Today, there are over 5,455 free themes to choose from in the WordPress theme directory, which is growing. On top of this, thousands of premium WordPress themes are available elsewhere. Choosing the best one is not easy.
Over the years, WordPress themes have become far more customizable and include similar features. With the inclusion of the editing system with WordPress 6.1.1, options are even more plentiful today.
With this said, it’s essential to realize that themes are not one size fits all. Instead, you need to consider what you need the theme to do; thus, there’s no such thing as the best theme ever. It’s all perspective.
Despite this, I will show you how to pick the best theme for your website.
What are WordPress Themes?
A WordPress theme is a collection of stylesheets and templates that create a unique appearance for your website. They come in various forms that focus on specific aspects, making picking one difficult.
Each theme can be customized to a certain extent, some more than others. The most common elements you can configure are colors, font, and font size. If you want to make changes to the theme’s layout, that requires coding a lot of the time, which is entirely doable.
On top of this, each theme comes with its widget section(s). This is unique for each theme. Some may have just a sidebar widget area, while others may have multiple headers, footer, and sidebar areas. It depends on the theme and its developer.
While it may sound like themes are purely cosmetic, they are not.
Themes are also coded differently, and sometimes that makes one better than another. This is because redundant coding can lead to slower pages, directly impacting search rankings. A poorly coded theme will impact site performance.
Let’s consider the factors you must consider when choosing WordPress themes.
How to Choose The Best WordPress Themes
Step 1: Identify Your Needs
The suitable theme for someone else could be the wrong theme for your website. There is no universal “best theme” out there that works for every situation.
Thus, before thinking about themes, you must understand your needs. For example, will you have multiple pages on your website or a single-page layout?
It’s a simple question but can make a massive difference in selection. Themes built exclusively for a single page will be more lightweight, thus boosting performance.
Yet, it’s harder to scale your website as it expands.
It’s simple but critical to the decision-making process. Similarly, if you are building an Ecommerce website, choosing a theme made for blogging is a mistake. These two very different kinds of websites need themes explicitly made for them.
Does this mean general-purpose themes are evil?
Not at all, but in most cases, themes built for a specific purpose tend to perform better in those specific circumstances. It’s like using regular tires in the winter instead of winter tires. Yes, they work, but the other option is better.
Step 2: Read the Reviews
User reviews are beneficial regardless of whether you want a new place to eat or a new theme.
The WordPress theme directory allows users to leave a one to five-star rating, and they can include their reasonings. This is a helpful indicator and can give you an idea of what actual users liked about the theme and what they didn’t.
The same is true for premium themes; since people are paying for them, they are more likely to leave a review. That said, sometimes popular themes have thousands of users but only a handful of reviews.
This is probably because the theme is not asking users to leave a review. It makes a difference.
Of course, nowadays, reviews don’t just come from users. There are a variety of lists and reviews of various WordPress themes. For example, if you’re looking for the best themes for small businesses, check out our list.
These lists can be a great starting point to narrow your search down from thousands of themes to just a few.
Step 3: Make Sure It Is Responsive
There was a time when responsiveness was optional, but that is not the case in 2023. In most cases, mobile traffic will make up over 50% of your traffic, but the good news is that most modern themes are built to be responsive.
It’s listed on just about every theme in the features. So, why am I mentioning this, then?
Because, at this stage, there are different levels of responsiveness. The real question is, how can you tell if a theme is responsive in its design? The simplest way is to test the demo site on your smartphone.
Any theme worth its salt has a premade demo site that shows off what it can do. If it doesn’t, this is usually a big red flag. Test this on your smartphone and any other mobile device you can get your hands on.
If things look good, that’s a good sign; if not, it’s not a game-ender. In fairness, there are many cases where this could be a lousy demo site, but it’s a good policy always to check anyway.
Step 4: Look Into Support Options
In most cases nowadays, people are building websites with zero experience, and that’s great. However, this is thanks to many tutorials in the WordPress community, but sometimes themes can get way too specific.
This can cause a lot of learning pain for beginners, so having support options directly from the developers is useful.
Sometimes you can freely email a theme developer a question and get a reply back in days. However, some people can’t wait that long. The good news is that faster options are available; however, they are usually not accessible.
