Introduction: Finding the Right Theme for You So You Do Have to Switch It Later
When you embark on your new blogging journey in WordPress, there is a lot to do. One of the most important decisions that you will make on your brand new blog is determining what WordPress theme to use. Since this decision has to be at the beginning of building your blog, it is extremely crucial and vital that you select the best one for your needs. Once you select your theme and start to add content and customize it, it becomes very hard to switch themes if you want to use a new theme. The more customized your blog theme is, the more likely that there will be issues if you ever decide to make a switch. My opinion is that once you select a theme that you like and will serve you for a long time, commit to it. Chances are that you will have difficulty changing themes and it will be a whole new undertaking if you decide to do so. You typically want to avoid changing themes when your website is developed. So the goal of this article is to help you choose a theme that is right for you so that you can avoid a painful theme switch later.
What Makes a Good WordPress Theme?
There are many factors that create a good WordPress theme. We try to select a theme that has all of the qualities that I will discuss shortly. Of course, just like life, no theme is perfect. You will need to sacrifice some things here and there when selecting a theme. The idea is that you select a theme that will work for you in the long-term and will be one that you can build and customize to your needs. There is no WordPress theme that is truly perfect straight out-of-the-box. You will have to customize it to really it make it your’s
So here is a list of things that you should consider before selecting a WordPress theme.
Easy To Modify and Update
Depending on your level of experience of using WordPress, you might have an easier or harder time selecting a WordPress theme. Also, your expectations of finding the “perfect” theme will also determine how easy a theme is to use. More experienced users who have created websites in WordPress already know some things about it and might be looking for some other things for their next WordPress website. Naturally, these users will have an easier time selecting a WordPress theme because of their prior experience. However, those new to WordPress or websites in general will have to spend more time looking for the right theme. These people will often need help in selecting a theme because it can be a very daunting task. If you select the wrong theme it can cause delays and issues with launching your website.
Test Demo Themes First and See How They Look and Work
The trick is to find a theme that offers a demo so that you can test drive the theme before you commit to it. I will discuss later on whether you should choose a paid or free theme. For now, I will say that free themes have the advantage of you trying them out first before you actually spend anything on them. This is better than a paid theme which can lead to buyer’s remorse if the theme does not work out
Check Themes for Good Documentation
I feel that most everything that I see always lacks even somewhat decent documentation. The problem with a lack of documentation means that you will have to spend a lot of time testing all of the features and options of the theme, which can be very time consuming. Also what takes up a lot of time is having to find where everything is. Sometimes things are located in places that you least suspect and that means even more time spent finding where things are. Good documentation can tell you directly where things are and what they do when you click on them. It can be very scary to see a link or button and wonder if it is safe to click on it if there is nothing that tells you what it does. Sometimes you can just toggle options on and off, other times when you try to do that, some permanent change has been made on your website. So be careful and check to see if proper documentation is not only provided for a theme, but is detailed and thorough.
Use Google Spreadsheets to Keep Track of Themes That You Have Looked At
Something to look out for when touring a demo of a theme is to check how the templates look. If your templates look very close to what you actually want, then this theme might be a good one for you to use. As you test demo themes, keep track of them in a spreadsheet and add columns to keep track of different things you like about each theme. Then when you are ready to select a theme to use, you can just refer back to your spreadsheet.
Fast Loading Pages: Test the Theme On Your Server
Another important factor in selecting a theme is to check out the page speed scores. You need to know if the theme is well-built and optimized for both your users and Google. Testing demo pages is not always the best idea because those are just sample pages running off another server that is different from the server that will host your website. If the theme is free and you like it, download the theme onto a fresh WordPress installation and then run page speed score tests in your own installation. This will get you a much more accurate picture of how fast the template pages are when running off your own server than someone else’s. These are the little details and tricks that require more time but will help you select a better theme.
Take a look at the assets being used on the theme when you install it on your domain. Do you see a lot of CSS and JS files? When you run a page score test, the report from the test will tell you if the theme is highly optimized or not. So you will know how much optimization you will have to do on the theme and see if the necessary updates are minor or extensive. If you need help on determining the type of assets used, ask someone to look at the pages on your server because even the most basic websites have too many CSS and JS files loading on them for no apparent reason. Some WordPress themes are needlessly bloated and are full of extra files that you really do not need. As a web developer, I can tell when a theme has too much extra stuff in it.
Good List of Plugins
A good theme should come with a good list of plugins to help support it and give you what you need so you can hit the ground running. Take a look at the list and see if you really need all of those plugins or not. Remove the extra ones and only keep what you need. If you are creating a simple blog that does not need that many plugins to begin with, take a look at this list of WordPress plugins that I have come up with. Many of those plugins are good for any website, not just for blogs. If the WordPress theme is missing any of the essentials, then be sure to include them. At the very least, make sure that you have UpDraft for backups, WordFence for security, Yoast SEO for search engine optimization, and another plugin for page optimization. I am using the SiteGround optimization plugin because I like how simple it is to use and it has enough features for my needs.
SEO: Look for Schema Markup and Rich Snippets
A good theme should have an SEO plugin already installed in it and should have all of the HTML needed for things like title and description tags, any schema markup when applicable and a site map in XML for Google Search Console. Usually, a plugin like Yoast SEO will do this for you already except the schema markup. Schema markup is something that the template pages should have and it helps get you things like rich snippets, which makes your pages stand out more in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages).
