10 Tips for Picking a WordPress Theme

In Technology by on May 4th, 2010

Picking a WordPress theme for your site or blog can be a pain or a joy. If you’re about to launch a new site, it can be exciting, until you realize just how many free themes are out there, many of which are variations of the others, or so it seems, until you try one for a while and notice its flaws. Or you might be rebooting an existing and want a theme with better performance and that serves your purpose more satisfactorily.

Of course, you could just randomly pick a WordPress theme and hope for the best, but if you’re serious about having it serve your purpose, it helps to do a little bit of preparation first, and to have some criteria with which to filter the themes that interest you. The more thoroughly you prepare, the more likely you are to pick a theme that you can grow with for a while, and the more palatable it’ll be to spend money or time on necessary customizations.

With that in mind, here are ten tips to help you select a WordPress theme for your site, whether it’s a new site or one you’ve had live for a while. (If it’s not already WordPress, you’ll of course need to convert, which is outside the scope of this article.) The actual picking of themes is left to you, but many of the tips below provide lists of questions to ask yourself or criteria to apply in your selection process. Make a spreadsheet or just sketch out a table on a piece and go to it.

1. Purpose.
Decide on a purpose for your site. Your purpose will likely affect the types of plugins and widgets you’ll want to add to the theme.

  1. Will your site consist of just a blog, just a website, or both? If both, do you want themes to match for both sections?
  2. Who are you? Blogger, small business owner, entrepreneur, journalist, photographer, consultant, film/ video reviewer, something else? You’ll have different needs from your site than someone else.
  3. Are you providing information, and for what purpose?
  4. Commerce: are you selling products?
  5. Do you need landing pages to pull in leads to sell services?
  6. Do you want to generate advertising revenue?
  7. Are you trying to build subscribers for a newsletter or premium content list?
  8. Crowdsourcing: Do you intend to gain visitor feedback on a regular basis, as an intrinsic part of your site?

2. Budget.

Know how much you want to spend on any sort of customizations or extra graphics. This includes design and code tweaks. How much should you allocate to a new theme? There’s really no hard and fast rule, since WordPress theme use is so diverse. If you need customizations and cannot do it yourself, you’ll have to hire someone and compare rates. If have no budget or it’s very small, you’ll have to do the customization work yourself, or consider bartering for it by offering your services instead of cash. Consider the following questions:

  1. Do you mind using a free theme? It won’t necessarily be unique but you could customize it yourself or hire someone later.
  2. Consider one of the great free WordPress theme frameworks available. Some working straight out of the box or have an option panel for easy tweaks.
  3. If you have some minimal budget consider a paid theme or even a paid WordPress theme framework.
  4. If your selected theme or framework does not have simple option tweaking, you might be able to learn the necessary HTML and CSS coding to make the changes yourself, using the free Firebug extension running in the Firefox Web browser.

3. Branding.
If you need them, plan branding graphics before selecting a theme. If they cannot be ready before you select a theme, at least know their dimensions so that when you get to the testing phase, you can put in place holders.

  1. Logo. Even if you use a “word” logo with no illustration, know the color, size and font to be used.
  2. Favicon. This is the little 16×16 icon that shows in your Web browser tab (on some browsers) when you are viewing pages on a site. It might be tiny but it’s still branding.
  3. Buttons. E.g., custom RSS buttons.
  4. Ads. In-house ads, IAB standard ad sizes.
  5. Colors. List of text and line/ border colors.
  6. Fonts. Choice of main fonts and secondary fonts (for computers that don’t support main fonts.

4. Monetization.
Your site’s purpose decides whether or not you’ll be monetizing, but will it be directly (e.g., through ads, products, services sold) or indirectly (by generating interest in your skills that results in revenue opportunities elsewhere.

  1. If you are selling something, do you need a specialty theme? iPhone apps, game publishing, film, video, posters, photography, real estate, etc.
  2. Are you selling through a third-party, or do you need integration of an online payments provider, such as PayPal?
  3. Could your monetization needs be satisfied by a suitable WordPress plugin?

5. Design elements.
Know what sort of theme design customizations you want done, if a selected theme might need tweaking. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing a bit of CSS, but not always.