Instead, most themes offer a Pro version that will include support, but sometimes it is tied into a higher-tiered plan, so be sure to read everything. The good news is you are usually getting a lot more than support. You are getting extra features in the process.
Now official support is excellent, but that’s not the only option anymore.
Some popular themes with thousands of users often have a lot of helpful resources online that those users create. Some web hosting companies may also have guides for popular WordPress themes. So, be on the lookout for these resources.
Step 5: Make Sure It Is SEO Friendly
Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors when choosing a WordPress theme is if it is SEO Friendly.
However, similarly to how themes use the term responsive, SEO friendly is another term that just about every theme throws around. Thus, you can’t entirely take the term at face value. Instead, it would be best if you were on the lookout for a few key features.
One important thing is to ensure the theme does content ordering correctly. Essentially, this is where the elements load in the correct order, and if not, it can look funky.
And I’m willing to bet you’ve seen this without knowing what it is.
Ever load a page, and you see some of the sidebar or header areas load first, and then the rest of the page kind of pops in? That’s terrible content ordering.
The main content should always load first. And this stems from a poorly coded theme, which can be hard or impossible to identify if you don’t know anything about coding. An unoptimized theme will always perform worse.
Not to mention how this problem can trigger things like Longest Contentful Paint and Cumulative Layout Shift errors in Google Search Console.
One way to check is to use a third-party tool like the W3C Markup Validation Service. If you can’t read code, this is the best alternative.
The other main features to look for are various navigational options, rich snippet support, complete control over meta tags, and more.
That said, plugins can supplement any theme feature, but they will never be as good as an optimized layout.
Step 6: Make Sure It Is Updated Regularly
One of the most common reasons many developers change their theme is that it is no longer supported.
Everything may be up to date when you started, but you might have just gotten the last update. A theme that is not regularly updated is a security liability, which can cause you many headaches. The good news is you can see how often a theme is updated.
Generally speaking, there will usually be an update every one to three months. Anything longer than that is a red flag.
Unfortunately, many theme developers, both free and premium, do not say when they are ending support. At this point, your only option is to find another theme. Thus, you should make sure the developers have a good track record.
By following these general tips, you should be able to identify the most suitable WordPress themes. After that, you need to customize them to make them your own.
Related: Managing websites with WordPress
So What’re Better Free or Premium Themes?
When selecting a WordPress theme, this is a big question that just about everyone has.
There is a stigma that premium themes are “better” than free ones, but that’s false. Both free and premium themes are just code. Some themes are coded better than others, and that can happen whether free or premium.
That said, premium themes unquestionably come with more tools and support than their free counterparts, which could be the deciding factor for many. In truth, that’s really what you are paying for when you buy a premium theme.
It’s also worth talking about the actual price tag. Let’s face it; if you are starting a new blog, saving an extra 50 or 100 dollars is a big deal. Even if the extra features are excellent, they may not be worth it when starting.
So to answer the actual question, one is not better than the other. One has more features to offer.
How Do Page Builders Fit Into This?
Page builders allow you to create unique content that the standard tools within WordPress do not allow.
The good news is that most themes will work fine with page builders. Most will list the page builders they support as a selling point, so it’s not hard to find this information. However, there is something that themes and page builders leave out.
How they impact your theme’s performance.
In most cases, you won’t notice any slowdown or impact on performance. However, once you start using many custom elements and text, it can have an impact, but this is rare.
Usually, when the performance is impacted, the theme is not coded well. Ultimately, using page builders should have little to no impact, but if they do, you probably need a new theme.
Selecting the Right WordPress Theme Isn’t Easy
Unfortunately, a lot of quick guides will kind of gloss over how to pick a theme. This can lead to many headaches and make developer life difficult. However, following the guide above, you should find a great theme.
After that, it’s all about customizing the theme to create a unique experience that will wow your audience. And this isn’t a short process. Expect to spend hours getting everything just right.
The good news is that there’s not much else once you set it up.
The only time you’ll make a significant change is if you decide to change the website’s layout or if Google changes the rules of SEO, which it often does.
Are there any other steps you would take when looking at WordPress themes? What’s your favorite theme and why?
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