With So Many WordPress Themes Available, How Do You Choose?

By Fred Morgan, eXcelisys web app developer

wordpress maintenance

WordPress started as a blogging engine but has matured into a great content management system (CMS) and full-fledged application development framework. Consequently, WordPress holds the lion’s share of the CMS market and powers more than one-third of all websites worldwide.

WordPress’ widespread use has spurred the development of countless themes and plugins to eXtend its feature set.  However, not all WordPress themes are created equal, making it hard to know which one to use.

There is so much variation in the way themes are developed for WordPress that I am never really sure if I like it or not until I install it and start working with it on the back end. That being said, here are a few questions to answer as you work to choose a WordPress theme to meet your needs.

1. Is the WordPress theme responsive?

responsive wordpress theme screen sizes imageIf not, forget it and move on. Users will access your site from smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers with various size monitors. A responsive WordPress theme will automatically adjust to the screen size of the device that is requesting the page, and the menus and other resources will reformat accordingly. Since more than 50 percent of all search queries come from mobile devices, it’s imperative your site is mobile-friendly.

Responsive themes are developed using CSS and HTML, and the CSS files can get very complex with all of the rules required to address the myriad of devices in use. Some developers choose to write their own CSS for this purpose, which is fine, so long as it works; however, my favorite themes are built with Bootstrap. Not only is Bootstrap a complete front-end framework containing fully-baked responsive CSS and robust JavaScript elements that are simple to implement, it is also the most used framework on the web. Since virtually all professional web developers are familiar with Bootstrap, choosing a theme that is built around this framework will ensure that your developer will be able to customize your theme with minimal effort, which means time and cost savings for you.

2. Is the theme well-documented and supported by the author?

themeforest logoMy favorite themes are generally the ones that are well-documented and well-supported. In a marketplace like Theme Forest, you can determine the latter by the comments and reviews posted by those who have purchased the theme. This allows you to see what issues they encountered during installation and configuration. You should also choose a theme that is updated regularly as new versions of WordPress and required plugins are released.

A theme that is documented and supported well by the author will make the development effort much quicker, and since time = money, it will also be less eXpensive in the long run.

3.  Is the WordPress theme compatible with the current version of WordPress?

This probably goes without saying, but any time you buy a WordPress theme you should make sure it is compatible with the current version of WordPress. WordPress changes all the time. Later releases may implement features and libraries are not compatible with older themes.

4. What assets are included with the WordPress theme?

Many WordPress themes do not include the assets (images) shown in the demo. When you download the theme, the images will not be imported to your site. This can leave you with a lot of graphic placeholders to fill with your own images. This is fine for a general purpose theme but can be a real pain to rebuild eXactly like the demo that you or your client fell in love with if you purchase a WordPress theme for a particular vertical market (e.g., a hair salon or restaurant).

5. Does the WordPress theme come with an XML import file for demo content?

wordpress theme import xml logoIf the WordPress theme includes an XML import file, it will make your life easier. An XML import makes it very easy to set up the theme just like the demo. Importing the XML file will typically create the menus and sample pages, as well as download the image assets into the media library. This allows you to start with the theme set up just like the demo and begin making your modifications from that point, rather than having to build all of the pages, menus, etc., from scratch. It is always easier to edit pages and menus that have already been created than to build it all from the ground up.

6. What plugins are required by the WordPress theme and are they well-supported?

wordpress theme plug ins logoWordPress themes can have required plugins, so it is a good idea to take a look at those WordPress plugins to make sure they are also well- documented, supported, and regularly updated. WordPress is frequently updated and can be set to do so automatically. This is a convenient feature because many of the updates are security-related. However, it is possible that a WordPress core update could cause one or more of your plugins to not function properly.

There are literally thousands of plugins available for WordPress, so be careful when selecting plugins that will be an integral component of the design or functionality of your site.

Take caution: Just because it looks pretty now doesn’t mean you won’t have issues with it later when a security vulnerability is discovered and the plugin has to be disabled until it is patched.

7. Is the WordPress theme specifically designed for (or at least compatible with) the plugins you intend to use?

If you intend to use a plugin like WooCommerce (popular for e-commerce) or BuddyPress to provide core functionality for your site, it is important to choose a theme that is either specifically designed for, or at least compatible with, that plugin.

8. How important is page load speed to you?

wordpress theme speed logoPage load speed is always something to consider with WordPress.  Because your site’s content is housed in a MySQL database, each page load requires the web server to interact with the database server and wait for responses. This can cause some lag with the page load speed, especially in shared hosting environments.

WordPress themes range from clean and minimalist to heavily designed, and which is best is really a matter of preference. However, themes and plugins load libraries and resources (e.g., CSS and JavaScript files), and some of them can contribute to slow page load speeds. This can be true for even a minimalist theme. For instance, BuddyPress is a popular community-building plugin, but it is also a rather large application in and of itself with quite a bit of overhead. Complex plugins like this (or e-commerce plugins) can cause even a minimalist theme to become bloated and ultimately lag.

Consequently, if page load speed is important to you, doing a page load speed analysis is a good idea. Google provides a free tool for this purpose at: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/.  Running the test on the demo site for the theme may not provide the most accurate results since demos are typically embedded within the marketplace site. This may make page load speeds appear longer than they would if the theme were installed on your site. However, running tests on various themes within the same marketplace should help you see how they compare to each other in terms of speed.

Performance testing should be repeated once the theme is installed in its base configuration within your own hosting configuration, after activating all of the plugins you intend to use. Scrapping a theme and choosing a different one at this point is much less eXpensive than waiting until significant development effort has been eXpended and finding out then that the theme or plugins have some inherent issues affecting page load speed.

9. Is the WordPress theme highly rated by other users?

wordpress theme ratings imageA WordPress theme can look good on the front end but be a disaster on the back end. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure until you install it and begin working with it. This is where purchasing your theme from an online marketplace can be advantageous compared to purchasing directly from the developer. A theme marketplace like Envato Market will typically offer reviews from other users who have purchased the theme. The review system allows users to rate the theme and post comments regarding what they found challenging/serendipitous to work with, the quality of support offered by the theme developer, etc. These reviews can help you sort out the good from the bad.

Of course, there are other things you may want to consider depending on your particular needs, but this list should get you headed in the right direction when choosing a WordPress theme. If you need further WordPress support with development, maintenance or troubleshooting, our WordPress response team can help.

**This article is provided for free and as-is, use, enjoy, learn, and experiment at your own risk – but have fun! eXcelisys does not offer any free support or free assistance with any of the contents of this blog post. If you would like help or assistance, please consider retaining eXcelisys’ WordPress consulting & development services.

About eXcelisys, Inc.: Founded in 2001, eXcelisys (www.excelisys.com) specializes in designing, developing, customizing, supporting, consulting, migrating, upgrading, fixing, and integrating of database solutions for Desktop, Mobile, and Web applications. Our core technology competencies are FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Go, and MySQL for database frameworks, along with FileMaker WebDirect, WordPress, MySQL, PHP, CodeIgniter, PostgreSQL, Joomla, Drupal, Magento, CSS, HTML5, and Javascript for web sites and web applications. Aside from providing eXcellent customer service, our goals are to use these technologies to intuitively automate your organization’s data solution needs seamlessly and flawlessly across the web, mobile, and desktop platforms. Contact eXcelisys today for a free estimate and consultation about making your business more efficient through intuitive and effective software automation. 866-592-9235.

** eXcelisys, Inc. is an independent entity and this web site/information/blog post has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise affiliated with The WordPress Foundation, WordCamp, or the WordPress open source project.