These are things that every WordPress should have. In the next section, I will talk about any specific things that you need for your own website. Each website is different and that means that you will need a theme that personally fits your needs.
What Should I Look for in a WordPress Theme?
What you need to do is ask yourself first, what kind of website you are building. The more complicated your website, the more complex the theme that you will need. If you plan to have a complicated website, then simple themes will require more customization. This means that you will need to spend more time that you may or may not have. So figure out what your timeline is when finding a theme and that will let you know if you need a theme that comes with everything or not. Remember, a fancy theme with all of the bells and whistles can mean that it comes with a lot of heavy baggage. That is why I mentioned earlier to demo the themes first and test their speed scores on your own server first.
Find a WordPress Theme That Serves Your Goal
Do You Need E-commerce? Use WooCommerce
You will need to know if you will have a complicated transaction website like selling something online. This means that you will need the popular WordPress e-commerce plugin, WooCommerce. Since this article is about choosing a WordPress theme, look at this article where I compare WooCommerce and Shopify. There are some interesting points that I make in the article that you should consider if you are doing e-commerce. In some cases, you might want to go with Shopify.
Is Your Website a Blog or Purely Informational? Use a Simple and Fast Theme
If you plan to have just a basic simple website like a blog or just informational, then you will have a much easier time in selecting a theme than having to deal with e-commerce. If you like the Gutenberg block editor, then I recommend GeneratePress. I personally like the block editor over Divi and Elementor. If you have to choose between those two page builders, then Elementor might be good for you. I really recommend that you take the time to learn the block editor if you can because it really is good for what it offers. Chances are, you do not need much for such a simple website. So Elementor might be too much even for you.
Do You Want Pre-Built Page Templates Pre-Built or Create Your Own From Scratch?
I have seen a lot of pre-built page templates and they all look the same after a while. Perhaps this is not an issue for you and you would like something that has page templates already made. The only thing about these templates is that sometimes it takes longer to change an existing template than actually just creating your own from scratch. Everything goes back to how complex your website is and how much time you have. If you do not have time, then use pre-built page templates. Otherwise, you can opt for spending from creating the page templates yourself.
If You Need a Page Builder, Try Using One That Uses Gutenberg Blocks
I already recommended the Gutenberg block editor earlier because I really like how simple it is to use. One thing though, is that you might need to know CSS media queries if you need to touch up the design a bit if you want the pages to look just right in mobile. This really depends if your theme already has pre-built pages for both mobile and desktop. If you use GeneratePress for this fast page speed scores, then you will probably need to use CSS media queries to get your mobile design looking good. This is why knowing some HTML and CSS is beneficial.
Should I Pay or Use a Free WordPress Template?
I briefly mentioned earlier situations where free templates are beneficial because you can test drive them first and see how they really work. The demos that some themes provide is just not enough because that is just an example of the theme and not fully representative of it. Now I will go into more detail about free and paid themes.
When Should I Pay for a Template?
You should pay for a template if you are planning to build a complicated website that will require a lot of time to finish. Paying for templates can definitely speed up the website construction process. The only thing is that you have to be really, really sure that you want this template no other one. The reason why is if you have buyer’s remorse with these paid templates, you might not be able to get a refund since you already downloaded the files. Even if you are not going to use the theme because you found a better one, you already have the files in your possession. You simply cannot just return the file back to where you purchased the theme from. So if you are not completely sure about purchasing a theme, then be sure to read if there is possibility of any refunds. You can take a look at this article on refund policies for WordPress themes. It is better to know before purchase then regret it later.
When Should I Use a Template for Free?
Free themes are great for simple websites and those where you can customize to your liking if you have the time. As stated earlier, you can test drive many free themes at a time before finally choosing one. This means that you will have a better understanding of each theme that you try out and know if it really is the one for you. Test driving a lot of paid themes can be expensive and there is no guarantee that you can get refunds for the paid theme that you do not use.
Paid Versus Free WordPress Themes: Which is Better?
Since we already know how much I like free stuff that is what I try to find and share with you on this blog, you know that I will advocate more for free WordPress themes. I do want to say that you should look at free themes first and see if there are any good ones that you like. Track each theme on your spreadsheet and have a column for “free vs. paid”. If you happen to not like any free themes and you do not have time to customize them, then paid might be the way to go.
Choosing the right WordPress theme is very hard because we all want to find the right theme just for us. Picking the best theme the first time means that you do not have to worry about swapping themes out later if you find a better one. If you have customized your theme then switching themes means that you will lose all of your customized theme updates. So be very mindful of this.
Good WordPress themes often are easy to update, have good page scores and SEO markup in the HTML. Other things to look out for are themes that like you test demo themes and have good documentation.
The complexity or simplicity of your website will determine how much you need from your theme. Complex websites benefit from pre-build page templates. Simpler websites can just build their own pages using the Gutenberg block editor.
The question of choosing a paid or free WordPress theme has to do with the kind of website you want. If you can free good WordPress themes, then use them. If you cannot, then go paid. Free allows you to test many themes at a time while doing the same with paid themes can be expensive.