How to Pick the Right Free WordPress Theme
So you’ve taken the plunge and decided to host your own copy of WordPress! But Kubrick, the default theme that is known for its ubiquity, is so… well, Kubrick; so how do you go about selecting another theme?
The good news is that there are literally thousands of free themes out there for you to try. The bad news is that there are thousands of free themes out there for you to try.
Here’s a guide to finding the right free WordPress theme:
What do you need?
Before you start hitting the theme websites for inspiration, take a step back. The fact that you are going to select a theme that already exists doesn’t diminish the importance of your design decisions in creating a great website.
Before a web designer goes near her sketch pad she will make sure she understands the current situation, the end goal (or at least the interim plans), and what the site will need to communicate with the users.
In this case, you are the designer. Do you have a plan?
Consider these points:
- What kind of site are you aiming for?
- How do you want to present yourself to the world?
- How much content do you plan to produce?
- How long will it be before you have a significant amount of content?
- Are you intending to advertise?
Ideally you should have a detailed plan of what you want to do with your site. Even if you don’t, the more thought you put into it now the better. This knowledge will help you choose a theme with the features that are most important to you.
It is important to remember that a WordPress theme is not just a colorful skin. It can fundamentally alter the way the site works, and how users will interact with it. In simple terms, the theme is your site.
The most important feature is the layout. This is partly because it defines how your site will be used, but also because it can’t easily be modified without a good knowledge of HTML and CSS. Even then it can be difficult working with someone else’s code.
The main layout styles are:
- magazine style
- website style
You also need to consider how the details of each type of page will meet your needs:
- Are you intending to promote a product? If so, do you need a home page with a large featured product / post / content area?
- Are you planning on producing a lot of content? Perhaps you need a prominent link to the most recent post on the home page, but not the post itself. Then you can have other content in a prime position.
- Do you want a single or double width sidebar? If you have particular types of advertising, or if you want to use the sidebar to interact more with visitors, then double width may be the best option.
- Do you have a lot of different categories, or a lot of featured product areas to promote? if so, you may want two, three, or even four sidebars. Where do you want them?
- Will you use a lot of static pages? Do you need a separate menu to link to these pages or is a list in the sidebar acceptable?
- Do you have content related to each post that you want to promote? If so, do you want a large footer for that content?
Which of these options you choose should rely heavily on the amount of content and the type of content you are going to generate. If you plan to generate a lot of different types of content but think it is going to take you a while, then you may want to look for two similar themes that can be modified but will suit the early phase with little content, and then the later phase with lots of content.
Ease of modification is another important feature of a theme. The easier the theme is to modify the more likely you are to be able to make it your own.
If you aren’t confident with HTML and CSS then a heavily widgetized theme will let you modify it without using any code. There is no reason why widgets should be restricted to sidebars, and many themes now use them in the header and footer as well.
You should also decide whether you want the widgetized areas to be the same on single pages as on the home page. Some themes provide separate control over these areas, others don’t.
Generally speaking, colors are easy to change with only a little knowledge of CSS; it is simply a case of swapping one value for another. However, using themes with a lot of images will make it harder for you to change things.
If the header image is a separate and distinct part of the theme, it can easily be switched for another (some themes offer functionality in the Admin section to do this without any CSS changes). But if the header image is part of a more elaborate set of graphics it may prove difficult.
Finally, do you need the theme to be ready to accept advertising? Some themes come with a space intended for Google Adwords; others with spaces for 125 X 125 advertising blocks. It will be a lot easier to add advertising to a theme that has been produced to accept it than to try modifying it later.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to find the perfect theme; just the theme that can be made perfect.
Finding the right theme
A simple Google search for ‘WordPress themes’ will give you more sources for free themes than you could ever want; however, Weblog Tools Collection is a great place to start. A lot of themes are launched on the forums there, and you can find regular posts on the blog featuring these themes.
I said at the start that the number of themes available is a mixed blessing. A significant proportion of free themes are simply decorated versions of the classic and default themes that ship with WordPress. There isn’t anything wrong with this, but you should keep in mind that the changes are merely decoration, and that there is more to a great theme than a new header image and a change of color scheme.
The flip side to this is that the themes that are based on a well known site. These themes are usually released by the owner of that site and prove very popular. As a starting point they can be very good. The more well known the theme is the more you will need to change it to make it your own.
You can download and try out as many themes as you want before choosing one to stick with, so here are a few ways to test each theme.
Before you do anything else, you should check the theme for unwanted content.
Check for and remove any tracking code such as Google Analytics that may have been left in by mistake. This could be in the header or the footer.
You should also make sure that any links to RSS feeds point to the WordPress default ( <?php bloginfo(‘stylesheet_url’); ?> ) and not to someone else’s Feedburner account.
Finally, check the footer and any menus for advertising links. These links will usually be for something entirely unrelated to the theme; for example, I have seen a few for mortgage and home financing. They exist purely to try and boost the advertisers’ search ranking and should be removed. Not only do they look unprofessional, they could end up hurting your own future search ranking if you don’t remove them.
The quickest and easiest check uses online tools to compare the page construction with the industry standards. You find the HTML markup validator at: http://validator.w3.org/
The HTML markup validator should be run on the key pages: the home page, single post page, category page, etc. If all goes well you will see a prominent statement that the page has passed.
If it fails, the validator will report the number of errors.
The CSS validator only needs to be run on the home page, since the style information will be the same across the entire site. You will find the CSS validator at: http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/
The CSS validator will list both errors and warnings. You should ignore the warnings. Errors alone don’t tell you that the theme is a bad one. There are times when errors simply cannot be avoided However, you would generally expect the number of errors, if there are any, to be very low. Furthermore, the author should also be able to explain why the errors are there.
