The Ultimate Checklist for Choosing the Right WordPress Theme

WordPress is universally loved as a CMS, which is why it’s trusted by a whopping 59.5% of all websites. But, there are so many ways to go about adopting WordPress as your own CMS since it has numerous options available, all with its own pros and cons. If you’ve never used WordPress before, it can get overwhelming to zero in on the perfect theme for your needs.

WordPress is filled with two types of pre-built themes- Free and Premium. Choosing a free or inexpensive theme isn’t always a bad idea, provided that it stands the test of time for years to come. But to find the best theme, it’s important to know exactly what you want from a site, before you shell out money. Imagine paying for a pre-built theme and filling it up with fancy widgets and plug-ins, only to later find out that the theme cannot support the feature you really need on your website; what a loss that would be of both money and time!

A good WordPress theme is like a pillar for your digital presence to get built upon. If it wavers even a bit, it will affect the performance and ROI of your website. This is why doing your due diligence before signing a deal on a theme matters so much.

The Pitfalls of Using Pre-Built WordPress Themes

WordPress is filled with thousands of attractive themes. Some are free, while others require you to pay. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, mainly in the realm of site speed, SEO performance, and features.

Free themes

  • Code review:  Most of the free themes don’t have a strict code review process. They’re mainly built to look nice, but the code that’s used is usually messy which affects its loading speed, and also makes it vulnerable to a lot of technical issues and security breaches down the line.

  • Updates: WordPress CMS often undergoes updates. If your theme doesn’t get supported, it’ll be incompatible with their latest updated version.

  • Design: Free themes aren’t unique and some of them have millions of downloads. They are also limited in functionality that many smaller and bigger brands may need. If you’re looking for a remarkable design that sets your website apart from your competition, a free theme probably isn’t the best choice for you.

  • SEO: Free themes are not SEO friendly. One of the reasons is poor, unpredictable coding. Another is that free theme users often have to resort to using a bunch of different plug-ins to get additional features that the theme might be lacking, this slows down the site speed even more, which negatively impacts SEO.

  • Security: Lack of security and encrypted links. Remember, if a product is free, then you are the product. One of the reasons why developers make free themes is to advertise something or to increase their own brand exposure. They do this by placing links all over the free theme, aimed to direct traffic to their website.

Paid Themes

  • Code review: Just like free themes, these also don’t undergo a strict code review process. Buying a $100 premium theme doesn’t always mean you’ll get a theme with clean (or maintained) code. They are also built to aesthetically please the user so that they purchase the theme when they see it without lifting the cover to examine its insides.

  • Page builder: These are built to be highly customizable depending on the needs of the user. The downfall of this is that many WordPress users aren’t technically adept and do more harm than good when they go about customizing their websites. This can wreak havoc on a site’s SEO by making it load slower, opening the website up to a ton of future technical glitches. Page builders are often targeted toward inexperienced users. The idea of it is cool, but because of poor execution, the customized theme will always result in poor performance.

  • Terrible load time: These themes are built to offer many features, and many features mean that much more baggage on a website. Remember that your website visitors won’t appreciate waiting for minutes for a site to fully load – and high page load times absolutely kill SEO.

  • Updates: WordPress CMS undergoes regular updates, and just like free themes, some premium themes may not be supported if it doesn’t get updated.

  • Design: Your site is not unique. Some popular premium themes get millions of downloads, and your users will eventually see similarities between sites built on same themes.

  • Plug-ins: Too many plug-ins on a premium theme will slow down the page, and just like with themes, plug-ins need to be updated as well, for it to always work with the latest version of WordPress CMS. If a premium theme and its plug-ins don’t get updated, they will not load.

Custom themes

  • Budget: Quality has a cost. Building a theme from scratch means that you and your designer have the freedom to start from a blank canvas. You get to create a visual architecture keeping user experience in mind, and then you code and transform that vision into reality.

But designing a website from scratch does require you to have the technical and design knowledge it takes to populate a site with all the necessary features. If you do decide to hire a developer, know that this can be an expensive endeavor.

Even if what you need is a basic website, it most certainly will cost more than a $99 premium WordPress theme. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The Benefits of Using Pre-Built WordPress Themes

WordPress themes do have its advantages, which is why the site has over 75 million users. It’s a community filled with amazing themes that may need a little customization or polishing up here and there, but overall, the collection of WordPress themes available in their marketplace are so versatile that any user, from beginner to an advanced marketer, will find a theme that meets their needs.

