How to choose a WordPress theme

22 February 2017

Day in and day out, we’re bombarded with too many choices.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily want to make life-impacting decisions on a regular basis each day.

And where you may think that’s a little melodramatic to think that your choice of WordPress theme may have that much impact on your life, believe me, if you’re embarking on the adventure of building your own website, and you throw your heart and soul into creating it on a beautifully designed, poorly coded theme, it’s going to have far-reaching consequences on your health and your sanity.

Why is choosing a theme so important? 

You want your website to look amazing.

And this is why many people spend literally hours trawling through theme libraries for that magic theme that is going to turn their non-designer-y content into something beautiful.

Yet instead of becoming excited, they become totally overwhelmed.  It’s hard to decide what’s going to work best for you, or what potential pitfalls to look out for.

So in this post, I will share with the thought process I used to go through when choosing a theme, and share with you the theme that I now use for all my websites.

My referral links included in this post for products I have personally bought and used. Using these links does not add any cost to the product. Read my full disclosure here.

Wordpress themes

Should you use a free theme?

Should you use a free theme or a premium theme?

There is a temptation to start with a free theme, and some of them look really great, but a few of the drawbacks of a free WordPress theme include:

  • Many are outdated.
  • Many are abandoned completely.
  • Most them have no support.
  • Very few of them ship with a child theme (more on this later)

For these reasons, I use premium themes.

Things to look out for when purchasing a WordPress theme

The most tricky part of selecting a theme is that until you have actually bought it and installed it, there’s no way to know exactly what your options are going to be and how straightforward it will be to customise.

1. How easy will it be to customise your theme

Most theme developers will include lots and lots of customisation options to make it as straightforward as possible for you to change the colours and move things around. But the downside of that is, that if they’re not coded properly, these options can make it difficult for you to switch themes further down the line, or could cause a conflict with plugins which you want to install to extend the functionality of your site. Worst case scenario is that you could be stuck with this theme, or you will have to pay a developer to help you switch.

2. Will it meet the objectives for your website

Have an idea in mind of what you want to achieve with your website, and look for a theme where the layout will help deliver that objective. It should look good without compromising on usability and simplicity.

If the presentation style is overly complicated, visitors to the site may struggle to find the information that they’re looking for on your site.

A good looking site is fairly useless if your visitors can’t find their way around it, so you’re sometimes better working with a theme that has a clean and simple interface.

3. Page speed

This is a biggie.

Don't underestimate how damaging a slow website can be.Click To Tweet And an issue that I see time and again with premium themes is that they are so crammed with amazing features and design elements that they can slow the pages down. No one likes slow websites – they’re annoying for visitors to your site, and Google doesn’t like them either.

Check the page load speed of any page using Pingdom.

page speed

4. Does it work well on mobile?

Having a website which doesn’t display correctly on mobile devices is no longer an option. In some industries, more than 50% of all web traffic is generated from mobile devices. Not giving them a good viewing experience is like shutting the door on 50% of your potential clients or customers.

Not only that, Google will penalise any website which isn’t mobile friendly websites in their mobile search results.

So ensure that the theme that you purchase specifies that it is mobile responsive. Most of them are these days, but there are still some sellers using fixed width layouts which simply don’t work well on mobile devices.

You can test the demo page of the theme in Google’s Mobile Friendly Test which will show you how it looks on mobile devices.

mobile friendly test

5. Browser compatibility

I know this sounds really techy, but it’s important. Your theme may look great on your browser of choice, but websites sometimes behave differently across different browsers.

Most WordPress theme developers will rigorously test their themes using browser compatibility testing tools. If they do, they will mention it in the notes alongside the theme. If not, you will need to run your own tests, or you could use a tool such as Browsershots.

Don’t forget to test on different browsers on mobile as well.

And by the way, if the theme hasn’t been tested across all the major browsers, such as Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer, I wouldn’t consider it as an option, no matter how much I loved it.

6. Page Builders

If you’re not comfortable with code, page builders are going to be your best friend when it comes to building your website. They are WordPress plugins that allow you to create page layouts and move elements using drag and drop user interface.

Many paid-for Wordpress themes come with page builders pre-installed. Some of these page builders are only used by that theme developer. That is a red flag to me. Often they can be buggy, produce a lot of unwanted code and if you ever want to switch the theme, then those pages will require a lot of cleaning up. And that’s not fun.