All themes should be compatible with the major browsers. The author should be quite clear about the browsers their theme is compatible with.
If the author’s website doesn’t state that it is compatible, you should test it rather than make an assumption.
Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, Firefox, Safari, and Opera are the main browsers it should be compatible with; however, being compatible doesn’t mean that the features will be the same. It is common to offer a more basic version to Internet Explorer 6 users because of the bugs in the browser itself.
If a theme isn’t compatible with one or more of these you will need to consider your readers and whether this will cause problems. It is worth testing your theme in as many browsers as you can to find out if it works or not.
There are a lot of potential elements to design for in any theme, and you can use these to check the level of detail the author has considered.
Create a post that contains any elements you are likely to use so that you can test the styling for each theme:
- headers, levels 3 to 5
- blockquotes / pull quotes
- code blocks
- numbered lists
- bulleted lists
- nested lists
- images, particularly the spacing around them if they are included within the text
- links (click on them to see how they behave and how they look afterwards)
When you are testing the themes, you should keep in mind that if one aspect of one theme isn’t styled the way you want, it will probably be easy to copy the relevant styling from another theme.
You can change the theme however you like. So, if even if you decide not to use a particular theme, keep a note of things you do like about it and maybe you can come back and incorporate it into your chosen theme.
One thing a theme should do well is make your content easy to read. A good theme designer will have considered the type in some detail to decide on an appropriate font size and line spacing, amongst other things. The following points are a general guide to help you think about the type.
First of all try reading through a few of the pages. If you find it difficult, then that is an obvious indication that it isn’t right.
There may be a number of reasons for this; for example, if the length of each line of text is too long you may lose your place when you try and move to the next line. Or if each line of text is too close to the one above it, you may have to concentrate fairly hard or you will start one line and finish another.
The other thing you are looking for is a regular rhythm. Consistent spacing between paragraphs, headers, and lists will create a rhythm on the page that makes it easier to read. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages can be very useful for judging rhythm as they often have a number of headers and short answers all visible on screen at the same time.
Finally, it is a good idea to compare the typeface on the theme to some sites you regularly read yourself. That will help you to get an idea about what it will be like for your visitors.
You should also pay attention way you navigate between pages. Are there links from each post on the category page to the monthly archive page, or to the tag page for the tags that apply to that post? If there is more than one page of results, are the default next / previous page links used? Or has the theme author gone that little bit further and included a list of page numbers so you can navigate straight to page 5?
If you have to stop and think about the navigation at any point then you might want to think about how to change it. If you can see an obvious way to change it for the better, check the WordPress codex to see whether you can do it easily: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Tags
If you plan to let users comment on your site, you should know how the comment section works. You could leave a few comments on the demo theme to check this.
Trackbacks are generally useless when they appear within the comment thread. Readers hate wading through piles of trackbacks to find the odd comment that appears in between them, so you would expect a well thought out theme to separate them or at least provide that as an option.
Similarly, it is good practice to make the author’s comments appear different from visitors’, and to include Gravatars for every comment. If you are planning to use the site for business, you may want to turn the Gravatars off, so it is worth asking what happens to the theme if you do this. Does it leave an empty space, or does it adapt as though they were never there?
You should also experiment. For example, turn the comments off to see what happens; turn comment moderation on and then leave a comment when you are logged out
The WordPress theme API allows specific page types to have their own templates. This means that the information displayed can be tailored specifically to the need. You should visit the following types of pages and see how the author has used the functionality:
- the home page (is it the same as a single post?)
- any single post
- a category page
- a tag page
- a static page (such as the about page)
- the search page
- monthly archive page
- sitemap (If there is one)
With all pages you should pay particular attention to the content of each post; i.e. whether it is an excerpt or showing a full post. Full posts can make your site less effective with the search engines as you can have multiple pages with the same content.
Once you have checked the normal pages, check the error pages. What happens if you search for a term and there are no results? What happens when you change the URL to try to access a page that doesn’t exist, or a post that doesn’t exist?
Commented code vs. admin pages
It is fairly likely that you will want to amend the theme to some degree, so you need to know how easy that is going to be.
In the event that you do need to change the code, a great theme will have detailed comments in the source code to make it as easy as possible. Look through the files that come with the theme. Do they explain where the each section of the page starts and finishes or what each bit of PHP is doing?
In particular, look for comments in the CSS file that explain which rules apply to menus, comment sections, and any other major features that the theme has.
Standard theme tags
One of the benefits of the WordPress theme system is that the theme tags are easy to use even if you don’t know anything about PHP.
Take a look at the page about template tags on the WordPress Codex for a general idea about how they are used.
If the theme uses standard tags then it will be relatively easy for you to tweak what they do; for example, if you want to change the text that is used to indicate that a post has no comments, you will only have to change one value in the standard tag.
If the author has used his own PHP to get the values in a different way then you may have problems changing it.
There is no need to go through the entire theme checking every tag, but if you see something you want to change, or you think you might want to change it, is worth checking how that is generated in the code.
Some themes do some very clever things with PHP, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but more PHP may mean that you can customize it less yourself.
There’s a lot to think about here. Not every theme will be perfect in all of the points raised, and different authors will have different views on the importance of each one. If you approach the task of finding a theme with a goal of finding something that is close enough for you to make your own, you will get more out of your theme than if you keep searching for the perfect one.
Finally, I would caution against changing themes too often. There is nothing wrong with changing themes, but if you do change, try to be consistent. Moving from a magazine style to a blog style or changing a very colorful theme for a minimalist one can undermine your brand. It might confuse your visitors, or they may think you are making a statement and planning to make changes in other areas as well.
Your theme is your site; it should reflect you, so choose wisely.