and flexibility you can’t do better than Elementor, in our opinion, with the caveat that many of Elementor’s rich interactive features are only available to Pro subscribers.
The folks over at BoldThemes have developed their own page builder, called Bold Builder, that we’ve found pretty easy to build pages.
WPBakery is another popular page builder, but we’ve found that it requires a lot more energy to get good results with.
3. Niche Appeal
Here you want to ask yourself, is this theme appropriate for my niche? Can I use some of the design assets, such as icons, illustrations, and decorative stock photos, or will I have to swap everything out? Of course you’ll want to use your own colors and logo to execute on your brand vision, but the more out of the box stuff you can use and repurpose, the less you’ll have to pay a designer and/or developer to customize. A well thought out niche theme can get you 80% of the way there without having to reinvent the wheel.
It seems like flexibility and niche appeal would be at odds here, but they’re actually not mutually exclusive when it comes to sourcing a WordPress theme. Essentially you want a theme that is flexible enough to adapt and accommodate custom page types, but relevant enough to your business to give you a solid foundation, so you don’t have to create everything from scratch.
In terms of content and features, we like themes that are laser-targeted to a particular niche. For example, a good niche theme for a law firm would include trust-building signals unique to that industry, such as an affiliations and awards slider, a blog for sharing legal news, and a client testimonials section. For home builders, we’d be looking for a dazzling portfolio and a neighborhood events calendar to drive engagement.
4. Inner Resources
As we mentioned at the outset, it’s tempting to go for the shiny and beautiful design, but does your team have the inner resources — the design skills, user experience and coding know-how, to pull it off? This will be an important consideration if you choose an image-heavy theme with high-fidelity graphics, where much of the visual assets will have to be replaced, and adding new visuals will require someone with Photoshop chops.
Likewise, a text-heavy theme with beautiful typography will require a wordsmith to fully flesh out. Remember, copy – that’s design-speak for text — plays two roles in web design: it conveys important information about you to your audience, and it holds the design together. So getting rid of all the placeholder marketing copy you didn’t feel like writing is probably not the best way to go about getting your website live.
Our advice is to err on the side of simplicity. If you plan on doing the customization, choose a simple design that you can see your team competently extending and maintaining. Here’s another reason to keep it simple: the internet cycles through design trends faster than a sneeze travels through a screen door. A theme that’s all bells and whistles is destined to feel passe in three years.
5. Support and Code Quality
Finally, no theme search is complete without vetting the theme developer and kicking the tires. In the theme’s reviews section, be on the lookout for reviews left by angry customers demanding their money back because of poor code quality. Take into consideration not only the theme’s reviews rating, but the number of reviews. Themes that have been around for a while are typically better maintained. Number of sales is also usually a good indicator of quality, with the caveat that you’ll have to put in more work customizing a popular theme that lots of people are already using.
Pay particular attention to the theme builder’s communication style. If you end up needing support — and you more than likely will — you’ll want a theme developer with a solid grasp of the English language. We’ve encountered difficulties communicating with theme developers based in countries where English isn’t spoken widely. The time zone difference also made it tough to have a quick back and forth on a time-sensitive issue.
Most themes come with support for a limited period of time, such as six months, with the option to extend support for a fee. The quality and responsiveness of that included support can range widely. It pays to choose a theme that costs a little more and is well supported than a freebie with no support. The developers know their code better than anyone else, and can offer quick solutions to any snags you might encounter.
To test the responsiveness of a theme’s support service, try contacting them before you become a customer. Chances are, if they’re unable to respond to a question before you become a customer, they won’t be any faster after you’ve become a customer.
There’s more to choosing a theme than looks and features alone. A little due diligence up front can save you a bundle in the long run. Save yourself time and energy by choosing a theme that is fast, flexible, tailored to your niche, and within your wheelhouse to customize. And make sure to kick the tires.
Need help customizing your WordPress site? Head over to our WordPress Theme Customization services page to learn more, or get in touch to see if our approach is right for you.