Last week we discussed things to do after you finish installing WordPress, and one of the items on the list was installing a theme. So to follow up, this week I’m going to explain how to choose the right theme for your site.
This is a popular topic at WordCamps everywhere, and speakers take a variety of different approaches to discussing it, however I feel like the majority of them miss the most important part — a part you’ll know by the end of this article.
In the world of WordPress, there are two different types of themes: Free and premium. While our focus is on free themes, it’s still useful to understand the most basic difference between the two.
Free vs. Premium
The obvious difference between the two is the price: Free themes are exactly that — they’re free. Premium themes have a price tag attached to them, but they also offer advanced functionality that you don’t normally get with free themes, like sliders, multiple layouts, etc.
We will go into more detail on premium themes next week.
Where to Find Free Themes
There’s only one place to find free WordPress themes: the repository of free themes, found at wordpress.org/themes.
Once you visit the themes repository, the search is over. You will never need to go anywhere else for your free themes. And by never, I mean as long as the Internet is a thing. Why’s that, you ask? Because of the Theme Review Team (with a name like that, they deserve capes and cool secret names) that’s responsible for checking the code of free themes. Not only do they check the code, but they also make sure that the standards are upheld as far as quality is concerned, before the theme is released to the general public.
The only catch here is that they only review themes that are submitted for release to the repository. For that, however, they deserve a ton of respect because — like so many others in the WordPress community — they do it for free. That’s right, they’re volunteers. So if you meet one some time, thank them, and then maybe buy them a drink, because they’ve earned it.
How to Choose the Right Theme
You will read various articles that tell you that when it comes to picking out a free theme, matching your logo color is key for consistency, or that the theme offers this widget or that widget, and while I understand their logic, they are all missing the main point: Your site is about your content and your theme should fit your content. End of story.
Nothing else matters when you start looking for themes. If the content doesn’t work well within the theme itself, it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It simply isn’t going to look or feel right to you or your readers (and remember you’re doing this for your readers).
I’ll do a piece on content strategy in the near future, but for now let’s take a high-level example. If I want to start a neighborhood newspaper site, I’m going to want to have lots of images, maybe areas for different sections on the home page – things that help make it look more like an actual printed newspaper. The last thing I want to do is use a theme geared towards showcasing an artist’s portfolio (square peg into a round hole).
Technically, I could use a child theme and make all the changes I wanted to the portfolio theme to make it look the way I want my neighborhood theme to look, but that’s going to take a lot of time and will probably require hiring a developer — depending on how extensive the changes are, of course.
Here’s my rule of thumb for free themes: if the client wants to make more than 3 substantial changes to the themes — like changing the page layout, and adding bells and whistles like sliders — then I tell them they’ve probably picked the wrong theme. Anything more is going to cost them more time and money than it would to just buy a premium theme and make the tweaks there.
Keep in mind that as of today there are 2,770 themes in the repository, and both the quality and the aesthetic value of those themes have increased dramatically over the last few years. That’s not to say that every theme in there is a winner, but there are certainly more good than bad.
What to Look for in a Free Theme
Remember when your mother (or maybe your father) said that you get what you pay for? Well, to some extent, that lesson needs to be applied to your theme selection.
One of the coolest thing about WordPress is that because it is open source, meaning that anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort can create and release a theme. Sometimes a person will create a theme, go through the review process, launch it, only to subsequently abandon it. This has the potential to cause you problems if not right away, then almost certainly down the road as new versions of WordPress are released. So how can you tell if your theme is good? Well, here are a couple of things to look for.
Every theme has a page that accompanies it and gives you some basic information about that theme, and one of the most overlooked pieces of information is the last updated date. This is important because if the last update was more than 6 months ago (that’s just my rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule), I wouldn’t consider it.
WordPress has a very aggressive development schedule, meaning there are lots of releases in a relatively short period of time. This is great for you as it gives you things like improved security, new functionality, technical improvements, and more, but it can make a free theme obsolete pretty quickly. Remember the first rule of having a website is making sure that it’s running smoothly, and that it’s available for viewing. Having a theme that produces “the white screen of death” will be detrimental to your site’s performance.
You can find the last date it was updated right below the big green preview button on the theme page as seen below:
Number of Downloads
The other piece of information, which I always look at is the number of downloads the theme has. Again, there is no magic number here, but I tend to avoid themes that have downloads in the single digits. These themes tend to be new to be field, and there could be unknown issues.
There are lots of other things you could look for in free theme, but if you start with those two you’ll be in pretty good shape going forward
Installing Your Theme
When you install WordPress, you’ll find that you get three default themes — Twenty Twelve, Twenty Thirteen, and Twenty Fourteen. Twenty Fifteen is on the horizon and should be available soon.
If you don’t like any of the default themes, then you have a couple of options for searching and installing a free theme.
Inside the Dashboard
Perhaps the easiest way to install a free theme is from right inside your WordPress Dashboard. If you go to Appearance>Themes, you’ll find a list of all the themes you currently have installed in your site, as well as which theme is currently active, because you can only have one theme active at a time for your site. But if you look right beside the title ‘Themes’ you’ll find a button labelled ‘Add New.’ Clicking on that will immediately show you the featured themes from WordPress at that current time. You will also see links for ‘Popular,’ ‘Latest’ and, more importantly, a link for something called ‘Feature Filter.’
This could be a great tool for you if you have some ideas going in regarding what you were looking for, because it works like a search engine for free themes from the repository. Clicking on the ‘Feature Filter’ link lets you choose specific features such as color, layout and even a few specific subject selections.
Once you apply the filters you want, you’ll see which themes matched your search criteria and from there you can choose the one you want. Installing the theme then simply becomes a matter of clicking the blue install button and it will automatically be added to your site. You will still need to make it your active theme if you do, in fact, want it to be active.
Upload the Theme
If you find a theme you like while on the official repository site, wordpress.org/themes, it’s a little different to install it but not tough at all. Simply download the theme you like to your hard drive and make sure it stays as a .zip file. Some computers, especially Windows machines, are set up to automatically unzip downloaded folders in that format.
Once you have the theme downloaded as a zip file, log into your site like you normally would and head to Appearance>Themes. Then click on the ‘Add New’ button again, but this time pay attention to the link that says ‘Upload Theme.’ Clicking on that will bring you to an interface where you can browse to the location of your zipped up theme, upload it, and then install it. Very smooth and easy, just remember you still have to activate the theme to make it live.
So this should give you a good handle on the world of free themes! Next up we’ll delve into the, slightly more complicated, world of premium themes.
When not at his day job in the hosting industry, Al teaches WordPress at a Toronto, Ontario college and also does corporate WordPress training. As a freelance web developer, he is always busy building sites on the WordPress platform. All this leaves him very little time to ride his Harley and watch NFL football.