When I started working with WordPress, I was initially so excited that I had a WordPress site up and running that I was very happy with the TwentyTen theme that came with WordPress. However, as soon as I got a little familiar with this wonderful content management system, I felt the urge to broaden my scope and explore other themes.
This indicates one of the advantages of using WordPress for your web endeavor above coding a website by hand from scratch: you can change the looks and logic of your site with a few mouse clicks. Simply by activating another theme.
Swapping themes is as easy as changing your coat. And just as you will have to reload the contents of your pockets, you might have to rearrange some widgets, but usually that is about it.
When you are a little bit like me, you will feel the desire to change the theme of your WordPress site someday. May be because you get tired of your existing theme. Or your requirements will evolve in a way that the current theme no longer satisfies your needs.
WordPress Theme Resources
Where to go for a WordPress theme? From the economic point of view, there are basically three categories of WordPress themes:
Let us examine these options one by one.
Free Theme Resources
Free themes are free as in free beer. You can download a free theme without having to pay for it, and use it as you like. Simple. Free themes are created by hobbyists as well as by premium theme vendors. The latter create free themes as a marketing tool – when you like their free theme, you might be interested in purchasing one of their premium themes.
Please note that you should not be fooled by the term hobbyist, since these geeks are definitely not all junior theme developers. There are enough professional engaged programmers who enjoy developing themes and plugins as private projects in their own time – sometimes for fun, sometimes for profit.
When I fired up my browser and entered the words “free WordPress themes” in the Google search box, it returned about 174,000,000 results in 0.22 seconds. Too much to check ’em all.
Fortunately, scanning the links on the search engine page you will see that a great deal of these links will lead you to some kind of a directory. And when you check upon a couple of these theme directories, you will notice that 9 out of 10 times you find the same themes on display.
The most obvious source for free themes is the WordPress Free Themes Directory of course. You can browse the database starting from page 1. But I warn you, to date – April 20, 2012 – the directory counts 102 pages displaying 1,516 themes – all free.
Checking every single page and theme might take a while. Fortunately, you can search the theme database for keywords or use the filter and tag interface presenting only those themes that meet your requirements like color schemes and features.
The same Free Themes Directory is also accessible from your WordPress installation. Just go to Appearance > Themes > Install Themes. However, I have found that browsing the free theme directory at the WordPress website is a more convenient way of skimming through the supply.
You might find it reassuring to know that the themes in the Free Themes Directory have been tested by the folks of WordPress. Every single theme is checked whether it has been build according to WordPress standards and practices, and that is free of malware.
Authors of sponsored themes are able to offer these themes for free, because they are making a living from the links and advertisements embedded in the themes. Advertisements are intended to be noticed, so unmistakably you and your visitors will notice these immediately.
Sponsored links are often found in the footer areas, but can also be hidden somewhere deep in the templates as plain text or as encrypted code.
It becomes even worse when the author is using black hat techniques in order to achieve high search engine results page (SERP) for his principals. Search engines do not like black hat tricks, and tend to abandon any site involved. You do not want that to happen to your website.
Some theme shops producing sponsored themes offer the same themes unencrypted and free of links and advertisements for a price of $19.95. However, someday when I decided to reset the theme settings of a sponsored theme, all the links and stuff where back! How is that possible when you purchase a version of the theme that should be free of links and advertisements? Beats me. Anyway, from that moment on, I have stopped using sponsored themes.
There are tools available at the WordPress Plugin Directory that can check themes for hidden links and malicious code. Two security plugins that I use myself regularly are Theme-Check and TAC.
Theme-Check tests whether a theme has been build according to WordPress standards and practices. As mentioned earlier, all the themes in the Free Themes Directory have undergone similar tests.
Another handy tool is the TAC (Theme Authenticity Checker) that scans themes for (encrypted) malicious code and unwanted code like static links.
It is not always easy to qualify the warnings of these tools. My advice: in case of doubt, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Premium Theme Resource
Why should you pay for a theme, when you can download so many themes for free? Well, when you are happy with a free theme, there is of course no reason to pay for one. Based on my experience with free themes as well as sponsored themes, I prefer premium themes for four reasons:
- design – generally, I find that premium themes have a more contemporary design than free themes
- functionality – premium themes usually incorporate more functions and offer a higher degree of customization than free themes
- security – most premium theme vendors have been working hard to build a loyal customer base and they will do their utmost to protect their credibility since it is a major business asset
- support – when you purchase a premium theme, you not only get a theme but also access to a well staffed and responsive support forum – some vendors offer support and updates for only one year, others unlimited
Especially when you are running a professional blog or a business website – or when you are a non-geek like me – I sincerely consider a premium theme a better option than a free theme.
Fortunately, premium themes are not that expensive. There are excellent themes available in the price range from $30 to $50.
The price tag of premium theme frameworks is a little higher. Theme frameworks are more versatile and powerful than regular themes. The downside is that their learning curve is also a little steeper.
A good starting point for exploring the myriad of premium themes is – again – the WordPress site, where you find a list of Commercially Supported GPL Themes. As of this writing, this page showcases 65+ premium vendors. Visiting the website of every individual shop will keep you busy for a while, but it is nice to observe and to compare the design styles of theme studios.
Some premium theme shops offer free themes too, so that you have a chance to get familiar with their work. When you are curious, you could check for example:
Two sources for premium themes – among others – that I can recommend, but that are not included in WordPress’ listing of Commercially Supported GPL Themes are ThemeForest and Mojo Themes.
These ventures are not included because they are actually marketplaces, and not theme vendors. A marketplace is a site offering professional designers and developers a platform to sell their creations without the hassle of running a shop themselves.
ThemeForest and Mojo Themes have their own quality control in place. All products have been checked by a review board, prior to releasing them for sale. In addition, the ratings and comments concerning a specific theme will give you a good impression of experiences of existing customers.
Last February, I started themingwp.com where you will find a growing number of reviews of premium themes. Everybody is very well capable of judging the design of a theme. However, I found it very hard to nearly impossible to get information about the functionality of a theme. Exactly that is themingwp.com tries to fit in.
It is a good habit to never upload a theme or plugin directly to your production site. Taking newly acquired themes and plugins for a test drive on a local web server first, is worth the little effort. In case you need a little help setting up a local WordPress installation, check out these posts Installing Your Local Web Server and Installing WordPress Locally. Both can be accomplished in four easy steps.
When you encounter any problems or when you would like me to check out a theme or cover a specific topic, just drop me a note, and I will try to help you out.