–Updated March 29, 2017–
So, you’re thinking about building a WordPress site but you don’t know what it should look like? Been there… and I’ve learned a few things along the way. The template or design for your WordPress site is called a Theme and there are literally thousands to choose from. Some companies specialise exclusively in making and supporting WordPress themes. And this is a good thing! It means you have a great deal of choice. It also means there’s competition which is, again, a good thing because it drives up the quality and drives down the price.
Where to start? I like Envato’s Theme Forest but you can find many other sources for themes. You can browse the themes on Theme Forest and then take them for a test drive. Here’s what I look for in a theme:
- Visual appeal
- Mobile friendly
- Good technical support
- Good ratings
- Long (sort of) history
- Good implementation
Let’s look at these items more closely…
Visual appeal – Hey, it’s got to look good and fit with your style and your visual identity. You may be wearing this design for quite some time and you should be happy with it.
Functionality – While looking good, the design must still work for the content that you’ll be plugging into it. If you’re a photographer, you need a design that showcases your images. If you’re a writer, the theme must highlight your articles. Increasingly, there are themes designed for specific niches. Selling homes? There are WordPress themes for that. Running a gym? There are themes for that too.
Mobile friendly – This is non-negotiable. Your site MUST work on mobile devices. Your visitors are looking at your site on mobile devices and your site has to work for them. It has to be formatted properly and it has to be fast.
Good technical support – Check out the support forums for the theme you are interested in. How timely are the responses? What kind of issues are being faced? What does Google reveal about the theme’s authors? You may have issues with the theme – will you have success getting those issues resolved or will it be a technical nightmare?
Good ratings – On a marketplace like Theme Forest, users rate the products. Ratings and more importantly, number of sales, provide a clue as to the robustness of the theme and the quality of the support.
History – There are two parts to this: the history of the theme and the history of the theme authors. If a theme is on version 4 that suggests several things: it’s been around for a while and the bugs have been worked out. Other people have encountered and resolved most issues with the theme. A theme with a long history also suggests that the theme authors have been around long enough to know what they’re doing and it also suggests that they may be around a while longer – when YOU might need support. If a theme is popular, does that mean a lot of sites are using it? Yes, but your odds of running into another site with the same theme, even a popular theme, are slim. I’ve implemented MANY themes for clients and I very rarely see those themes elsewhere on the web. Your site will be unique even with a popular theme because you will be plugging your own content into it.
Good implementation – I use several tools to quantitatively evaluate how the theme has been built. I take the theme demo URL and plug that into those tools to evaluate the coding and performance of the theme. I can fall in love with the look of a theme but how is it built and how does it perform? I use the following tools to find out:
- Google PageSpeed Insights – This measure theme loading time and how mobile friendly it is. A high rating translates into less work to speed up your website. Note that if the demo theme is hosted on a slow server, that will reduce the score.
- HTML Validation – This evaluates how the theme is coded. Does it adhere to web standards or is it full of errors? Unlikely that there will be zero errors but the lower the better.
- CSS Validation – This further evaluates how the theme is coded. Again, unlikely there will be zero errors but the less the better.
- WAVE Accessibility – Is the theme accessible to visitors using alternate browsers, with reduced vision, etc? Morally (and increasingly legally), sites should be made accessible to all visitors. This tools helps you identify if your chosen theme will comply with the guidelines set out by the World Wide Web Consortium
These tools only evaluate one URL at a time so you may wish to test several different URLs. These automated tools do make mistakes so give some leeway to the results. However, even without understanding the recommendations, low scores from these tools help you evaluate themes based on more than their good looks.
Anything to watch out for? You want to pick a theme that has the features you need but no more. Firstly, extra features means extra baggage and your site will be slower – particularly on mobile. Secondly, more moving parts means more parts that can break. Websites are complicated enough and there’s no need to add additional complexity. Thirdly, and often overlooked by theme developers, one of the real strengths of WordPress is that it separates the content from the display of that content. This allows you to easily change the look of your site while preserving your content. Many themes however provide layout tools within the theme – these can be great for creating complex layouts but what happens if you want to change the site theme? You’re left with a mess because your content doesn’t display properly in the new theme.
Of course, there is another option altogether! You can hire a designer/developer to design and build a custom theme for you. One of my wife’s (and business partner’s) complaints about WordPress themes is that they all look alike. While many do, there are also many that break out of the standard style. Going to a custom theme allows you to develop a truly unique look that is well suited to your style. It also allows you to build a theme that only contains the functionality you need without being burdened with many extras.