Free Themes

  • Budget: It’s free. If you are a beginner blogger or marketer, looking to test out waters before investing dollars, then free themes will be perfect for you. Free themes are often simple, limited in features because they’re made for beginners. Also, note that many themes offer a free version to test out, and if you like what you see, then you can unlock additional features by paying a premium.

  • If Performance or SEO isn’t your priority – Sometimes you just want a basic website for a small organization, to show your portfolio, or a personal space to blog your thoughts that only you’d read, in cases like this, ranking your website for keywords or making sure everything loads fast doesn’t always matter.

Paid themes

  • Support and offer customization: Unlike free themes, with paid themes you get to enjoy more features and customization options. Plus, because the marketplace of themes is getting more competitive by the day, developers are offering more and more features for an inexpensive price to attract attention to their theme. Customization is usually easy with these themes because they come with a drag and drop builders, short codes, and other templates to quickly tailor the layout to your needs.

  • Budget: The majority of the premium themes will not cost you more than $99. While not free, this is definitely cheaper than what a developer would charge you for a custom-built website. If you’re working with a limited budget, looking for a beginner website to build a brand or give a face to your company, then going with a paid theme is a good idea.

  • Unique: Because these aren’t free, paid themes are more unique than free themes, but now that WordPress has become insanely popular, even their paid themes have a large market of buyers. But, the ability to personalize does give you some capability to make a theme your own.

  • Relatively easy Content Updates for non-programmers: Doing Content Updates on premium themes are very easy and only require a few clicks which means you don’t have to be a programmer or developer to do them.

The only caveat here is that many paid themes have too many unnecessary features that affect the site speed, and even after customizing the site with the available options, it may still not be up to your standards.

Custom themes

  • SEO friendly: Custom built themes are extremely SEO friendly because they are built only with elements that you will actually be using. The files aren’t filled with unnecessary lines of codes because that will just add to your website’s loading time, and because essentially you (or your designer) own the code, you get to fully control it.

  • Professional advice on your needs: When working with a private website developer you hired for your website, you get to leverage their expertise in the design process. Have a question about what the best layout for a site in your industry is? Just ask them. Professional web designers and developers work with new clients all the time, so they have the first-hand knowledge of what works and what don’t.

  • Unique Design: With a custom-built site, you get to have a design that is made just for you. No one else can buy this design in the future. So, if you are a brand looking to stand out among the sea of competitors, a custom-built site with a unique design is the way to do it.

  • Custom user experience: When a user lands on your website and browse through its network of pages, they are essentially on a journey. As a website owner, you need to ensure that their journey is as seamless as possible. They should always be able to find what they are looking for without putting a lot of effort. When building a website from scratch, you get to design an effortless user experience, from a fully optimized navigation bar to the layout of the different elements on your site.

  • Security: Custom build sites mean that there are no external links advertising on your site. Plus, because you know every line of code that went into creating the site, along with the plug-ins and widgets that were designed or installed, you know that there are no holes that can be used by hackers to gain access to your site. This is especially important if your site is a forum or a retail store that requires users to create accounts and share sensitive information, like their payment details, with you.

  • Constant Support and Easy maintenance: The Content Updates are easy to do, and they will always be compatible with any CMS you use. Plus, if you have any questions, you can always rely on your developer. Many web designers also offer ongoing monthly maintenance for a small fee, or even for free. If you opt for this, you don’t have to worry about keeping the back-end process up to date.

How to test and compare a theme

Regardless of what theme you choose to go with, there are a few things you should test to check a themes efficacy before purchasing or installing it. Below, I have tested 3 themes, one from each category- free, premium and custom. You can see the tools I used to check how good they are and how they fared against each other. You can also use this information to test your own theme before deciding on one:

1. Check the live demo of the theme and pass it through Page Speed Insight

This neat little tool by Google analyzes web page content and looks for page load speed issues. It also gives you tips to make your page even faster.

How to:
Go to Google page speed insight and paste the urls of the page you want to check.

What to check:
The global page speed based on the velocity and size of the resources. It also takes into consideration the mobile view.

2. Check the live demo of the theme and pass it through: Gt Metrix

This tool also looks at your site speed and gives you actionable tips to make it faster. Remember, if your site doesn’t load in under 2 seconds, your users will leave your website. So page load speed is a huge deal that you must perfect.

How to:
Just follow this link and paste the url you wan to check.