  1. Do you want to be able to make changes quickly, without having to hire a designer?
  2. Decide if the theme will be customized in-house or outsourced to a designer.
  3. Determine what sort of look you want for your theme. This will be partly determined by your site’s purpose.
    1. Do you want a fluid or static theme?
    2. Multiple columns?
    3. Do you want full-text posts on the home page, excerpts or even a more magazine-y feel?
    4. Do you have a lot of points of interest? I.e., numerous products, services or images? If so, you need a theme that conveys this either without clutter or without burying your important points.
    5. If you need to customize, sketch out some designs or even try wireframes to play with.
    6. Do you want threaded comments?
    7. Do you want reader participation? E.g., threaded comments with avatar
    8. Maybe you want to go with the current popular theme color elements.
  4. Will you need CSS grid support, such as Blueprint CSS or 960 Grid System, to enable creating custom complex layouts that out of the box themes won’t have? (If this means nothing to you, mention it to your designer and let them decide.)
  5. Are you publishing in a non-English language? Do you need internationalization features?

6. Code-based features.
Know what sort of code, plugin and widget customizations you’ll want done, at least in terms of features. If you don’t know anything about this aspect of WordPress themes, at least read through the list below so you know what to provide your designer for a “functional specification.” The following is only a partial list of features you might need or want.

  1. Do you need widget support? Decide on what widgets you will want to display on your site, whether you do so initially or not. Keep in mind that older themes may not properly support widgets.
  2. Do you need analytics?
  3. Security — Is it important for your site to go beyond basic security features?
  4. Social media, part 1 — Do you want your sites content (articles, video, ebooks) to be easily shared on social voting and bookmarking sites? E.g., Digg, Stumbleupon, Mixx, Propeller, Reddit and so on? Not all types of content is suitable for these sorts of social media sites, so consult someone before deciding.
  5. Social media, part 2 – Do you want your site to have Twitter interaction for readers? That might be as simple as sharing the link to one of your Web pages, or more advanced by allowing comments via Twitter, or even such signing up for your site via their Twitter account for authorization.
  6. Social media, part 3 – Do you want to readers to be able to register for your site via Facebook Connect, or to interact with their Facebook wall by sharing page links from your site?
  7. Do you want threaded comments?
  8. Do you need a theme that has been Search Engine Optimized?
  9. Do you need to implement special navigation or other important CMS features?
  10. Are your plugin and/or widget requirements compatible with a theme and/or version of WordPress?

7. Selection.
It’s time to collect a list of themes that satisfy you visually, and go through a selection process. If you want somewhere to start, check out articles on the following sites: Smashing Magazine, WPZoom, Social CMS Buzz, and Pingable. The first article (Smashing Mag) lists 100 free WP themes, and the rest focus on premium/ magazine themes.

Before actually Now create a grid or spreadsheet with all your relvant criteria across the top (columns), and the list of themes you’re considering down the left side (rows). When you find a theme you like, check if it satisfies a given column criteria, then checkmark the relevant grid cell, or include other relevant info. Keep in mind that it’s been proven that a theme needn’t be beautiful to be successful, depending on your purpose. Some sites even do better with an ugly theme. However, if your site represents a business or consultancy, you’d probably be better picking something that’s halfway attractive. Here are some selection criteria to consider:

  1. Is a theme unique (i.e., not used by thousands of sites) and suitable for your needs, or can it be customized to suit?
  2. Check HTML validity: header tags, valid code.
  3. Is it search-engine optimized? Metadata, fixed canonical URLs, sitemap, blocked archive pages (to avoid dup content penalties). You don’t have to understand the “how,” just the “if.”
  4. Is it widgetized or at least supports widgets?
  5. Is it speed-optimized for high-volume web traffic?
  6. Can you remove footer branding if it exists? This depends on the theme’s license agreement.
  7. Will the theme work out of the box? Or will you have to add all sorts of plugins or thumbnail images or logos? Many of the magazine themes available look sexy in demo mode, but require upfront effort to get working, even just for your own initial testing.
  8. Is it navigable? Can users get to important pages in 2-3 clicks?
  9. Does the search function work to a reasonable level?
  10. Will you only be microblogging on your site? Consider using the free Prologue theme (demo)
  11. How does the theme look? If you don’t quite like the look, will it be easy to customize?
  12. Are images and captions easy to add? Some older magazine themes that display attractive thumbnails are a major nuisance because images have to be uploaded through an FTP client such as Filezilla, instead of more easily through the WordPress admin panel.
  13. Is meta info visible? Tags, categories, author, post date, etc. If not, are these easy to add? Note: some experts suggest that you don’t publish a post date if you’re writing for content for Google Search engine that you want to have consider as “evergreen.”
  14. Is the theme forward compatible?
  15. Is the typeface readable and if not, is it easily changed to something most readers’ browsers will support? (If you have an existing site, check your metrics to see what browsers your readers are using.)
  16. If you’ll have ads, does the theme allow for ad rotation, if necessary?
  17. Does the theme look clean or cluttered? If your site will have a lot of text, will it be easy to read?
  18. Are there sufficient page templates for any non-blog content you may want to publish, such as landing pages?
  19. Does the theme color suit your brand logo (planned or actual)?
  20. Does the theme load quickly? (If it doesn’t, it might be because you
    have too many unused plugins activated, or the theme has bloated code.)
  21. Does your web hosting provider offer the correct versions of PHP, MySQL and WordPress to satisfy the theme you need or want?