Look for themes that are using with one of the most used page builder plugins. If your theme doesn’t have a page builder, you can also purchase these separately to use with your theme.

7. Search Engine Visibility

Check to see if the theme you’re interested in specifies that it is optimised for SEO.

You can run your own checks by putting it through the W3C Markup Validation tool, but you may be overwhelmed by the warnings that it generates which may in fact be nothing to worry about.

8. Child Theme

When you build your website, you should use a child theme.Click To Tweet

When you install a theme, it should consist of two elements – the main ‘parent’ theme underneath, and the ‘child’ theme on top. The installation process is the same as with any other theme, it’s just that you install the ‘parent’ theme first, and then install and activate the ‘child’ theme.

The ‘parent’ theme provides the core functionality of the layout and the ‘child’ theme allows you to tinker with design customisations without touching the core framework, or ‘parent’, underneath. As well as being good practise, it’s a terrific safety net for anyone who’s not confident about making changes.

If you don’t use a child theme and you’re using customisations, you will also have to redo those changes each time the theme is updated. It’s really not an appealing option. So you need to use a child.

It is possible to create your own child theme, but if you’re buying a premium theme, they should provide one, and if they don’t, you can ask them to.

So what is a child theme?

They’re a difficult concept to grasp, but I heard someone recently put together a really great analogy. I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit them as it’s a genius way of thinking of it.

Consider a piece of art on your wall. You could either paint it on a canvas, or you could paint directly onto the wall. Using the wall would mean that if ever you wanted to redecorate, or move house, you would have to start that piece of art again from scratch. Using a canvas would mean that you could take it down and put it back up once the redecoration or move was complete.

Wordpress child theme

9. Support

With many free WordPress themes, the developer doesn’t offer any support.

This means if you run into trouble, or are simply struggling to make specific changes, you have to figure it out on your own, or pay someone else to do it for you.

Therefore it’s important to select a theme with good documentation and support. Most premium WordPress themes will offer this, but I like to try it out before I buy a theme to see how long it takes to receive a response. If they are slow on a pre-sales question, the chances are that they will be slow or slower on a technical question after you’ve bought the theme.

10. Ratings and Reviews

We live in an age where reviews are highly sought after endorsements. With good reason.

They are great signposts as to whether something is going to perform as we would like it to, before we have bought it.

If you’re looking for a theme on a third party provider such as Themeforest, you can even filter by reviews. Expect to see some negative reviews, as it’s hard to produce something that will please everyone, but the majority of the reviews should be positive before you consider moving ahead with your purchase. I also like to look through the comments and see what kind of thing people are talking about around that particular theme.

Where should you buy a WordPress theme?

There are lots and lots of places where you can buy good quality premium themes, but I don’t want to overload you with options, so here are some of the reputable sites which build good quality themes.

Which theme do I use?

Gone are the days where I used to trawl through theme libraries for hours, analysing whether a theme would work well for my next project, or whether it was going to limit me in the long run.

I use the Divi theme from Elegant Themes on all my websites. Why? I could write an article on its own to go through all the amazing features, but in a nutshell:

  1. It’s got a terrific drag and drop builder which is easy to use and makes page layouts a doddle.
  2. Their support is terrific.
  3. It ticks all the boxes of things that I outlined above.
  4. It builds wonderful websites.

What’s not to like?

You can take Divi for a spin here to try it out for free. 

I also give lifetime access to the Divi theme to everyone who enrols on my 8-week Rock That Website course. I’ve been using it for years now on all my own sites, my client sites, and I teach it in my signature Rock That Website program, and ALL my clients love it. 

More importantly, they build truly fabulous, scaleable websites with it which they are able to manage on their own without ever being reliant on anyone else.

I hope this has helped you work through some of the questions that you may have come up with whilst looking for the most suitable WordPress theme for your next project.

Now you’re ready to get started on your WordPress web project.

If you want more tips for creating, improving and marketing a WordPress website, join my WordPress Happy Community for free, or join my daily Facebook lives on my Facebook page

Vicky Etherington

Vicky Etherington has been running her own online marketing agency since 2003, and in 2015 transitioned to working with coaches and therapists to teach them how to create their own client-attracting websites. 

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Posted in: Wordpress tips
Tagged as: themes, Wordpress

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