Today, there are over 4,500 free themes to choose from in the WordPress theme directory, and that number is growing. On top of this, there are thousands of premium WordPress themes 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 5.9, options are even more plentiful today.
With this said, it’s important 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 a variety of forms that focus on specific aspects, which makes picking one very difficult.
Each theme can be customized to a certain extent, some more than others. The most common elements that you can configure are colors, font, and font size. If you want to make changes to the layout of the theme, that requires coding a lot of the time, which is completely doable.
On top of this, each theme comes with its own 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 really depends on the theme and its developer.
While it may sound like themes are purely cosmetic, they are not.
As the competition has become more fierce over the years, many themes are being combined with plugins. This is common practice with many premium themes, as they are most often bundled with page builder plugins and other premium tools.
Themes are also coded differently, and sometimes that makes one better than another. This is because redundant coding can lead to slower pages, which directly impact search rankings. A badly coded theme will impact site performance.
Let’s take a look at the factors you need to consider when choosing between WordPress themes.
How to Choose The Best WordPress Themes
Step 0: Identify Your Needs
The right 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 you can begin thinking about themes, you need to understand your own needs. For example, are you going to have multiple pages on your website or have a single-page layout?
It’s a simple question but can make a huge difference in the selection process. Themes built exclusively for a single page are going to be lightweight in comparison, thus boosting performance.
Yet, it’s harder to scale with 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 are two very different kinds of websites that need themes made specifically for them.
Does this mean general-purpose themes are bad?
Not at all, but in most cases, themes built for a specific purpose tend to perform better in those specific circumstances. It’s kind of like using regular tires in the winter instead of winter tires. Yes, they work, but the other option is better.
Step 1: Read the Reviews
User reviews are incredibly helpful regardless of whether you are looking for 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 pretty useful indicator and can give you an idea of what real users liked about the theme and what they didn’t.
The same is also true for premium themes, and 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 really 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 own list.
These types of lists can be a great starting point to narrow your search down from thousands of themes to just a few.
Step 2: Make Sure It Is Responsive
There was a time when responsiveness was optional, but that is not the case in 2022. 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.
In fact, 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 actually 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, but if not, it’s not a game-ender. In fairness, there are many cases where this could just be a bad demo site, but it’s a good policy to always check anyway.
Step 3: Look Into Support Options
In most cases nowadays, people are building websites with zero experience, and that’s great. However, this is really thanks to a large number of tutorials in the WordPress community, but sometimes themes can get way too specific.
This can cause a lot of learning pain for beginners, which is why 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 there are faster options available, however, they usually are not free.
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 great, but that’s really 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 4: Make Sure It Is SEO Friendly
Without a doubt, one of the most important factors, when you choose 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 quite take the term at face value, instead, you should be on the lookout for a few key features.
One thing that is important 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 just kinda pops in? That’s bad content ordering.
The main content should always load first. And this really stems from a badly 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 kind of a 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 be on the lookout for are a variety of navigational options, rich snippet support, full control over meta tags, and more.
That said, plugins can be used to supplement any theme feature, but it will never be as good as an optimized layout.
Step 5: Make Sure It Is Updated Regularly
One of the most common reasons many developers end up changing their theme is because 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 a lot of headaches. The good news is that 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, a lot of theme developers, both free and premium, do not actually 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 best WordPress themes. After that, you need to customize them to make them your own.
So What’s Better Free or Premium Themes?
When you are 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 not really true. 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 certainly come with more tools and support than their free counterparts, and that 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 nice, they may not be worth it when starting out.
So to answer the actual question, one is not better than the other. One just 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. In fact, 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 kind of slow down or impact on performance. However, once you start using a lot of custom elements and text, it can start to have an impact, but this is rare.
Usually when the performance is impacted, it’s because 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.
Choosing the Right WordPress Theme Isn’t Easy
Unfortunately, a lot of quick guides will kind of gloss over how to actually pick a theme. This can lead to a lot of headaches down the road and make developer life difficult. However, by 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 once you get it set up, there’s not much else to it.
The only time you’ll make a significant change is if you decide to change the layout of the website or if Google changes the rules of SEO, which it does often.
Are there any other steps you would take when looking at WordPress themes? What’s your favorite theme and why?