We already know from the first part of this tutorial that a theme is more than just a blog’s outward appearance and must be chosen with care.
So this time, we’ll discuss how to search for good themes online, where to download or buy high-quality themes, and how to know if the theme you like is a good one or not. And finally, as an exercise, we’ll look at themes our three hypothetical users in Part 1 might happily use.
*This is a 2-part tutorial where we talk about what you should consider when choosing the perfect theme for your WordPress blog or site. This is written for those who already know about WordPress and how to install it. You can check out our Beginner’s Guide to WordPress if you need a quick intro or a refresher.
Search for Themes Online, the Smart Way
Searching online is the fastest way to find a good theme, especially if you’re not familiar with any theme developers. But do this cautiously. It’s as easy to stumble upon a dodgy supplier of maliciously-coded theme as it is to come across a trustworthy theme source. We’ll see later down this tutorial how to run a security scan of your theme.
Let’s try a search for free photography WordPress themes:
As you can see, even with a fairly narrow search criteria (free + photography + WordPress theme) there’s still an incredibly high number of results. One simple trick to trim this down is to put quotation marks around your search terms:
This is called an exact match search, which tells your search engine that you’d only want results that have the exact words “free photography WordPress themes”, not just some of those words. This is one way you can significantly limit the search results to only the most relevant sources of themes (and Google is pretty good at understanding this).
Now let’s look at the search results. When you do a search on Google or your favorite search engine, you’re likely to come upon two kinds of results: a roundup article and a site that offers the actual theme.
1) Theme roundups – These are articles recommending themes according to some criteria. Hundreds of design and WordPress-dedicated sites regularly publish these popular lists, and reading these is one way to keep updated with the latest theme releases. Roundups are easy to spot: their titles often have a number in them. Our current search yields some examples:
Here on Webhostingsearch we also periodically publish theme roundups. Check out:
2) Theme provider site – This could be anything from a theme directory or repository, a theme shop, a theme developer’s site, or a marketplace. You can tell at a glance from the search results page that it’s an actual theme, not just a random article about themes, because the theme is named and described. For example, among the top search results that we’ll check out and bookmark is:
Try a search now and see if you can immediately tell a roundup or a theme site from each other.
Find Quality WordPress Themes at Trustworthy Places
The surest way to get a good theme is, of course, to go straight to sources you know and trust. Once you find a good theme provider, bookmark it right away.
Theme Directories/Repositories –Repositories are like warehouses for themes, plugins and other resources.
- WordPress.org- This is the first place you should look, not just because you can also access this repository using your Themes panel within your WordPress dashboard. Aside from being the official WordPress respository, the themes uploaded here need to pass inspection first.
- GitHub – Github is, strictly speaking, a general open-source repository (not WordPress-only), but it hosts many WordPress projects by individual developers. Github is quite technical for most users, but if you’re advanced and curious to see the code behind the theme files, you’ll find them on Github.
Theme MarketPlaces – These commercial sites let you buy and sell themes and other resources (often not just for WordPress). These sites often screen vendors and allow buyer feedback, so there’s some guarantee that you’re getting a quality theme. Examples are:
Theme Providers/Shops – There are hundreds of WordPress theme shops run by either companies or individual theme developers. Among the well-known ones are:
Tip: Use filters to speed up your search. These sites often provide ways for you to filter themes in their collections.
Elegant Themes has a nice navigation bar that lets you quickly browse themes according to category. Given that the developer has 87 themes, it also helpfully shows how many are available per category.
Mojo Themes has a good filter system that helps buyers navigate through hundreds of themes being sold at the site.
Inspect Your Prospective Theme
You’ve got a list of themes you like by now? Great! It’s time to take a closer look. You wouldn’t want a pretty but poorly developed theme can break your site and open it up to security threats. So check for these things, too:
1) Good, clean code – Many themes released to the public are coded poorly and without regard for web standards and WordPress guidelines, even if they may look okay on the surface. Some themes have needlessly bloated code that they slow down your site. Others even have malicious scripts or links embedded.