8. Testing.

Now filter your picklist of themes as per the grid you created in the last step. Don’t necessarily go for the least expensive solution since depending on your requirements, that could cost you in customization needs later. If you’re outsourced the work to a designer or agency, make sure that project price includes a preview of 2-4 choices. If you’re doing the work yourself, pick a few themes to try and if you’re still not satisfied, go back and pick a few more and test those. Repeat until you find something you like. If you’re not creating a custom theme starting with a base, then you might have to go through dozens of free themes before you find something you like, and which withstands all the criteria you have.

Here are a few tips for testing your theme selections:

  1. Pick a few themes that match your criteria so that you have some choices to play with. What might appear to be the “perfect” theme for you in demo mode might not satisfy after adding your branding, etc. On the other hand, an unassuming looking theme might be easier (translation: less expensive) to customize and also look better when finished.
  2. Setup or have someone setup a test WordPress account.
  3. Create 15-20 pages of “fake” ipsum lorem content (classic Latin text).
  4. Add images, thumbnails, graphic buttons, your logo and favicon, and any other branding graphics.
  5. Activate any necessary plugins or widgets. Make sure that all of the plugins and widgets that you use on your current site (if any) are on the test site.
  6. Activate each selected theme, one at a time, and see how each looks and how quickly each seems to render.
  7. Take notes for each theme and make your selection.

9. Support.
Keep in mind that you’re not likely to find the “perfect” theme no matter how much time you put into it, or how much money for customization. That means possibly needing fixes and tweaks in the future. If you have a small budget and are customizing a WordPress theme on your own, you’ll want to select themes that are popular if only because they’re more likely to have had any kinks worked out of them, and/or have community support, to reduce any headaches later on, when you inevitably want to fix something.

If you do have a budget for design and coding fixes, you might also want to allocate some of that for “maintenance” costs for future changes. Of course, if you’re using a paid theme framework such as Thesis, which makes it relatively easy to tweak simple page elements such as font, font size, color, and columns, then there’s not as much concern about having suitable support.

10. Customization.
Now that you’ve narrowed down your theme choices and tested them, the final steps remaining are customizations in design and code. At this stage, it’s still possible that a selected theme will not function with certain code tweaks, or that plugins will clash with code. While it’s less likely, you may have to return to an earlier step, select more themes, and go through the testing process again. If you do find that you have to start the theme selection process over again, look carefully at your defined purpose and required features. Maybe you’ve forgotten something, or listed a feature your site does not really need.

Alternately, you might want to try a theme live for a few weeks and see how it performs. If you are updating the theme for an existing site, some search engines will react negatively to a theme change because of how onsite links are presented. Current readers might also react by either clicking on links and ads less often than before. Things might take a few weeks to go back to normal, or they might not go back, in which case you you may need to select another theme.

Good luck in your hunt!

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9 Responses to “10 Tips for Picking a WordPress Theme”

  1. Wow, very in depth post… I have been using Suffusion for my personal/business blog and really like the features it has. Of course that’s ME, and my readers are few (about 25 regulars, 5 subscribers and dozens of hit and misses) and far between. Thanks for the post.

  2. There are all very good things to consider when picking out a WordPress theme.

    Nice Post!

  3. Good stuff, thanks!

    I’d like to mention that I find one of the biggest drawbacks of WP themes and plugins is that you can’t really tell what you’ll have til you install it and use it. While many open source options don’t cost any money they often aren’t free. Spending time to do evaluations to compile details that should be in the product “fact sheet” takes time. Time is money. No cost != free.