Ahhh WordPress. Its no surprise to me that with millions of themes to choose from that people often get confused when trying to find a good one to use with their website. So I’m going to go over some things which I feel are important in choosing what works best for you.
Forget about the color scheme, header images, and the hot pink rainbow background you might see. If the theme has the layout your looking for then you may have found your theme (despite the fact its current design may resemble the most annoying thing you can think of). If the layout is what your looking for, the other things can be modified.
A good layout will include easy to use navigation. I always recommend a horizontal navigation menu that goes above your main content either above or below the header/logo area. Having your sites pages neatly displayed in a horizontal eye catching menu will make it obvious to your visitors what choices they have.
You also want to make sure there is a sidebar or two. It really doesn’t matter much if its a left sidebar, right sidebar, or both. If you choose to have two sidebars, I would put your Pages, Posts, & Categories on the left, and an email opt-in box, testimonials, and other things of that nature on the right. You can arrange it how you want with the use of Widgets, which brings me to my next point.
For the past few years, Widgets have been available for us in the admin area of WordPress (Appearance –> widgets). These are drag and drop boxes you can put on any widgetized area on your theme, mostly in sidebars and footers. A lot of Plugins use widgets, and the Text Widget is very handy for adding custom html/code to your sidebars or other areas. You really want to make sure that your theme is going to be “Widget Ready,” A lot of older themes are non widgetized, and in my book are just pretty useless. Not to worry though, if your theme is not widgetized, there is a way to add it in. Not that I would want to mess with adding it though, since if it doesn’t have widget ready sidebars, then it makes me wonder if the rest of the code is outdated.
WordPress.org Free Themes:
WordPress.org has a Theme selector that you can browse and search through free themes. I used to avoid this at all costs but the best Free themes out there are the ones that also have a premium theme. That means they will be around longer and have more development updates since they are likely making some money with the premium version.
Before choosing a theme I would suggest checking the support thread for it on WordPress.org to see how responsive the developers are, and also checking when the last update was. Chances are if there have been very few updates, and lack of responsiveness on the support threads, then it may not be a good idea to risk using that theme (and could indicate perhaps the premium version didn’t do so well).
Another idea is to join a Facebook group related to WordPress themes and ask if anyone is using it and if they would recommend it.
Paying for a theme may offer more features for you. There are a lot of themes out there like OptimizePress, StudioPress, and others, that offer you the flexability of having numerous page templates, places to add affiliate products or Adsense code. A lot of these Premium themes also offer additional short codes you can use to add media, files, certain formating options, and other things to your pages/posts. So you should get a lot more options when paying for a premium theme. Look out for themes that don’t have these options since you can probably find one similar (if not the same one) for free somewhere else. ThemeForest is also a good place to get a theme.
OptimizePress also comes with a theme called the “Smart Theme” which is one of their new products that uses the Redux framework to provide an easy to use Theme Options panel (or you can use the built in “Customizer” as well). Speaking of Theme Options, lets discuss that for a minute because who wants to code? Nobody really (even me – and even though I know code, it is a turn off to have to code a bunch of little hacks in the theme).
A lot of themes these days offer users a “Theme Options” page in the admin dashboard which will let you select a new header without needing to modify the css code (a big help for those who are not good at code). The theme options page can also have a LOT of other options. I have seen some themes where you can change ALL of the CSS options right from the admin panel, and do just about everything short of making you dinner.
Just make sure you get this theme from someone who is going to offer support, and also releases updated themes about the same time when there is a new updated version of WordPress. The more advanced the theme is, the more of a chance it has of having issues with new WordPress updates. These are usually resolved quickly though.
Generally when new updates come out for WordPress (or plugins/themes) I’ll wait a few days unless there is an urgent security update, at which point if anything breaks then I just have to deal with it and find temporary solutions until plugin and theme authors release their own patches.
Page Builder Compatibility:
I wrote this article many years ago but am adding this section (June 2018) because I feel that most advanced WordPress users are using Page Builders these days like Thrive Architect, Elementor, Beaver Builder, and others. If you are using ANY page builder, you may want to check with the developers or support team for your builder of choice to see if they are aware of any conflicts.
WordPress is a great platform but sometimes just due to the nature of how things work with code, there may be some conflicts. Sometimes it is just not predictable and you may have conflicts here and there. Most are CSS related. If there are major issues in the scripts, then you’ll usually see some PHP notices or warnings somewhere along the way when you are editing within the page builder you use. In those cases, it would be essential to contact the respective support teams for the products that are conflicting to help bring you to a reasonable solution or workaround.
Responsive is developer speak for “It works on everything pretty good.” There are many different web browsers (IE, Chrome, Firefox just to name a few). Each one of these different browsers reads code in ever so slightly different ways, but it could make a huge difference in how your site looks. Unless the developer tells you up front, its hard to tell if a theme is going to work good on all browsers (if you pay for one it darn well better!). The focus has been on Smart Phones and Tablets lately (iphone, ipad, android, windows mobile, and others). If you want a great website then you must be mindful of how it looks on various devices.
I certainly hope this helps eliminate some confusion if your shopping around for a good theme. I will keep this post updated if I think of anything else to add.
Questions? Comments? Feedback?