What to check:
GtMetrix also analyzes the server performance via the Yslow rate. But don’t worry about that score. Instead, focus on the page speed score, the number of requests, and the size of the page. Too many unnecessary resources will give you a bad score.

3. Check the live demo of the theme and pass it through: w3c validation

This tool helped website owners to check their HTML and XHTML docs for flaws or errors in their codes. This is important to assess the technical quality of a page, and to ensure that there are no errors affecting the readability or traffic to your site.

How to:
Just follow this link and paste the url you wan to check.

What to Check:
Having a valid page is important for SEO because the bad use of markup can affect your score.

4. Check the live demo of the theme and pass it through: SEO Inspect.

This tool looks through the Metadata found inside web pages. If the data isn’t within a certain range, for example, if the description is too long or short, you will get alerts.

How to:
You have many simple SEO inspectors for Chrome, here is the one I use

What to check:
The Meta tags, and the proper use of HTML tags. A bad theme will use heading to style and miss the most important purpose: bringing hierarchy to the page. A page with a bad structure = bad natural ranking.

5. Check the Source and the console

How to:
Right-click and inspect on chrome, then click on the console tab.

What to check:
Any errors related to resources and code.

6. Check the editor: Avoid page builder

Some premium themes offer a demo of their backend. Open a post and see how the page is built. Why? Because it’s important to see the quality of the code. Also, if you can avoid using a page builder, please do so because if you have no prior knowledge of coding or are a novice programmer, chances are you will do more harm than good. The freedom page builders provide to customize a theme comes at a cost. It can significantly impact SEO performance, and maintaining the site also becomes difficult

7. List your needs and stay on the track

The points mentioned above are based on real data, but choosing a design can be subjective. Avoid fancy designs and think about your needs and your customer needs first. Second, think of your goal: if your goal is to monetize your website, don’t just choose a good-looking website, instead opt for a theme that loads fast and has clean codes. Do you really need a carousel for every section of your site? Keep in mind that some plug-ins are really poorly coded. Before you begin the search of finding a theme, make a list of what exactly you need from your site. Once you have that list, then go in and try to find a theme that will help you meet all of those goals on your list.

8. Get help and advice

A website is like a car, you need help to choose the right one.  The role of a designer is not just to focus on aesthetics; a designer will help you in building a site while keeping both performance, SEO, user experience and your goals in mind. If you don’t have the budget to pay for a complete tailored solution, you can still hire a professional who will help you find a free theme and customize it for you.

Page speed Insight
Mobile : 50/100
Desktop: 39/100
Mobile: 75/100
Desktop: 5/100
Mobile: 79/100
Desktop: 71/100
GtMetrix
Page time Load: 2.9s
Page size: 310Mb
Requests: 78
Page time load: 5.3s
Page size: 11.9Mb
Requests: 111
Page time load: 2.3s
Page size: 0.7Mb
Requests: 48
W3c Validation
49 Warnings
49 Warnings
23 Warnings
SEO
Too many h1 Tags
H2 missing
Alt attributes missing
Too many h1 tags
2 alt attributes missing
Source Code
2 Js errors
No error
No error

As an example, I’ve used one of the most popular free themes for 2018. At a quick glance, it may look sharp, which is also the name for the Premium Theme I chose, which was also present in the list of top 10 for Themeforest this year. And for the custom theme, I’ve taken the last theme I built for Simplyphp.

After putting them through the tools I mentioned above, I found that the Premium Theme suffered the most out of all three because it was inundated with scripts and all the different customization options. The free theme was better in terms of speed but it also suffered in terms of poor coding and structure.

As expected, custom built theme came out as the winner with flying colors. It isn’t surprising though because when you build something from scratch, you get to ensure that every little piece you place is the right and the best one.

Conclusion

Investing in a theme and then realizing that you can’t meet your goals with it can prove to be an expensive mistake, both in terms of time and money. Pre-built themes often come with restrictions and because of this many developers will ask for your permission to rebuild it from scratch anyway. It’s usually quicker and more valuable to rebuilt from scratch than to work on something that was not designed to fit your goals.

A custom build theme lays the groundwork for a successful website because it’s filled with optimized elements that can work together to not just improve your search engine rankings, but also help you surpass your targeted ROI. Pre-built themes are prone to breaking down with time but the ones built from scratch can be personalized and reshaped as your needs and business changes.

You don’t have to pay constantly to fixing bugs and glitches. At the end of the day, a custom theme is stronger and nimble, and an investment you make in your business.

Chloé Senior UX-UI
Oct 2018