In this section we’re going to look at some areas you should examine when you find a theme you like. We mentioned in part 1 that there is no standard for premium themes; the term means different things to different people. But it’s still reasonable to expect a high level of quality. But what is a high quality theme. As ever, the devil is in the details. So scour the demo page, source code, tutorials and any details a premium theme creator offers looking for the measures of quality below.
The quickest and easiest way to assess a theme’s quality is to see how it stacks up to the industry standards. You can use online tools to compare the page construction to specific code standards.
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, as the style information will be the same across the entire site.
The CSS validator will list both errors and warnings. Generally, you can ignore the warnings. And getting errors doesn’t necessarily mean the theme is a bad one. There are times when errors simply cannot be avoided; however, you would generally expect few errors. Also, the author of the theme should 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 ask rather than assume. 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 everything will work the same. It is common to offer a more basic version for Internet Explorer 6 users because of the bugs in the browser itself (IE6 has caused it’s fair share of grief for web developers). It’s worth testing the theme in as many browsers as possible to find out if there are things that don’t quite work the way they should on any particular browser. If a theme isn’t compatible with one or more browsers, you’ll need to consider whether it’s worth buying.
In any website there are a lot of elements that can be designed with a specific look and style. Maybe there are different styles for each level of header or maybe pull quotes are treated with a special graphic. Check to see if these elements are styled in any theme you’re considering. This will give you an idea of the level of detail the theme author has included.
Look through the demo pages for examples of the following:
- Headers, levels 1 to 5
- Blockquotes / pull quotes
- Code blocks
- Numbered lists
- Bulleted lists
- Nested lists
- Definition lists
- Images, particularly the spacing around them if they are included within the text
- Links (click on links to see how they behave and how they look afterwards)
If the demo site doesn’t have an example of these in one of the posts or pages, then ask the theme’s author to add a post that contains them. Browsers come with default styles for all of these items, so it is unlikely they will be unstyled; but you’re really checking to make sure you’re happy with the way these elements are styled. You should also try printing the site. Ideally a dedicated set of styles for printing will remove the areas you don’t need such as menus, graphics and advertising and leave you with the content of the document at the right width for printing to standard paper sizes.
One thing any 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, among other things. The following points are a general guide to help you think about the type.
First of all, just read through a few of the pages. If you find it difficult, then that’s an obvious indication that something isn’t right. There may be a number of reasons for poor legibility. For example, if the length of each line of text is too long horizontally you may lose your place when you try to move to the next line. Or if each line of text is too close to the one above it (leading) it can take too much effort to read. 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, since 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 theme’s typeface to some sites you regularly read. See how it stacks up and decide whether or not any differences are warranted.
If you plan to let users comment on your site, you should check the way the comment section works. You might need to leave a few comments on the demo theme to see how it handles comments. Trackbacks are generally useless when they appear within a comment thread. Readers hate wading through piles of trackbacks to find the comments in between them; so you would expect a well-thought out theme to separate them, or at least provide that as an option. It’s also good practice to make the authors’ comments appear different than those of visitors and to include gravatars (globally recognized avatar) for every comment. But if you’re planning to use the site for business, you might want the option of turning the gravatars off. Be sure to find out how the theme handles that. Does it leave an empty space, or does it adapt as though the gravatars were never there? You should also look to see how a theme handles a post with comments turned off and whether or not the theme displays a message when comments are moderated.
The WordPress theme API allows specific page types to have their own templates. This means the information that is displayed can be tailored specifically to the need. You should visit the following types of pages and see how the author has used this 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 of these pages you should pay particular attention to the content of each post; i.e. is it an excerpt or is it showing a full post? Full posts can make your site less effective with search engines since you can have multiple pages with the same content. You should also pay attention to the way you navigate between the 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 five? 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?
Be sure to pay attention to the details as well. In addition to post titles, does it also display authors, dates, categories, etc.? When it gives an excerpt of a post is there a user-friendly “read more” link of some type?
Most of these special cases apply to blog-type content, but even if you’re not concerned about blog functionality you’ll want to see how the pages use the sidebar or widgets. Is the sidebar the same on every page or is there variation?
Theme Options Panels and Commented Code
It is fairly likely that you will want to amend the theme to some degree, so you need to know how easy it is going to be to do that. Ideally, the theme will provide a comprehensive Theme Options (administrative) panel that will let you swap out images, change the feed URL, add in tracking code, choose between color schemes or control your menu. You should definitely ask for details of the functionality that would be available without changing any code.
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. These comments will rarely show up in the source view, so you won’t be able to check this without the original files. But it doesn’t hurt to ask for a sample—perhaps a relatively standard section of code so that you can see what kind of comments it contains.
There’s a lot to think about here. Not every theme will be perfect in all the points raised, and different authors will have different views on the importance of each one. You might have to compromise on one to get the best of another. Or you might realize that some of these points don’t concern you very much. Either way you should know how to gauge a theme’s quality, which will be a tremendous help in picking a theme.
In the final part of the series we’ll consider the value of a good theme.