To check a theme before installing, do the following:
- Check Google for warnings and bad reviews of the theme or theme provider (e.g., “[nameoftheme] malware”).
- Run the theme files through a virus and malware scanner.
To check a theme after you install it, you can use these security plugins to scan your theme:
- Theme Authenticity Checker (TAC)
- Theme Check – a more advanced tool for checking if a theme is up to standards
- WordFence - scans your theme, among other files in your site.
Theme Authenticity Checker (TAC) alerts you to themes that have security issues. (Screenshot taken from the theme homepage.)
Learn more about WordPress security best practices.
2) Terms of Service and/or License –What does the theme provider ask for you to get a theme for free? When you’re buying a premium theme, what does the license grant you? Many premium themes come with at least two kinds of licenses: a standard or regular license, which allows only one installation of the theme on sites you own, and a developer or pro license, which gives you the right to install the theme on multiple blogs and sites, including your clients’. Always read the fine print.
3) Documentation – A good theme comes with a good set of usage and basic troubleshooting instructions from the developer. Some lazy developers simply release themes to the public and could not be contacted, leaving you to figure things out for yourself.
4) Support / community – Unless you’re tech savvy yourself, you’ll need help in case something goes wrong with your theme. Check for FAQs, community forums, or e-mail and live chat or even phone support. Free themes typically do not come with developer support and might just give you access to a community forum or online Q&A.
With premium themes, though, make sure you get actual support from the developer. Some theme developers offer a free “lite” version of their theme, but ask you to upgrade or become a premium subscriber/club member for support. If you can afford it, it’s best to take this route rather than spend lots of time searching everywhere for answers.
5) Update frequency – WordPress updates and fixes code errors regularly. How often does the theme developer keep up with these changes to ensure the theme functions well? You can check the last update just by looking at the theme’s description on the page you’re downloading it from.
User Scenarios: Match a Theme Exercise
Finally! We can suggest to our 3 users a theme each. Remember these guys are looking for a theme best suited for their particular needs. Based on all the things already discussed in this tutorial, do you agree with what we came up with? Can you suggest alternative themes?
1) A Professional Photographer –
- Purpose - showcase work and get clients
- Readers – existing and potential clients
- Content – mostly photos and text
- Features - make it easy to upload and manage photos, support high-quality images and put them front and center
We found through our search above this free but premium-like photography-oriented theme Lensa by Colorlabs. Pretty slick for a free theme!
2) A Webmaster
- Purpose – business blog for employer or clients
- Readers – partners, customers or clients of the business, general public
- Features – simple theme options panel, allows basic customizations without dealing with any code for non-techie users within the company
- Budget – has budget for a premium or customized theme
Mr. Webmaster might find use for Modern Business Pro, a tidy and easy to use premium theme by Slocum Themes designed for, well, a modern business that would like to blog, too.
3) A Personal Blogger -
- Purpose – personal blogging
- Readers – maybe friends, family, the general public
- Features and Content – matches personality best, suited for personal expression, possibly all kinds of media
- Budget – ideally free or easy to customize
A possible choice is Writr by Automattic, made for publishing various post formats like standard text posts, quotes, photos, and videos. This is great for sharing a tumble and mix of personal stories and thoughts. But really, when it comes to personal blogging, one’s imagination and skill is the limit so any kind of theme can be made personal!
We’ve covered plenty of ground in this tutorial, but to recap:
When selecting your theme, go beyond aesthetics and consider how it will help your blog appeal to your readers and communicate your message effectively. The theme you pick should be well-made, standards-compliant, and free from security issues that put your blog at risk. You should also be able to turn to an expert for help in case something goes wrong. Get your themes only from the most reliable sources, and take precautions before and after you’ve installed your theme. Keep in mind: your perfect theme is the one that helps you best achieve your blog’s goals.
The second installment of our tutorial on how to pick the perfect WordPress theme.
Eric, 11 February, 2015
Nice write-up! This is giving a great idea to make use of a WordPress theme generator and design incredible website layouts at very low cost and within a few minutes. Well, I've been using the TemplateToaster WordPress theme builder. It is nice and have outstanding features.